Thursday, December 31, 2009

Beltre not a fit for Red Sox bridge

As much hysteria as came with Theo Epstein's "bridge" talk earlier this month, the topic is worth revisiting -- if for no other reason than the fact that most analysts seem to have missed the point.

Here's the money quote again:
"We talked about this a lot at the end of the year, that we’re kind of in a bridge period. We still think that if we push some of the right buttons, we can be competitive at the very highest levels for the next two years. But we don’t want to compromise too much of the future for that competitiveness during the bridge period, but we all don’t want to sacrifice our competitiveness during the bridge just for the future. So we’re just trying to balance both those issues."

Here's what Epstein seems to be saying:
1. He has an eye on the arrival of some of his top prospects in the next couple of years, prospects that can re-infuse the Red Sox with talent.
2. He believes his team can be competitive "at the very highest levels for the next two years" without sacrificing all of that talent.

Keep in mind: Sacrificing talent doesn't mean trading talent. Sacrificing talent can mean blocking talent indefinitely -- thus all but forcing a trade. That's where Adrian Beltre comes into play -- not to mention names like Russell Branyan and Adam LaRoche that have been thrown around. The Red Sox still need a bat, or so they're saying, and Branyan, Beltre or LaRoche might be just enough to help them replace Jason Bay.

Beltre, one of the best defensive third baseman in the major leagues, has been rumored to be seeking anywhere from a three-year contract to a five-year contract worth upwards of $10 or $12 million a year.

The 30-year-old Beltre would be a terrific fit for the Red Sox next season: Not only would he replace Bay as the No. 6 hitter in the lineup, but he'd allow Kevin Youkilis to play first base and give the Red Sox four Gold Glove-caliber defenders in their infield.

(The assumption here is that Youkilis is an elite defensive player at first base but, while above average, not quite at that level at third base. Part of that has to do with the fact that it's generally easier to play first base than to play third base.)

Should the Red Sox sign Beltre for three years and $39 million, just as an example, they'd lock themselves into starting him at third base -- and, thus, Youkilis at first base -- for the next three seasons. Unlike outfielder Mike Cameron -- who's signed for just two seasons, by the way -- Beltre isn't exactly going to move around defensively. He's played all of 15 innings at shortstop and second base in his 12-year major-league career. If Beltre signs a three-year deal, he's staying put for three years.

What happens if cancer survivor Anthony Rizzo tears apart Double-A this year and is beating down the door to the major leagues midway through the 2011 season? What happens if Lars Anderson rediscovers the power stroke that generated so much hype last season?

Even more likely: What happens if Adrian Gonzalez becomes available in July the way many expect him to be?

Same goes for a name like LaRoche. The first baseman was a terrific fit during his 3 1/2 hours with the Red Sox last July, slugging .526 in his 19 at-bats and looking every bit like his swing was tailor-made for Fenway Park. He would be a terrific fit in the Red Sox lineup this season.

The reason the Braves made little effort to retain him, though, is because he reportedly was looking for a three-year contract -- and thus would have blocked prized prospect Freddie Freeman, a 20-year-old who Baseball America called "Keith Hernandez and Mark Grace with more power." If LaRoche was unwilling to go back to Atlanta as a stopgap solution -- a bridge, if you will -- it's not likely he'd be willing to go back to Boston for less than three years, either.

It likewise seems hard to believe that the 34-year-old Branyan would accept a one-year deal for short money coming off the best season of his career -- at least, until the market dictactes he has to. If he can get a two- or three-year offer from someone impressed by his 31 home runs and .520 slugging percentage last season, he's going to take it.

Signing Branyan or LaRoche for three years presents you the same issue as signing Beltre for three years does: Gonzalez is going on the market. It's inevitable. It might not happen now because Jed Hoyer doesn't want to give up on his first season in San Diego before it's even started, but unless the Padres somehow are in first place in the National League West come July, Hoyer is going to start fielding offers.

If the Red Sox are obligated to pay LaRoche $8 million a year in 2011 and 2012 -- or Beltre $13 million a year in 2011 and 2012 -- what do they do with him if they're able to acquire Gonzalez? Give another player away and eat his money? Haven't they done enough of that already?

Epstein has options going forward. Gonzalez will be available on the trade market. Victor Martinez will be a free agent, an intriguing issue given the uncertainty about where he's going to play as he gets older. Anderson might develop. Rizzo might develop.

Heck, Albert Pujols is scheduled to hit the open market after the 2011 season -- and while it's a longshot he'd ever leave St. Louis, do the Red Sox really want to eliminate themselves from the Pujols sweepstakes because they're still paying Beltre $13 million a year until 2012 or 2013?

Epstein's much-discussed "bridge" doesn't mean finishing in third place for the next two seasons. It means keeping the team's options open with prospects on the way and parts moving all over the major leagues.

A two-year contract for Cameron fits that philosophy -- especially given that he easily could shift into a reserve role should Ryan Kalish or Josh Reddick be ready to take over in left field in 2011.

A three-year deal for Beltre doesn't fit that philosophy at all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bay signing closes book on Red Sox draft picks

Given their preference, the Red Sox wouldn't have had Jason Bay sign with the Mets. Bay, had he signed with a team in the bottom half of next June's draft order, would have netted the Red Sox a first-round draft pick. Instead, since the Mets are scheduled to draft seventh in the first round, their pick is protected -- and thus the Red Sox receive a second-round pick and a supplemental pick in exchange for Bay.

Unless the Red Sox sign outfielder Matt Holliday (a long shot) or relief Jose Valverde (an even longer shot), the Bay signing closes the book on the adjustments to the Red Sox draft next June. Here's a quick look:

First round: No. 20 overall
* The Red Sox receive the Braves' pick for Billy Wagner;
* The Angels receive pick No. 29 from the Red Sox for John Lackey.

Supplemental first round: Two picks between No. 33-40
* The Red Sox receive a to-be-determined pick for Bay;
* The Red Sox receive a to-be-determined pick for Wagner.
(Baseball America a week ago assigned the Red Sox pick No. 35 for Wagner, but that's pre-Bay and pre-Holliday, so the supplemental picks still might move around a little bit.)

Second round: No. 7 in the round (around No. 50 overall)
* The Red Sox receive the Mets' pick for Bay. With the Type A free agents (Holliday, Valverde) and Type B free agents (among them Adrian Beltre, Fernando Rodney and Marlon Byrd) still out there, it's impossible to know exactly where that pick will land.
* The Blue Jays receive pick No. 70 -- or thereabouts, depending on how the supplemental round shakes out -- from the Red Sox for Marco Scutaro.

After all the wheeling and dealing, the Red Sox will have four picks in the top 50, including No. 20 overall. For the sake of comparison, a year ago, the Red Sox drafted Reymond Fuentes at No. 28 in the first round and did not select again until their scheduled pick -- No. 77 overall -- in the second round.

The last time the Red Sox had four picks in the top 50 was 2006, and they emerged with Jason Place, Daniel Bard, Kris Johnson and Caleb Clay. Only Bard to this point has panned out, but there's still time for Clay and Place.

The year before that, the Red Sox had five picks in the top 50 and came out of it with Jacoby Ellsbury, Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie and Michael Bowden. Not bad.

Red Sox moment of the year: Wake's ASG pick

Position players came first when Fenway Park public-address announcer Carl Beane began to read off the Red Sox players who had been selected to the American League All-Star team. The top of the second inning had just ended, and that gave Beane a chance to read off the names for the fans in the stadium who hadn't caught the announcement live.

Jason Bay was in -- a starter, in fact, in left field. Dustin Pedroia was in. Kevin Youkilis was in.

Pitchers came next. Josh Beckett was in. Jonathan Papelbon was in. No surprise there.

Beane then changed the tenor of his voice a little bit. There was one last name to announce, and that announcement had to warm the heart of even the most cynical Red Sox fan.

Tim Wakefield -- a 42-year-old who made his debut with the Red Sox before Jon Lester had finished the fifth grade -- had made his first All-Star team.

The instant the knuckleballer's familiar goateed face showed up on the scoreboard in center field, Fenway Park erupted in cheers. A camera then found Wakefield in the Red Sox dugout so he could wave to the 35,000 fans showing their appreciation. He even got some mid-game face time on NESN -- complete with a bear hug from David Ortiz.

It was about as genuine as a moment gets. Wakefield didn't necessarily have the same numbers as some of the other All-Stars -- his ERA at that point was 4.31 -- but he'd won 10 games and had kept the Red Sox pitching staff afloat almost by himself for the first half of the season.

"I just felt that getting him on the team was the right thing to do," Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

The decision to select Wakefield wasn't a popular one around baseball. Even now, it's tough to argue he was one of the best 10 or 12 pitchers in the major leagues in the first half of the season.

