Saturday, September 12, 2009

What to do with Casey Kotchman?

The Red Sox have a young, talented and cost-controlled first baseman on their roster, the type of first baseman who makes it far easier to spend money on more glaring holes in the roster.

But Casey Kotchman has just 49 plate appearances in the five weeks since the Red Sox acquired him from the Atlanta Braves. He's a perfect defensive infielder late in the season for a playoff-bound team, particularly because he's not going to gripe about his role. But to keep him on the roster as a part-time player next season will be a waste of resources.

Kotchman, just a couple of years ago the No. 1 prospect in the Angels' farm system, will have far more value in trade to another organization than he'll have as a part-time player to the Red Sox.

(If there's one rule every general manager display prominently on a poster in his office, it's this one: If a player has more value to another franchise than to yours, you should trade that player and get that difference in value in return for him.)

The Red Sox have Mike Lowell, Victor Martinez, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis under contract next season. Jason Varitek is likely to pick up his option for 2010 even if the Red Sox decline theirs. If form holds, all five figure to receive more playing time than Kotchman in some sort of rotation -- and that means Kotchman once again would be a reserve player for the Red Sox.

The Red Sox could trade Lowell or trade Ortiz, but if they did that, they'd likely go shopping for a Prince Fielder- or Adrian Gonzalez-type bat to fit into the middle of the lineup. Kotchman, like Doug Mientkiewicz before him, is more of a bottom-of-the-order hitter than most contending teams prefer their first basemen to be.

Even those who share a locker room with Kotchman expect the Red Sox to resolve the logjam before next season begins.

“It’s tough when you are a contributing every-day player and you’re not playing every day,” Lowell said a couple of weeks ago. “But all parties believe this is more the short-term. Things have a weird way of happening.”

Not many teams, though, will go into next season needing a first baseman -- and free agents like Carlos Delgado, Aubrey Huff, Nick Johnson and Adam LaRoche figure to make the market a little more buyer-friendly than it ordinarily might be. Here's how the market likely will break down:

* More than 20 teams seem to have a first baseman in place for next season. That ranges from the Phillies (Ryan Howard) and Yankees (Mark Teixeira) to the Athletics (Daric Barton) and the Giants (some combination of Pablo Sandoval and Travis Ishikawa). Even the Indians, who recently promoted former top prospect Andy Marte, would seem to have little motivation to give up quality prospects for Kotchman.

* With Delgado injured, the Mets have played Daniel Murphy at first base for much of the season. But his production -- for instance, his .310 on-base percentage -- doesn't make him someone upon whom the Mets are going to build their future around.

* The Dodgers expected James Loney to develop into the same type of star as Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, but it doesn't seem to have happened. Both Kemp and Ethier are OPS'ing better than .850 this season, but Loney is mired at .751. Loney has fewer home runs (11) than Casey Blake.

* The Braves (LaRoche) and the Mariners (Russell Branyan) both are playing free-agents-to-be at first base, but both figure to make an effort to retain their incumbents. Branyan revived his career in Seattle, and LaRoche seems far more comfortable in Atlanta than he ever did in Pittsburgh. With the Braves more than competitive this year and building around a young core for next year, it shouldn't take much money to convince LaRoche to stick around.

* That leaves three teams with vacancies at first base after this season -- the Marlins, the Orioles and the Rangers.

All three actually would fit naturally for Kotchman. All three are relatively young teams who either already are competitive or who expect to be competitive in the near future. A 26-year-old first baseman who's played in a pennant race might be just the right type of fit for any of the three.

The Marlins traded for Nick Johnson at the deadline but might not want to pony up the money to retain him as a free agent. The Orioles, who have spent a couple of years accumulating a Rays-esque trove of young talent, traded Aubrey Huff in August and have made Ty Wigginton their temporary first baseman. The Rangers will have to decide whether to bring back oft-injured Hank Blalock or whether to give Chris Davis -- whose strikeout ratio of 38.5 percent would lead the league if he hadn't been sent to Triple-A for two months -- another chance to earn the full-time job.

Any of those three teams likely would swap a young pitcher to the Red Sox for the rights to a slick-fielding first baseman who won't be eligible for free agency until the 2011 season.

A year ago, Theo Epstein turned a glut of center fielders into relief pitcher Ramon Ramirez. Expect him to do something similar with his glut of corner infielders, and Kotchman is the most likely to go.

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