Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lowell deal gives Red Sox tremendous infield 'D'

And that's even without a move to sign Adrian Beltre.

Mike Lowell reportedly has been shipped to Texas in a deal for minor-leaguer Max Ramirez, a catcher/first base-type who can hit for power and who could probably be ready for a platoon with David Ortiz this spring.

(Red Sox blog Surviving Grady might put the Ramirez acquisition in the best terms: "This is, of course, part of Theo's "If I can't have Hanley Ramirez, by God, I'll sign everyone else in baseball named Ramirez" master plan, which just keeps picking up speed.")

Theo Epstein has plenty of time to keep making moves.

If this is his final move of the offseason that involves his infield, though, he's turned a below-average defensive infield into a tremendous defensive infield. A year ago, the offensive-minded Red Sox saw opposing batters hit .244 when they hit the ball on the ground -- a tick above the American League average of .240. The defensive-minded Seattle Mariners, playing most of the season with Beltre at third base, saw opponents hit .227 when they hit the ball on the ground.

Oh, and the move hasn't cost the Red Sox too much at the plate, either. Consider this player-by-player comparison:

Player A, 2008-09: .282/.337/.468 (.805)
Player B, 2008-09: .270/.333/.398 (.730)

Player A is Mike Lowell.

Player B is Casey Kotchman, who bounced around between three teams and had to adapt to a reserve role during the second half of last season. Their on-base percentages still are almost identical.

Kotchman, of course, would play first base every day for the Red Sox if the season started today, and Kevin Youkilis would play third base every day. Dustin Pedroia would play second base, and Marco Scutaro would play shortstop. (Not the other way around.)

Kotchman is an elite defensive first baseman, according to his Fielding Bible numbers (from

2007: 18 runs saved (2nd in major leagues)
2008: 10 runs saved (5th in major leagues)
2009: 7 runs saved (7th in major leagues)
(Keep in mind Kotchman played only sparingly over the final two months of the season, too, after his July 31 trade to the Red Sox.)

Only Albert Pujols has consistently been a better defensive first baseman over the last three seasons than Kotchman.

And this is the worst-case scenario.

It's more likely that Epstein already has the parameters of a deal with slick-fielding third baseman Adrian Beltre, a move that would upgrade the Red Sox defensively even more. Youkilis then would move back to first base, and the Red Sox would have four infielders who are among the best in baseball at their respective positions.

Merry Christmas, Clay Buchholz.

Beltre, as previously discussed here, is not a crippling downgrade from Lowell at the plate. During the last two seasons, Beltre has an OPS of .739 -- but he played his home games at Safeco Field, a stadium that does little to reward the power of righthanded hitters.

(This is why the Mariners don't seem to see Jason Bay as a fit.)

The upgrade from Lowell to Beltre in the field seems to be more than enough to compensate for the difference. Beltre was credited with having saved 21 runs last season by John Dewan's Fielding Bible system, and Lowell was charged with having cost the Red Sox 17 runs last season. That's a difference of almost 40 runs -- or, since 10 runs is roughly equivalent to a win, almost four wins.

That's why, according to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement statistics, Beltre would be an enormous upgrade on Lowell even without a bounce-back year at the plate:

Lowell, 2008/09: 3.2/1.2 -- 4.4 WAR
Beltre, 2008/09: 4.1/2.4 -- 6.5 WAR

What's most interesting is the fact that the Red Sox will absorb so much money to get rid of Lowell. The veteran still had plenty of value as a platoon-style designated hitter with David Ortiz -- albeit at the cost of a roster spot -- but Epstein (and Terry Francona) must have believed Lowell wouldn't be his same positive clubhouse presence if he was relegated to such a role.

Either that, or Epstein has so much respect for Lowell that he made sure to find him a landing where he could play on something of a regular basis.

He probably won't play much third base for Texas.

As long as he's not playing third base for Boston, though, the Red Sox are going to be a significantly better defensive team.

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