It still was a special moment for a pitcher who has done so much -- from starting to closing to mopping up lost causes to preserve the bullpen -- for the Red Sox over the last 15 seasons.

It might have been even more special than the moment Wakefield shared with Red Sox manager Terry Francona before the game (an excerpt from that day's Union Leader story):

Wakefield stepped into Francona’s office and immediately saw Jason Bay, Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis waiting for him with All-Star packets in their hands and solemn expressions on their faces.
“He'd said, ‘You guys all made it – and, actually, Wake made it, too, but we’re going to let him sweat it out a little bit,’” Bay said.
The gag actually worked for a moment or two, but it didn’t last long. Francona couldn’t hold it in.
“He sat me down and tried to play it off like it wasn’t good news,” Wakefield said, “and then he couldn’t hold his laughter in any longer.”
Said Francona, “I just cheesed up real fast.”

(Runner-up for Red Sox moment of the year: Jacoby Ellsbury's steal of home against the Yankees.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

The upgrade of Victor over Varitek

The Red Sox need a bat, or so consensus has made clear. Even David Ortiz says so. Theo Epstein has swapped out Jason Bay and Alex Gonzalez for Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro -- and, in a vacuum, those two moves don't represent an upgrade for an offense that managed just 15 hits in three games and hit .158 in bowing out meekly in the American League Division Series.

Two points:
1. Using three games -- any three games -- to determine offseason priorities is a mistake. Players endure slumps all the time. Teams endure slumps all the time. Executives have to build teams based on 162 games. Panicking based on a three-game skid is a great way to make mistakes. Heck, in the first three games of the World Series, the Yankees managed to hit just .224. They just happened to win two of those three games -- and, thus, no one cared.
2. Don't forget about Victor Martinez.

Yes, Martinez was part of the group that came up so short against the Angels. Yes, Martinez was a member of the Red Sox for the final two months of the season.

It seems, though, that the impact of having Martinez -- whose on-base percentage last season (.381) was well ahead of every catcher in the major leagues not named Joe Mauer -- starting every day in place of Jason Varitek has been overlooked.

Varitek played catcher almost every day until Aug. 1, coming to the plate 321 times and compiling an OPS of .794. Martinez played catcher almost every day from Aug. 2 on, coming to the plate 237 times and compiling an OPS of .912.

If you prefer advanced metrics, Varitek compiled a WAR -- wins above replacement -- of 1.3 in his full season with the Red Sox. (FanGraphs doesn't break down WAR on a month-by-month level for players who play for the same team all season.) Martinez compiled a WAR of 2.1 in just his two months with the Red Sox -- and 4.9 for the entire season.

The list of catchers who have accumulated a WAR of better than 4.9 in either of the last two seasons is a short one:
1. Joe Mauer (twice)
2. Brian McCann

That's it.

If you prefer traditional statistics, the upgrade still is clear:
* Varitek hit .209 last season, a career low, but he still hasn't hit above .255 in the last four years.
* Martinez hit .303 last season and hasn't hit below .280 in his career.
* Varitek OBP'ed .313 both last season and the season before that.
* Martinez OBP'ed .381 last season and has OBP'ed .370 or better in four of his last five seasons.
* Varitek slugged. 390 last season and hasn't slugged better than .425 in the last four years.
* Martinez slugged .480 last season and has slugged .465 or better in five of his last six seasons.

Varitek has come to the plate an avearge of 460 times per season since 2006 and accumulated an OPS+ of 85 -- in other words, production well below average -- in that span.

Martinez, instead, will get most of those at-bats next season -- and Martinez has an OPS+ of 121 since 2006.

For the sake of comparison, Jason Bay over the last four seasons has an OPS+ of 125. Mike Cameron has an OPS+ of 112. The difference between Martinez and Varitek is almost three times the difference between Bay and Cameron.

The Red Sox still might acquire a hitter. The depressed economic climate might give them no choice but to go back after Bay and hit him in the middle of their lineup -- or the Padres might start feeling generous and shop their power-hitting first baseman before the season starts.

Having Victor Martinez -- arguably the second-best-hitting catcher in the major leagues --behind the plate for a full season should not be underestimated.

A second look at "Organized Chaos"

Bill Belichick probably didn't take the Jaguars by surprise on Sunday when he deployed his defense in what Adalius Thomas called its "organized chaos" formation for the second straight week. Belichick baffled the Buffalo Bills a week ago with a defensive formation that employed five linebackers and six defensive backs -- and zero defensive linemen -- and brought it back for 10 first-half snaps against the Jaguars.

(They ran it more often in the second half. At that point, with the lead growing to 35-0, it was more of a prevent defense than a strategic tactic.)

The scheme works so well because it allows the Patriots to drop so many linebackers and defensive backs into coverage. A quarterback isn't going to throw the ball into a well-defended pattern deep down the field -- the longer the ball is in the air, the more time defenders have to go get it -- and thus is more likely to settle for a short pass to a running back or tight end who then can be wrapped up and taken down for a meaningless short gain.

Like Miami's Wildcat offense, the Patriots' Organized Chaos defense is going to be a part of opponents' game plans for the rest of the season.

Unlike Miami's Wildcat offense, there's a pretty easy way to gain yards against the Patriots' Organized Chaos defense: Run right at it.

Here's how the Patriots lined up the first time they threw Organized Chaos at the Jaguars on Sunday, a third-and-6 snap late in the first quarter:

(Solid line represents first-down marker.)

Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess were the only two Patriots to line up with a hand on the ground -- and they both lined up outside the Jaguars' tackles. Gary Guyton, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich milled around the middle of the field so as not to give the offensive line a chance to identify their blocking assignments.

But the reason teams have always lined up with three or four down linemen is because the lower a player a gets, the better his leverage generally is. In passing situations, teams forgo defensive linemen in favor of faster linebackers or defensive backs. In running situations, though, teams bring in more defensive linemen so they don't get pushed back off the line of scrimmage.

Third and 6 normally is a passing situation.

If the Patriots keep throwing Organized Chaos out there on third and 6, though, it's going to become a running situation -- and that's going to be quite a bit tougher to stop.

The Jaguars did run against it twice. The first time, Maurice Jones-Drew took a draw from David Garrard and was hit almost immediately by Banta-Cain off the edge. On that play, though, Banta-Cain dodged an ill-advised pull block by right guard Uche Nwaneri, trying to seal the back side of the play to the left while the rest of the line blocked right. It was a relatively routine blocking scheme -- but it was too complicated for a line that didn't have a chance to identify the defender each guy was supposed to block.

Simplify, simplify.

Each of the Jaguars' five offensive linemen weighs more than 300 pounds. Not many offensive linemen in the NFL weigh less than 300 pounds. On the other side of the ball, not one of the Patriots' Organized Chaos defenders weighs close to 300 pounds. Burgess is listed at 260, and Ninkovich and Banta-Cain both are listed at 250.

The instructions from the sideline to the offensive line should be simple: Run straight ahead. Block everything in front of you. You're stronger than they are. Push them back as far as you can.

The second time the Jaguars ran the ball against Organized Chaos, a second-and-11 snap in the second quarter, they did just that. No one sealed the back side. Left guard Vince Manuwai pulled to the right, but that was to get out in front of Jones-Drew rather than to do something complicated behind him. Guyton, Mayo, Ninkovich and Brandon McGowan all got pushed back. Jones-Drew gained six yards before tumbling down into Mayo.

On the next play, a third-and-5 snap, the Patriots once again came out in Organized Chaos. Jones-Drew came off the field. Garrard dropped back to pass.

The play never had a chance. Garrard threw a short swing pass to third-down running back Rashad Jennings, and four different Patriots converged on him before he could get within a yard of the first-down marker.

On the Jaguars' first drive of the second half, though, the Patriots deployed Organized Chaos on a third-and-goal snap from the 5-yard line. Not one defensive player put his hand down on the ground.

Instead of audibling to a run, though, Garrard threw into double coverage at the goal line -- and veteran Shawn Springs picked him off.

The Patriots are going to keep running their Organized Chaos formation until someone figures out how to get first downs against it. On third-and-5 or third-and-6, though, the way to get a first down against it is to run the ball.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Meriweather once again playing with instincts

Brandon Meriweather sat down last week with Patriots coach Bill Belichick and defensive backs coach Josh Boyer to get himself back on track.

Meriweather had started the season on a Pro Bowl-type pace. He earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after he intercepted two passes against Tampa Bay in London, and he even prompted former teammate Rodney Harrison to rank him with Denver's Brian Dawkins as the two best safeties in the AFC.

