Saturday, August 8, 2009

How Rios-to-Chicago could affect the Red Sox

With the Red Sox lineup old and getting older, there's a general wariness about giving a big-money contract to Jason Bay that would take the left fielder through his 35th or 36th or 37th birthday. The Yankees have shown a willingess to extend players into their late 30s, and it might take a similar type of gamble for the Red Sox to sign Bay.

For a guy who already has subpar defensive range and who hasn't exactly torn the world apart in June and July, a four- or five-year contract is a risky prosposition. Particularly in the post-amphetamine culture of baseball, the best teams are the ones who tie their fortunes to more 27-year-olds than 37-year-olds.

At the same time, though, someone has to play left field next season for the Red Sox.

Josh Reddick has made a name for himself in his two weeks in the major leagues but still probably is someone who has a better chance to play every day in Boston in 2011 than in 2010. Going from Bay (a cleanup hitter at this stage in his career) to Reddick (a No. 8 hitter at this stage in his career) would be a huge short-term downgrade.

Matt Holliday, on the other hand, will command the same type of long-term deal as Bay -- particularly in light of the hot streak he's enjoyed since getting out of the hitters' wasteland that is Oakland.

(The bet here is that Holliday signs with the Yankees and that Bay signs with the Seattle Mariners.)

What the Red Sox will need to find is a stop-gap solution in left field for a year or two until Reddick is ready to take over the job on a full-time basis -- or, at least, until Reddick is ready to play right field while J.D. Drew moves over to left.

That's where yesterday's Alex Rios news comes in.

The Toronto Blue Jays placed Rios on waivers, a routine exercise for most teams at this time of year, but likely didn't expect him to be claimed. Rios signed a seven-year, $70 million contract extension a little more than a year ago that will take him through the 2014 season. More than $65 million of that money still is due him -- including $12 million in 2011 and 2012 and $12.5 million in 2013 and 2014.

A player with that type of contract usually passes easily through waivers -- particularly given the disappointing way in which Rios' career has progressed over the last two seasons. Rios hit .302 and slugged .516 as a 25-year-old in 2006 but has seen his numbers tumble in the three years since. So far this season, he's hitting .261 and slugging .420 with fewer home runs (13) than David Ortiz.

Various teams have denied making a claim on Rios, and reports have speculated that the Chicago White Sox were the team that made the claim. ESPN's Buster Olney speculated that the White Sox could use Rios to give them a little extra flexibility this season and to take over in center field or left field for the next few seasons. The idea does make sense: The White Sox, after all, already showed a willingness to take on salary with their trade for Jake Peavy shortly before the July 31 trade deadline.

With the Blue Jays eager to dump salary, there will be a strong temptation just to let the White Sox have Rios in order to clear $12 million a year off the books for the next five seasons.

Here's where it starts to affect the Red Sox.

The second tier of free-agent outfielders already looks to include names like Bobby Abreu and Mike Cameron. But the White Sox hold an option of outfielder Jermaine Dye for $12 million -- and they can buy him out for $1 million if, say, they have a younger outfielder on the books for big money.

Dye hit 44 home runs and OPS'ed 1.006 as recently as 2006 and hit 34 home runs and OPS'ed .885 just last season. He has 24 home runs and an OPS of .866 so far this season, his fifth with the White Sox. He consistently sees between 3.98 and 4.15 pitches per at-bat, a number that slots him right in with the best pitch-grinders the Red Sox have.

Should the White Sox claim Rios and let Dye go after this season, he might be a perfect one-year stopgap to play left field for the Red Sox for $10 million. Yes, he'd be 36 years old at the start of the season, but it's far more palatable to give a one-year deal to a 36-year-old than to extend him for two or three years. (The Red Sox will learn that the hard way when they either go into next season with or absorb quite a bit money to ship out Mike Lowell and David Ortiz.)

The only issue for Dye is that he's a California native who consistently has put teams in the Northeast, including Boston, on his no-trade lists. If he has other options available, he might prefer not to play on the opposite coast from his family.

Either way, though, his presence on the market would help the Red Sox. If Dye signed with the Los Angeles Angels, for example, it might bring down the price on Abreu -- and as long as Abreu and Cameron and Dye all are on the open market, the Red Sox will have leverage in their negotations with Bay.

It's going to be a fascinating offseason for the Red Sox. Should the White Sox add Rios and buy out Dye, it'll only get more fascinating.

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