But the third-year safety had taken it on the chin in recent weeks, getting beat badly on deep passes against both New Orleans and Carolina. One missed read against the Saints gift-wrapped a 75-yard touchdown pass for Devery Henderson, and a bad break against the Panthers did the same for Steve Smith.

Meriweather even made a bad misplay at the end of the Patriots' loss to Buffalo, bouncing off wide receiver Josh Reed and allowing the Bills to turn a short pass into a drive-sustaining 29-yard gain. If the Bills hadn't botched their onside kick, the missed tackle might have cost the Patriots the game.

The series of errors had Meriweather thinking too much, re-evaluating too much, wondering too much if he was doing the right thing. That's what Belichick and Boyer had to get him to stop doing.

"They just told me to get back to the basics, to trust my instincts and to stop trying to go out of my element to make plays," he said.

Meriweather's instincts told him to get himself up to the line of scrimmage when rookie wide receiver Mike Thomas broke toward the middle of the field on a third-and-1 snap in the first quarter. Thomas took a handoff from quarterback David Garrard and tried to get around the edge, needing just a yard to move the chains -- but Meriweather drilled him, knocking him back short of the line.

"I just trusted my instincts," he said. "That's what I was lacking the last couple of weeks."

On Jacksonville's next possession, Meriweather hung deep to guard against the deep ball. Maurice Jones-Drew had just run for an 11-yard gain to get the Jaguars across midfield, and the time was right for Garrard to take a shot. Torry Holt ran a post route down the left sideline, and tight end Marcedes Lewis ran a post route down the middle of the field.

Meriweather split the distance between the two -- and when Garrard overthrew Lewis, the safety had no problem drifting over to pick off the pass.

It was his career-best fifth interception of the season. It also was the play that all but ended the game before the second quarter began, especially after his 56-yard interception return set up a touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Baker.

"I've told them: They need to put me at punt returner, man," Meriweather said with a wide grin. "We need to try some things, but I ain't going to say nothing about that. I think y'all should bring that up with Coach Bill."

It also was just the sort of play Meriweather had been making back before he'd started to allow his confidence to get shaken.

"You trust coaching," he said. "You trusting coaching, and you do exactly what you need to do to get by."

Halftime: Patriots 28, Jaguars 0

A handful of halftime observations from Gillette Stadium:

* The hats and T-shirts can come out early. Not only are the Patriots crushing the Jaguars, but the Texans are cruising against the Dolphins. Barring an epic turn of events both here and in Miami, the Patriots have won the AFC East and are bound for the playoffs.

That's great news not just for the banged-up Tom Brady, but also for Vince Wilfork (out), Ty Warren and Stephen Neal (still not playing every snap). All four can either leave the game early next week or sit out entirely.

* Maroney coughs it up. For someone who fumbled so rarely early in his career, Laurence Maroney appears to have caught fumblitis lately. The running back let the ball slip away at the goal line -- sound familiar? -- to end what to that point had been as impressive of a drive as the Patriots have put together all year. An 18-yard run by a slaloming Kevin Faulk and a 14-yard pass to Ben Watson in the red zone set up the play that should have ended in a touchdown -- but instead ended in a turnover.

Maroney did not return to the game for the rest of the half. Faulk and Sammy Morris handled the duties in the backfield from that point on, rushing for 36and 83 first-half yards, respectively.

* Patriots' offensive line dominates. For the first time all season, the Patriots debuted their best offensive line all at once: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Neal and Sebastian Vollmer. Not coincidentally, the Patriots marched right down the field -- Light, Mankins and Koppen opened some huge holes on the left side of the line -- on their first drive.

Dan Connolly replaced Neal on the first play of the second quarter, the touchdown pass from Brady to Chris Baker. It seems as though the Patriots decided to be careful with Neal, who sat out for two drives before returning.

That didn't mean Connolly was done, though: The veteran lined up as a fullback and threw a huge lead block to spring Morris on a 55-yard run through the right side. Connolly then led Morris through the left side for a one-yard touchdown run that pushed the Patriots' lead to 21-0 in the second quarter.

* Patriots rotate along defensive line. Likewise, the Patriots have been careful with the snaps played by defensive end Ty Warren. Mike Wright started the game at defensive end with Ron Brace at nose tackle -- but when Brace appeared to get pushed off the line on the Jaguars' first couple of runs, Wright moved to nose tackle with Warren in at defensive end.

That drive ended with safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders coming up from the secondary on back-to-back plays and making huge stops on short-yardage runs.

On the Jaguars' next two drives, Warren went back to the bench and Myron Pryor played nose tackle between Green and Wright.

* Banta-Cain is able. A week after tallying three sacks in Buffalo, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain kept building his case for a bid to the Pro Bowl. Banta-Cain, one of the few constants as the Patriots shuffled between their base defense and the mill-around defense they debuted against the Bills, has been the best defensive player on the field.

On back-to-back plays early in the second quarter, Banta-Cain sacked David Garrard and forced a fumble that the Jaguars managed to recover. On the very next play, Maurice Jones-Drew tried to run against that mill-around defense with no down linemen -- and Banta-Cain drilled him after a gain of just two yards. On the first play of the Jaguars' next possession, Banta-Cain and Wright combined to drop Jones-Drew for a one-yard loss.

* Oh, yeah: Moss and Welker. It's not fair to characterize it as Welker doing the dirty work and Moss getting the glory. On the biggest play of the Patriots' fourth scoring drive, Moss cleared out the defensive backs with a deep route down the right sideline, and Welker ran into the vacated team to catch a lob for a 29-yard gain.

(No one gets to gripe about Moss not trying this week.)

Welker has eight catches -- breaking his own single-season record in the process -- for 93 yards, and Moss has caught two passes, both for touchdowns.

Jacoby Ellsbury really is expendable

"You can never have enough center fielders."
-- Theo Epstein

The Red Sox general manager, about to enter his eighth season, has made it a focus to accumulate as much up-the-middle talent as he can. His captain has been his catcher (Jason Varitek). His first major trade was for a shortstop (Orlando Cabrera). His first impact rookie was a second baseman (Dustin Pedroia). His first out-of-nowhere World Series hero was a center fielder (Jacoby Ellsbury). His first major trade -- even though it was made in his absence -- was built around a shortstop (Hanley Ramirez).

And of the top 15 position-player prospects in the organization, according to, 12 play either catcher, shortstop, second base or center field. Five of the team's top 14 prospects, in fact, look like they'll have the ability to play center field in the major leagues: Reymond Fuentes, Ryan Kalish, Che-Hsuan Lin, Josh Reddick, and Ryan Westmoreland.

(Reddick is the most borderline. His future likely is in right field or left field. SoxProspects, though, specifically points out that "Reddick has the range to be a full time major league center fielder.")

That's what makes today's note from the Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers so interesting:
Worth watching: If the Red Sox wind up with Matt Holliday or Jason Bay, the Cubs immediately would make a major effort to land Jacoby Ellsbury to fill their center field/leadoff hole, according to sources. That scenario helps explain why the Cubs have been so patient in studying their options. The best way to do such a trade might be for GM Jim Hendry to facilitate a three-team deal that sends first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres to the Red Sox by packaging a group of prospects, possibly including one or two of their top ones, such as third baseman Josh Vitters, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and pitchers Andrew Cashner and Jay Jackson.

Ellsbury, of course, already has been associated with the Gonzalez trade rumors this winter. Proponents of including Ellsbury in a package generally have focused on his subpar defensive numbers, according to advanced metrics, and his relatively low on-base percentage at the top of the Red Sox lineup.

There's an even better reason for the Red Sox to look hard at moving Ellsbury if it means a big upgrade elsewhere -- especially if that upgrade is Gonzalez.

Epstein has made Ellsbury expendable.

The reason Ellsbury is so valuable is because he can produce so much while earning so little. He won't even be eligible for salary arbitration until next season, and his team then still will have three years' worth of control of his rights until he hits the open market. Even those who believe Ellsbury has become overrated can't deny that his production far outweighs his salary -- and will do so at least until he hits his second year of arbitration.

That's reason enough to hang onto him unless there's a player behind him ready to fill in with similar production at a similarly low salary -- and, thus, similar bang for the buck. The Red Sox have a half-dozen players in their minor-league system with the potential to do just that.

No, none of them are ready yet. Reddick is closest by virtue of his major-league experience last season. Kalish likely will make his major-league debut at some point next season. But it's not unreasonable to imagine the Red Sox opening the 2010 season with Mike Cameron in center field and Kalish and Reddick both waiting in the wings. Fuentes, Lin and Westmoreland all are 21 years old or younger, but all three could come along within the next three or four years.

There's no reason to hoard so much young talent it doesn't fit on the major-league roster. Kalish and Reddick won't do the Red Sox any good if they're tearing apart the International League.

(This, of course, assumes they'll tear apart the International League. You can't ever make that assumption with individual prospects. The odds that both Kalish and Reddick flop, though, seem pretty minimal.)

The Red Sox can get more in a trade for Ellsbury than they can for Kalish or Reddick simply because Ellsbury already has demonstrated he can hold his own at the major-league level. Trading Ellsbury, however, would have left the Red Sox with a void in center field if not for the signing of Cameron -- a bridge, if you will, to the prospects who seem to be on the way.

If the Cubs are willing to offer the Red Sox enough in the way of prospects for Ellsbury that the Padres don't insist on Clay Buchholz in a trade for Gonzalez, that's a move the Red Sox should make without hesitating.

Tully Banta-Cain's Pro Bowl year

(First things first: Great read from Adam Kilgore in Friday's Globe about the underdog mentality that has driven Tully Banta-Cain since his NFL career began.)

The film analysts at listed five Patriots on their Pro Bowl cheat sheet this week. Three of them -- Logan Mankins, Wes Welker and Vince Wilfork -- should be no-brainers. Stephen Neal already has been covered in this space.

The fifth? It's not Tom Brady. It's not Randy Moss. It's not Jerod Mayo. It's not Brandon Meriweather or Matt Light or Leigh Bodden.

It's Tully Banta-Cain.

Even before his three-sack effort at Buffalo a week ago, the afterthought of an outside linebacker had earned strong consideration for a trip to Miami for the Pro Bowl. His 8.5 sacks this season rank him sixth in the AFC -- including fourth among outside linebackers, behind only Denver's Elvis Dumervil, Pittsburgh's James Harrison and Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley.

According to, he's been the third-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the AFC this season -- again behind Harrison and Woodley -- and that's despite having played the majority of his early-season snaps as a defensive end rather than as an outside linebacker. He unofficially has been credited with seven hits on the quarterback and 18 quarterback pressures. He consistently has been the Patriots' best defensive player this season, even ahead of run-stuffing nose tackle Vince Wilfork. He's made the offseason trade of Mike Vrabel almost a non-issue.

Banta-Cain was nowhere to be found on the leaderboard when Pro Bowl fan voting was complete. He still, though, deserves to make the trip to Miami.

Time for Mayo to make some big plays

Jerod Mayo entered this week with a team-best 89 tackles, including 60 of the solo variety. He's easily on pace to crack the 100-tackle mark for the second straight season -- particularly impressive given that he missed almost four full games with a knee injury.

Still, though, for the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, for a player who was expected to be among the NFL's elite linebackers entering the season, Mayo has had an awfully quiet season. An examination of the film a couple of weeks ago revealed that Mayo hasn't necessarily been in position to make plays -- but, still, the best defensive players find ways to get to the ball and to strip it or intercept it or otherwise disrupt what the offense is trying to do.

A look at Mayo's other defensive numbers this season:
* 1.5 sacks -- his only solo sack was against Indianapolis;
* 3 quarterback hits;
* 0 interceptions
* 0 pass break-ups
* 1 forced fumble

Just for the sake of comparison:
* Patrick Willis, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007, had a sack, a forced fumble, 10 pass break-ups and an interception he returned 86 yards for a touchdown in his second season with the San Francisco 49ers;
* Keith Rivers, the linebacker taken one spot ahead of Mayo in the NFL draft in 2008, has a pass break-up, a forced fumble and an interception in his second season with the Cincinnati Bengals;
* James Laurinaitis, the linebacker the Patriots could have drafted in the first round last season before trading down, has three pass break-ups, two interceptions and a forced fumble in his rookie season with the St. Louis Rams.

Just for the sake of context:
* Randy Moss has more interceptions than Mayo;
* Sam Aiken has as many forced fumbles as Mayo;
* Pat Chung has more sacks than Mayo;
* Rob Ninkovich and Adalius Thomas both have more pass break-ups than Mayo.

Just for the sake of running the numbers: Here's a look at the sum of big plays -- sacks, hits on the quarterback, interceptions, pass break-ups and forced fumbles -- the Patriots have recorded defensively this season:
* Tully Banta-Cain, 23.5 (including 8.5 sacks)
* Leigh Bodden, 22 (including 17 pass break-ups)
* Mike Wright, 15 (including five sacks)
* Brandon Meriweather, 13 (including four interceptions)
* Derrick Burgess, 12 (including four sacks)
* Gary Guyton, 11 (including six quarterback hits)
* Brandon McGowan, 11 (including three forced fumbles)
* Adalius Thomas, 11 (including three sacks)
* Darius Butler, 9 (including two interceptions)
* Jonathan Wilhite, 7 (including two interceptions)
* Ty Warren, 6 (including four quarterback hits)
* Patrick Chung, 6 (including two sacks)
* Jerod Mayo, 5.5 (including one forced fumble)

The only defensive starter who ranks behind Mayo on that list is nose tackle Vince Wilfork -- and it's the job of Wilfork to occupy two blockers so Mayo can make plays.

This isn't meant as criticism, necessarily. For all we know, the knee injury that sidelined Mayo for a month might still be lingering, might still be hindering the explosiveness that he showed off a year ago. But if Mayo is indeed healthy, today's game against Jacksonville would be a terrific time for the second-year linebacker to start making some big plays.

Part of the reason his big-play numbers are down, after all, has been the way he's been used. He hasn't been sent after the quarterback, and he's actually played quite a few snaps in a no-man's-land zone coverage that looks something like a spy that teams employ against running quarterbacks.

The Jaguars have a running quarterback in David Garrard, the most prolific running quarterback the Patriots have faced this season. It'll fall either to Mayo or to Gary Guyton to contain Garrard and keep him either from getting around the edge or from sneaking through the defensive line.

It's been an unspectacular season for Mayo thus far.

Today would be a great time for that to change.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bay doesn't fit under luxury tax threshold

Reports from and the Globe have the Red Sox considering once again offering a contract to Jason Bay. The left fielder has had a four-year offer in hand from the New York Mets for the better part of the month but still hasn't accepted it, and the Mets are starting to wonder -- where would they get this idea? -- that Bay doesn't really want to play for them.

If Bay is willing to sign a four-year deal at a reasonable rate -- even at $15 million a year, really -- there's no reason the Red Sox couldn't fit him into their lineup. Mike Cameron might not like it much, but the 37-year-old has $15 million reasons not to mind being a fourth outfielder for the next two seasons.

On top of that, the return of Bay would free up the Red Sox to trade Jacoby Ellsbury in the right deal -- especially since Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick figure to be knocking on the door of the major leagues by July.

The Red Sox certainly can fit Bay on their roster. They can't, though, fit him into their budget if they want to stay under the luxury-tax threshold next season.

From the Globe:
Could Bay return to the Red Sox? It’s not inconceivable, according to a major league source, who said it would take two things to happen. 1. Bay would likely have to accept a backloaded contract, which would help the Sox remain under the $170 million payroll threshold for avoiding the luxury tax; and 2. the Sox would have to extend their budget, after they gave a two-year, $15.5 million deal to Mike Cameron.

Here's the issue: A backloaded contract wouldn't help matters. Most estimates have the Red Sox having spent about $165 million on next season's payroll when you factor in both player benefits and the yet-to-bet determined arbitration awards to Jonthan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Casey Kotchman and Jeremy Hermida -- not to mention the team-determined salaries, around $500,000 apiece, to players like Daniel Bard, Clay Buchholz, Manny Delcarmen, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ramon Ramirez.

Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that Bay were to sign an obscenely backloaded contract. Let's break it down this way:
2010: $3 million
2011: $7 million
2012: $20 million
2013: $30 million
Total: Four years, $60 million

According to the collective bargaining agreement (skip ahead to page 103), a team's payroll for luxury-tax purposes is determined by average annual value. Even if Bay only were paid $3 million next season as part of the above ridiculously backloaded contract, he still would count $15 million against the luxury tax and thus would cost the Red Sox an extra 22.5 percent on top of what they were paying him.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Westmoreland tops Kelly on BA list

Casey Kelly and Ryan Westmoreland ranked first and second on Baseball America's Top 10 prospects list for the Red Sox released today. No surprise there.

The surprise, though, might be the order in which they were listed. Kelly's sensational first season on the mound garnered him most of the hype -- but the experts at Baseball America like Westmoreland just a little bit better.

"He's a potential 30-30 player who one day could bat third in the Boston lineup," Jim Callis wrote.

Without doing too much copy-and-paste from the Baseball America scouting reports, here's a little bit of what Callis had to say about some of the big names down on the farm:

* Kelly, the No. 2 prospect on the list, has the best fastball, the best curveball, the best changeup and the best control in the organization, and he "may not need more than another year in the minors."

* Josh Reddick vaulted Lars Anderson for the No. 3 spot on the list thanks to his raw power, his speed and the "unbelievable release and accuracy" of his throwing arm in the outfield. His patience at the plate, an issue a year ago, improved in the minor leagues but regressed upon his promotion to the major leagues.

* Anderson, the No. 1 prospect a year ago, fell to No. 4 thanks to a disappointing season at Double-A Portland a year ago. "With the loft in his swing and the leverage in his big frame, Anderson is still the system's best power-hitting prospect," Callis wrote. It's certainly far too early to write off a young slugger who didn't turn 22 until after the minor-league season ended. He'll probably start next season back at Portland.

* It's not hard to see why the Red Sox like Ryan Kalish, the No. 5 prospect on the list. Not only did he hit 24 doubles and 18 home runs last season, but "He manages his at-bats as well as anyone in the system, waiting for pitches he can drive and taking walks if they don't come," Callis wrote. Baseball America expects Kalish to open the season playing with Reddick at Triple-A Pawtucket.

* Most of the players on the list -- Junichi Tazawa, Jose Iglesias, etc. -- are household names by now among Red Sox fans. Derrik Gibson, though, isn't yet one of them. The 20-year-old middle infielder came in at No. 10 on the list after stealing 28 bases in 33 tries a year ago and scoring 54 runs in just 255 at-bats. "Gibson is poised for a breakout 2010 season at (Single-A) Greenville," Callis wrote.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Market thin for outfielders after next season

Consensus has the Yankees passing on Jason Bay and Matt Holliday in favor of a less expensive option to replace Melky Cabrera in left field. Xavier Nady might be an option. Mark DeRosa might be an option. Marlon Byrd might be an option.

The Yankees would prefer to sign a cheaper option for a year, conventional wisdom has it, because Brian Cashman would prefer to go after one of the elite outfielders on the market after the 2010 season ends -- "a Carl Crawford-type," as Daily News beat writer Mark Feinsand told ESPN.

Here's the thing: There aren't many elite outfielders on the market after the 2010 season ends. Carl Crawford might be the only Carl Crawford-type available.

Crawford is an elite player who hits .300 and steals 50 bases a season while playing the type of defense in left field one would expect from a center fielder. He'll certainly be on the Yankees' radar -- and if Joe Mauer re-signs with the Minnesota Twins, the Yankees might throw quite a bit of money his way. He'd be worth every penny of a $15 million-per-year salary.

Other than that, though, there's not much out there. Jayson Werth hit 36 home runs a season ago with an OPS better than .850 for the third straight season. Werth, though, will be 31 when he hits the open market -- the same age Bay is right now. There's no reason at all for the Yankees to pass on Bay or Holliday to wait for Werth. It makes no sense.

Beyond Werth, it only gets worse. Pat Burrell, Eric Byrnes, Adam Dunn, Jody Gerut, Magglio Ordonez, Marcus Thames -- do any of those names excite you?

The Yankees apparently believe they already know what it's going to take to sign Crawford. They apparently believe they're going to land him.

They'd better.

If the Yankees somehow miss out on Crawford -- a native of Texas, for what it's worth -- they're going to regret passing on Bay and Holliday.

Watch out for Yankees on Bay and Holliday

Well, there it is.

In acquiring bat-missing specialist Javier Vazquez from the Atlanta Braves, the Yankees parted with young outfielder Melky Cabrera. In doing so, they cleared room on the roster -- if not necessarily on the payroll -- for either Jason Bay or Matt Holliday, the two marquee bats on the market this winter. Both Bay and Holliday have been reluctant to accept the standing offers from the Mets and Cardinals, respectively, and it doesn't take much of an imagination to speculate that they've both been waiting for the Yankees to get into the fray.

The Yankees are in the fray. The Yankees officially have need for a left fielder.

Now, Brian Cashman's team has made clear all offseason that it's not interested either in Bay or Holliday. Both Joel Sherman of the Post and Buster Olney of have portrayed the Yankees as have no interest in either Bay or Holliday, let alone free agent Johnny Damon. Sherman wrote today that the Yankees are looking for a "bargain bin" left fielder. Olney had previously reported that the Yankees were planning to cut payroll this offseason.

Right. OK.

The Yankees' modus operandi always has been to lay low and wait until everyone else has finished shopping. They waited on Mark Teixeira and pounced at the last minute. They came out of nowhere to trade for Alex Rodriguez before the 2004 season, just two weeks after the Rangers had called off trade talks with the Red Sox and named Rodriguez their team captain.

Neither the Cardinals nor the Mets have been all that motivated to improve the offers they have on the table for Holliday and Bay, respectively. Neither player has seemed all that motivated to accept.

The Yankees won't be in on either Bay or Holliday if they're still trying to cut payroll.

But if you believe they're going to choose to cut payroll with the chance to add a middle-of-the-lineup bat still out there -- and keep in mind the Yankees have no clear No. 5 hitter at this point -- you're kidding yourself.

(The argument out there is that the Yankees are waiting on next season's free-agent class. Carl Crawford, though, is the only elite outfielder in that group -- and it's not like the Yankees to put all their eggs in one basket.)

This is the way the Yankees operate. A World Series title last season isn't going to change that. It would be a stunning departure from the Yankees' traditional policy if they let Holliday go back to St. Louis without at least matching the offer the Cardinals have on the table.


For those who haven't paid much attention to Javier Vazquez since his relief appearance against the Red Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS in 2004: The Yankees just acquired themselves as good of a strikeout pitcher as there was in the major leagues last season. Only four ptichers averaged more strikeouts per nine innings than Vazquez last season -- Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester and Yovani Gallardo -- and only Roy Halladay and Dan Haren had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Vazquez.

Vazquez, in fact, became the first pitcher since Johan Santana in 2006 to strike out more than a hitter an inning while still posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 5.0. Only Vazquez, Santana, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez and Ben Sheets have accomplished the feat this decade.

It's no lock Vazquez will duplicate those numbers next season. But if your knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss the move as one in which the Yankees added a back-of-the-rotation starter, you'd be well advised to consider that the numbers Vazquez posted for the Braves last season probably would have earned him a Game 2 start in the playoffs for the Yankees.

It's not as if his career numbers are dramatically inflated by his years in the National League, either. His ERA is only a half-run better -- 4.52 in the NL to 4.02 in the AL -- and his career strikeout rates (8.1/8.1) and walk rates (2.3/2.5) are virtually identical.

Oh, and in his one start against the Red Sox last season, Vazquez allowed one earned run in 7 2/3 innings, striking out eight in the process.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ron Brace's terrific afternoon

The predictable potshots at nose tackle Ron Brace have begun.

The rookie, a second-round draft pick back in April, saw his most extended action of the season on Sunday thanks to the injuries suffered by Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork. He found himself in the middle of the action as the Bills ran all over the Patriots on their opening drive. He then drew more attention in a bad way early in the fourth quarter, getting his hands on the face mask of Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick while trying to get in on a sack.

All told, then, Brace had a terrific afternoon.

That's right: Brace had a terrific afternoon.

He had two tackles all season entering play on Sunday. He'd only been active for a handful of games -- and even when fellow rookie Myron Pryor was deactivated a week ago, the Patriots chose to activate journeyman Titus Adams rather than Brace. It was Adams, not Brace, who played the majority of the second-half snaps when Wilfork was injured.

On Sunday, though, the Patriots activated Brace and let him loose. The rookie played nose tackle on 30 of the Patriots' 60 defensive snaps, and he finished with three solo tackles. It takes a thorough look at the game tape, though, to measure the work Brace did on the interior of the Patriots' defensive line.

Let's go back to that first drive.

Brace was consistently double-teamed in the middle of the defensive line. At least two offensive linemen got a hit on him on 18 of his 30 snaps -- and on the third-and-1 run on which he got pushed back as if he was on roller skates, as the Herald's Ron Borges put it, he was triple-teamed. Not even Vince Wilfork usually holds his ground when three offensive linemen are shoving him backward.

Brace wasn't the only culprit on the defense, either, while the Bills were running the ball so relentlessly in the first quarter. Consider Fred Jackson's 12-yard on the next snap after that third-and-1:

Jarvis Green (97) had a single blocker on him and got a hand on Jackson as he went by. Guyton (59) had a single blocker on him and got most of his right arm on Jackson as he went by.

Brace (92), on the other hand, occupied two blockers and didn't give more than a yard or two of ground. He even prevented right guard Rich Incognito from getting out and blocking Jerod Mayo at the second level.

Jackson gained 12 yards on a run up the middle, but Brace did his job. Green and Guyton would be the first to tell you that one of them needed to make that tackle.

After the first drive of the game, however, the Patriots' defense got tougher -- and the Bills started making mistakes. Penalties put the Bills in passing situations, and Fitzpatrick couldn't move the ball. The Bills drove the ball 74 yards on their first drive before a false start penalty set them back, but they didn't drive more than 43 yards on any drive the rest of the game.

When penalties didn't drive the Bills backwards, sacks did -- and Brace had more to do with those than the stat sheet will give him credit for. On the Bills' very next drive, in fact, Brace got a key assist on the Patriots' first sack of the game:

A quick synopsis of the play:

1. Three of the Patriots' four linebackers dropped into coverage.
2. The Bills' fullback ran a route as a pass receiver and thus was not a factor in the blocking scheme.
3. Green got double-teamed by the left tackle and left guard.
4. Brace initially got double-teamed by the center and right guard.
5. Adalius Thomas got blocked by running back Marshawn Lynch.
6. The right tackle got a hand on Wright -- but he actually seemed to let Wright through so he can go get get a chip on Brace.

Brace, therefore, actually occupied three blockers in the middle of the Bills' offensive line while Wright tore through and tackles quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Wright got credit for the sack, but it wouldn't have happened without Brace.

Tully Banta-Cain picked up a sack on a similar play midway through the fourth quarter:

1. The right tackle and right guard double-teamed Wright (99).
2. The center and left guard double-teamed Brace (92).
3. Green, matched up against the left tackle, collapsed the pocket.
4. All Banta-Cain (95) had to do to get to Fitzpatrick was to get past running back Fred Jackson (22) -- and he steamrolled him. Fitzpatrick never had a chance.

(Check out the play yourself at the 20-second mark of this clip.)

Had Brace not occupied the left guard, the entire protection would have changed. The left guard might have been able to help on Green, and that might have allowed the left tackle to stick an arm out and slow down Banta-Cain. Brace occupying two blockers in the middle, though, and the entire left half of the Bills' protection collapsed.

Two of the Patriots' six sacks on Sunday came thanks to the "organized chaos" front Bill Belichick employed in long-yardage situations. Each of the other four came, in large part, thanks to the work Brace did in the middle of the line.

On the final sack of the game, Brace even ran a stunt -- he looped behind the defensive end to his right -- and tucked in behind Banta-Cain on his way to the quarterback. The right guard, center and left guard all got their hands on Brace on his way around, and that means there was only one set of hands on Banta-Cain as the Patriots' best pass-rusher recorded his second sack of the game.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Welcome back, Mike Lowell

So the Mike Lowell trade reportedly is not going to go through. Lowell will undergo surgery on a torn ligament in his thumb -- a surgery that requires six to eight weeks of recovery time -- and thus likely will be with the Red Sox when spring training opens in February.

(It's natural to ask if the Red Sox would have known about the thumb injury at all if they hadn't tried to trade Lowell -- and if the injury thus would have become a factor in February rather than November. There's no answer to that question yet.)

The first step for Theo Epstein and Terry Francona will be to soothe the egos involved. ("Ha ha! It was all a joke! Max Ramirez isn't even a real person!") The second step, though, will be to figure out a way to juggle playing time both to keep everyone happy and to ensure the Red Sox will be as productive as possible both at the plate and in the field. One of those priorities is more important -- and it's not the former.

Among the strategies they might use to make it work:

1. David Ortiz won't play against lefties, period.
That's an easy one. Ortiz might be the most prolific designated hitter in the history of the franchise. In his career, though, he's OPS'ed almost 150 points higher against righties (.964) than against lefties (.819), and he's OPS'ed under .800 against lefties in each of the last two seasons. Against righties, on the other hand, Ortiz OPS'ed .828 even during the worst season of his Red Sox career.

Lowell, on the other hand, hits lefties: His career OPS is 50 points higher against lefties (.850) than against righties (.798). In the last three years, he's OPS'ed .849, .961 and .867 against lefthanded pitching. He even has a .429 career on-base percentage against Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte.

There's no reason Lowell shouldn't be the designated hitter -- at minimum -- when a lefthanded pitcher is on the mound.

2. Lowell's defensive abilities have to be evaluated.
One of these UZR numbers is not like the other:
2006: plus-7.7
2007: plus-7.3
2008: plus-11.1
2009: minus-10.4

It's clear the hip surgery Lowell underwent a year ago affected his range in the field last season. It's certainly not clear that a year of recovery time will bring back an athleticism and a range that once was well above average -- especially since Lowell will turn 36 in February.

But unless the Red Sox plan on employing two full-time designated hitters -- hint: a 25-man roster doesn't allow for two full-time designated hitters -- the Red Sox have to see what they can get out of him. If he's got some range of motion, he could play third base on a limited basis with Kevin Youkilis moving back across the diamond to first base. If he has less range of motion, it might be worth throwing a first baseman's mitt at him and seeing if it sticks.

Either scenario, of course, would mean that Casey Kotchman would take a seat against lefties even though he doesn't have a severe lefty-right split. That brings us to ...

3. Someone has to make a decision on Kotchman.
If the Red Sox don't see the slick-fielding first baseman as playing a significant role next season, it makes no sense to keep him and an arbitration award around $4 million on the roster. A 12-man pitching staff leaves room for four bench players:
* A backup catcher (Jason Varitek)
* A utility infielder (Jed Lowrie)
* A lefthanded hitting outfielder (Jeremy Hermida)
* A righthanded hitting outfielder (TBD)

Unless the Red Sox want to forgo a fifth outfielder -- and thus leave themselves with Mike Cameron as their only outfielder who swings righthanded -- there's not really room for an extra infielder who only plays first base.

Kotchman will turn 27 in February. He's headed into his prime. He has to have some value to someone. The Red Sox either have to play him or move him.

A comparison of DH's

The Yankees' addition of Curtis Granderson, a much-ballyhooed three-team trade that prompted outrage across Red Sox fandom and this call for torches and pitchforks from Dan Shaughnessy:

Storm the gates of Fenway Park. Cancel your NESN package. Stick your head out the window and say, "I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!"

As previously discussed in this space, the trade for Granderson made the Yankees only incrementally better -- unless, of course, the move was accompanied a companion move that could help Granderson replace the production of both Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui.

The Yankees have made their companion move. Nick Johnson spent seven seasons in the Yankees' organization before being dealt to Montreal in the Javier Vazquez trade in mid-December of 2003. After 4 1/2 seasons with the Expos/Nationals and half a season with the Florida Marlins, Johnson has signed a one-year deal with the Yankees with a team option for the 2011 season. With Mark Teixeira in place at first for the next generation or so, Johnson will take over for Matsui as the Yankees' full-time designated hitter.

George Steinbrenner's team now will open a season with the more productive designated hitter in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry for the first time since Terry Francona was Ken Macha's bench coach.

That's right: Johnson goes into next season as a more productive designated hitter than David Ortiz. Consider last year's numbers:

Johnson: .295 batting/.426 on-base/.405 slugging (.831 OPS)
Ortiz: .238 batting/.332 on-base/.462 slugging (.794 OPS)

(Johnson was one of just five players last season whose on-base percentage exceeded their slugging percentage -- and the only one of the group who still slugged .400. Only Chone Figgins' .395/.393 came close.)

Bill James' projections for 2010 give Big Papi a slight edge OPS-wise -- but those projections are predicated on a pretty big bounce-back year from the 34-year-old slugger:

Johnson: .277 batting/.414 on-base/.434 slugging (.848 OPS)
Ortiz: .264 batting/.369 on-base/.519 slugging (.888 OPS)

(If you're with those who believe on-base percentage is a more important facet of OPS than slugging, you don't see Big Papi as having an edge at all.)

Johnson and his career .402 on-base percentage will hit second in the Yankees' lineup, taking the place of Damon and his career .355 on-base percentage. His job will be to get on base in front of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez and let them drive him in.

Johnson is a miserable base-stealer -- he's 27 for 40 in his career and was caught four of the six times he tried to steal last season. But for those who believe he's going to clog the bases, whatever that means, in front of Rodriguez and Teixeira, consider James' compilation of baserunning numbers from last season. The idea is to track the number of times a player had a chance to take an extra base on a single or double -- and the number of times the player successfully took that extra base.

Here's how Johnson stacks up against the guy he's replacing:

First to third
Johnson: 14 for 40 (35 percent)
Damon: 13 for 32 (41 percent)

Second to home
Johnson: 9 for 23 (39 percent)
Damon: 14 for 21 (67 percent)

First to home
Johnson: 1 for 9 (11 percent)
Damon: 14 for 21 (56 percent)

Johnson isn't exactly a speed demon, especially when it comes to scoring from first base on a line drive to the gap. But he'll certainly hold his own going from first to third on a single, and he's not exactly the base-clogger some would have you believe he is. He even went first to third last season at a better rate than Derek Jeter.

Either way, though, the more he gets on base, the tougher it becomes to pitch through the Yankees' lineup. With Johnson on board, the Yankees don't miss a beat even though they're losing Damon from the top of their lineup. They might even be a little bit better.

Ellsbury and shallow fly balls

(Subtitle: Why you can't just judge the quality of a defensive player by the number of highlights that show up on SportsCenter.)

Much has been made lately about Jacoby Ellsbury's pitiful defensive numbers as measured by stat geeks who eat Ramen noodles for every meal and live in their mother's basements and who don't even watch baseball at all.

OK, then: Let's watch some baseball.

The biggest issue with Ellsbury, statistically, is his inability to come in on a shallow fly ball.

Take a minute and check out the center fielder's highlight reel from last season. He made catch after catch in the left- and right-center-field gaps. He went over the fence to pull back a home run at Camden Yards.

But he almost never made a big play coming in on a shallow fly ball. Even his game-saving catch at Tampa Bay wasn't on a fly ball that was particularly deep: Thanks to the logo in the middle of the Tropicana Field outfield, it's easy to see where the ball landed. It was a terrific play -- but it was on a medium-deep fly ball. -- the same Bill James, incidentally, who works for the Red Sox -- borrows from the Fielding Bible, a creation of a protege of James that breaks down defense almost on a microscopic basis. Every ground ball and every fly ball is recorded and measured, and the range of every infielder and outfielder thus can be evaluated objectively. The Fielding Bible's plus-minus scale gives a player a plus-1 for making a play outside the average fielder's range and a minus-1 for failing to make a play inside the average fielder's range.

Here's how Ellsbury's season breaks down to minus-14 overall:
* Deep fly balls: minus-5
* Medium fly balls: plus-3
* Shallow fly balls: minus-12

Even in 2008, when his plus-8 in center field ranked him among the top 10 center fielders in the game, the same pattern held true:
* Deep fly balls: plus-3
* Medium fly balls: plus-7
* Shallow fly balls: minus-2

Ellsbury is really, really good at going side-to-side, ranging into the gaps to make catches. He's OK at going back on the ball -- and, as the highlights show, he can occasionally be spectacular. When he's going side-to-side and back on the ball, he gets himself on SportsCenter.

But he's just not great at coming in on the ball.

Let's compare Ellsbury to another center fielder picked completely at random -- or, you know, not. Let's compare him to Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner, an outfielder who will be replaced by Curtis Granderson next season because he wasn't good enough to play every day.

Well, actually, Gardner was really good in the field:
* Deep fly balls: plus-6
* Medium fly balls: plus-1
* Shallow fly balls: plus-4

Want to watch some baseball?

Compare this play by Gardner to this play by Ellsbury.

(Consumer warning: The second of those plays is the go-ahead single Vladmir Guerrero hit in the top of the ninth in Game 3. Watch it at your own discretion.)

Let's look at those two plays in more detail. Here's a screen capture from the moment the camera switches from home plate to center field on the Gardner catch. If you consider that center field at Yankee Stadium is 408 feet out, it's probably fair to estimate that Gardner is 360 or 370 feet from home plate:

Gardner tracks the ball and makes a diving catch.

OK, now Ellsbury. Center field at Fenway Park right behind Ellsbury is right around 385 or 390 feet, so it's safe to assume he's 360 or 370 feet from home plate when the camera gets to him:

You know the story. Ellsbury never gets close to the ball -- not only does he not dive for it, but he doesn't even have to pull up to avoid diving for it -- and it falls in for a two-run single that gives the Angels the lead.

Thing is, that's not a one-time deal for Gardner. There's this play and this play and this play -- all examples of his ability to come in on shallow fly balls. He even, in a nice little twist of irony, robbed Ellsbury at Yankee Stadium in September.

Yes, Gardner plays more shallow than Ellsbury. That's made fairly obvious by all of the above highlights. But Gardner plays shallow because he still can range into the gap or go up and get a ball that's going over his head.

Many fans can't believe that the defensive ability of Jacoby Ellsbury has been called into question. Even some writers would rather question the work of people who break down hours and hours of tape than question the defensive ability of someone they so often see show up on Web Gems.

But if you can't measure hitters only by the fact that they hit a bunch of home runs -- no one was pronouncing Jason Varitek an MVP candidate last April and May, for example -- you can't measure fielders by their most spectacular plays.

Ellsbury either doesn't play as shallow as he should or isn't as rangy as many people think he is. He'll almost certainly get better -- he has all the tools -- but baseball fans should know better than to dismiss defensive statistics based on a handful of spectacular plays.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Taylor's return was never a guarantee

There was no guarantee, Patriots coach Bill Belichick conceded on Friday, that Fred Taylor was going to return this season even if healthy.

Belichick was prepared to carry Taylor -- who injured his ankle against Baltimore in Week 4 -- as a perpetually inactive player as long as he had the roster space to do so. Carrying five running backs on the roster gave the Patriots that flexibility. But when Sammy Morris went down with a knee injury two weeks later, the Patriots' depth at running back was starting to run out.

Taylor always was going to be healthy in time for the playoffs -- if not the final month of the season. The fact that the Patriots didn't put him on injured reserve right away made that clear. But had something happened to Kevin Faulk or Laurence Maroney, it's safe to say that the Patriots would have had to go find another running back -- and Taylor might have been a casualty.

"You get into that situation we've been in before: You have players like that, and then you get into a bind where you lose some guys and put some players on injured reserve, and you need some spots," Belichick said. "Sometimes those players have to go on IR to create a roster spot. That never really happened for us this year, but if it had, we would have had to make a decision. A couple of times, we've been kind of close -- but for the most part, ... we have enough players that we're deactivating eight healthy players and not guys that everybody's injured and they're deactivated because they're hurt."

Taylor has more than 10,000 rushing yards in his career and has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in his career six times -- all with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 33-year-old running back rushed for 201 yards on 45 carries in four games with the Patriots before his injury.

He's as aware of anyone how easy it would have been for the Patriots to place him on injured reserve and end his season before it ever really began.

"I’m grateful for it, for not being on the IR and giving me that opportunity," said Taylor, who was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report. "My window of opportunity isn’t getting bigger at this point in my career. It’s shrinking. So for Coach to on a week-to-week basis, possibly being able to use another body but to have enough patience to wait on me, I’m grateful."

Varitek ready for reserve role

Jason Varitek could have taken a look around the major leagues. There certainly would have been options out there for him -- and probably starting options too. As frustrating as it was at times to see Varitek struggle at the plate, he still finished the season with a better OPS (.703) than Geovany Soto, Russell Martin, Ivan Rodriguez, Jarrod Saltamacchia and Gerald Laird.

Heck, the Royals just signed Jason Kendall to a two-year deal.

But the 37-year-old catcher didn't take much time to exercise the $3 million player option included in the contract he signed a year ago.

"I don't think it was much of a decision for me," said Varitek, who laced up a borrowed pair of skates and joined Bobby Orr on the ice rink at Fenway Park. "That was part of what I set out to do and what was so important to me a year ago, at this time last year: I wanted an opportunity to have a second year. If need be, my role changes, and we'll see that. But, most importantly to me, I'm here and had the opportunity to come back and be in Boston."

In some ways, Varitek is intrigued to see how he'll do catching once or twice a week. He played catcher full-time until the arrival of Victor Martinez on July 31, and he saw his OPS dwindle in every month of the season:
* April, .881
* May, .824
* June, .750
* July, .736
* August, .483
* September, .382

Part of it was injury-related: Varitek said today he played part of the season with a broken big toe. But part of it was the wear and tear associated with catching, and a lighter load behind the plate might mean a more productive bat.

"Seeing how my body adapts to less pounding and less physical grind, it might be a good time for me to transition," he said. "I'm preparing, as I always do, to be able to handle as much as I can. I'll prepare for a full-time role even though it's dictated another way. That way, if something happens, I'm ready to go."

Varitek made sure to get a player option included in last year's contract to ensure he wouldn't be left out in the cold this year. At this early stage, though, he's not about to make any proclamations about a planned retirement when this contract expires.

"I don't really know," he said. "As far as when retirement is, I'm not really thinking about that. I'm thinking about preparing and physically getting ready and mentally getting ready for the season, healing up and getting healthy and getting strong and getting ready for the next one."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Let's revisit Adrian Gonzalez in July

Four reasons why an Adrian Gonzalez trade will make more sense on July 31 than it does now:

1. San Diego's motivation
If Jed Hoyer trades Adrian Gonzalez right now, he'll be announcing to his fan base that he's given up on the 2010 season. Done. Finished. Over and out. He might bring back a nice haul of ready-for-prime-time talent -- especially if he lands Buchholz and Ellsbury -- but the only reason Padres fans have even heard of Buchholz and Ellsbury is because they're inundated with Red Sox coverage on national networks and Web sites.

(Quick: Name San Diego's top prospect, the first baseman who would replace Gonzalez if Hoyer traded him. Too tough? OK. Quick: Name a player on San Diego's roster.)

A trade of Gonzalez would tell the casual fan of the Padres to head off to the beach and not bother reporting back until 2011 or 2012. If Hoyer holds onto Gonzalez until July, though, he at least gives his fans reason to care while he kicks off the rebuilding process -- and it's unlikely the value for Gonzalez is going to decrease at all between now and July 31.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury's defense
Dreamboat certainly has all the tools -- except for an arm, but that's forgiveable -- to be an elite defensive center fielder. Advanced defensive metrics, though, suggest he had a miserable season in center field last season. FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating statistic ranked him last among center fielders with a minus-18.6.

Here's the issue: Ultimate Zone Rating, especially when it comes to outfielders, is subject to random fluctuations and can't be quoted as gospel the way batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage can. Consider the evaluation of Torii Hunter in center field over the past few seasons:
* 2009: minus-2.1
* 2008: minus-13.0
* 2007: minus-6.5
* 2006: minus-11.6
* 2005: 4.5
* 2004: minus-0.2
* 2003: 13.1

Before the Red Sox conclude that Ellsbury can't play center field on a permanent basis, it might be worth using the first three months of the season to see if his numbers drift back to where his physical skill set suggests they should be.

3. Clay Buchholz's ascension
In case you missed it, the skinny righty looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball not too long after the Red Sox called him up for good. From Aug. 8 until Sept. 24, Buchholz went 6-2 (if you care about that sort of thing) with a 2.37 ERA and an opponents' OPS of under .600. He struck out 44 hitters in 64 2/3 innings and walked just 22. Against Toronto on Aug. 29, he went 8 1/3 innings and allowed just one run, striking out nine Blue Jays in the process.

"We’ve always been a champion of Clay and his potential," Theo Epstein said after the Cameron and Lackey press conferences. “He started to show it last year, and there was a six-start stretch in August and September where he was one of the best pitchers in baseball. We think that’s what he is. We think that’s what he can become. You’re not talking about a young, unproven guy anymore. We still think he’s a top-of-the-rotation guy. He’s under control for five years to this ball club. He’s got the makeup to succeed in Boston. He’s got the stuff to succeed in the American League East."

The Yankees have refused to trade Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes. The Rays aren't going to trade David Price. The Braves won't even talk about Tommy Hanson.

If Buchholz can show next spring that his six-week run of starts last season wasn't a fluke, the Red Sox aren't going to trade him, either. That's not the type of arm you let get away -- even for a bat like Adrian Gonzalez.

4. Ryan Kalish's progress -- and Josh Reddick's, too
Should the Red Sox trade away Ellsbury, someone will have to play left field -- and the hope here is that that someone isn't Xavier Nady.

Neither Kalish nor Reddick are ready to start the 2010 season as an everyday player with the Red Sox. Reddick has all of 62 career plate appearances in the major leagues and not much more than that at Triple-A. Kalish hasn't even yet touched Triple-A.

But Kalish and Reddick both are viewed as cornerstone-type outfielders who made it easier for Epstein to bid farewell to Jason Bay. They might not be ready by Opening Day, but both ought to be ready by the time Mike Cameron's two-year contract expires.

One or both also might be ready for a promotion in July -- and if Ellsbury is dealt away, either Kalish or Reddick could step in for him. Epstein won't know if either of the two outfielders is ready, though, until he's had a chance to see how they perform in April and May.

Next season's batting order

Well, that should just about do it.

The Red Sox have their Opening Day lineup.

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF (L)
Dustin Pedroia, 2B (R)
Victor Martinez, C (S)
Kevin Youkilis, 3B (R)
David Ortiz, DH (L)
Mike Cameron, LF (R)
J.D. Drew, RF (L)
Marco Scutaro, SS (R)
Casey Kotchman, 1B (L)

A couple of notes:
* J.D. Drew and David Ortiz aren't going to hit back-to-back in any lineup Terry Francona writes out. Francona makes a point of breaking up his lefties, especially his lefties in the middle of the batting order. Cameron is a natural fit in the No. 6 hole between Ortiz and Drew, and whether Ortiz or Drew hits fifth might be determined by how good each guy looks coming out of spring training.
* Barring any dramatic moves -- and the Red Sox appear to be out of the running for Adrian Beltre -- Casey Kotchman will open next season at first base for the Red Sox. Kotchman, who swings lefthanded, either would have to hit back-to-back with Drew at No. 7/8 in the batting order or with Jacoby Ellsbury at No. 9/1. A cursory look at each guy's career righty-lefty splits tells the story:

Drew: .925 OPS vs RHP/.804 OPS vs. LHP
Ellsbury: .764/.764
Kotchman: .751/.712
Ortiz: .964/.819

If an opponent is going to bring in a southpaw specialist to face back-to-back lefties in the Red Sox lineup, Francona would want him to do so against Kotchman and Ellsbury -- the two with the least dramatic platoon splits. Ellsbury actually has exactly the same OPS against lefties as he does against righties.

The bottom of the Red Sox lineup for much of last season usually consisted of Nick Green and Jason Varitek. Kotchman has shown flashes of being an on-base guy -- he OBP'ed .354 with the Atlanta Braves before he was traded and relegated to part-time duty -- and Scutaro always has been. The Red Sox might not lead the major leagues in home runs, but they certainly don't have any automatic outs in their lineup.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jacoby Ellsbury and Johnny Damon

With the introduction of Mike Cameron as the Red Sox's newest speedy outfielder, some have begun to speculate that the Red Sox might include Jacoby Ellsbury in a trade for San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez.

Before the Red Sox trade Ellsbury away, though, it's worth thinking about the comparison so widely made when the center fielder was drafted. Ellsbury might not be OBP'ing .380 the way Johnny Damon has so often in his career -- his on-base percentage of .355 last season ranked him fifth among Red Sox regulars, well behind Dustin Pedroia's .371 -- but he's certainly on the right track.

Consider this: At the end of the 1997 season, when Damon had two-plus years of major-league experience and close to 1,300 career plate appearances, the future on-base machine had a career line that looked like this:
* .274 batting average
* .325 on-base percentage
* .387 slugging percentage
* OPS+ of 83
(Note: 100 is defined as average.)

His walk rate was 6.6 percent. His strikeout rate was 12 percent.

He'd hit a total of 17 home runs.

Two years later, in 1999, Damon took an enormous step forward. His walk rate skyrocketed to 10.2 percent, and his strikeout rate dropped to 7.6 percent. (He struck out just 50 times in more than 650 plate appearances.) His on-base percentage jumped to .379. He hit 14 home runs.

Consider, now, Ellsbury's first two-plus seasons -- a career that consists of a little more than 1,400 plate appearances:
* .297 batting average
* .350 on-base percentage
* .414 slugging percentage
* OPS+ of 96

His walk rate so far is 6.9 percent. His strikeout rate is 11.8 percent.

He's hit a total of 20 home runs.

He's still just 26 years old.

For what it's worth, Bill James projects Ellsbury to compile a line of .302/.360/.420 next season with a walk rate of 7.6 percent and a strikeout rate of 11.6 percent. But if Ellsbury can take another step forward in his patience and his plate discipline -- something he seemed already to be doing in the second half of last season -- he might be in line for a Damon-esque leap.

If the Red Sox can land Gonzalez from San Diego for a package centered around Ellsbury, well, they'd be crazy not to consider it. Gonzalez is an elite hitter, a franchise-changing bat.

But those who are suggesting that the Red Sox cash Ellsbury in while his value is at its highest, well, his value might still have some climbing to do.

Burnett-Lackey comparison misses the point

It wasn't hard to read between the lines with Red Sox general manager as he introduced starting pitcher John Lackey in a press conference at Fenway Park.

1. The Red Sox weren't thrilled with having to guarantee a fifth year to a pitcher who's already 31 years old.
2. A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia signed contracts guaranteeing them five years and seven years, respectively, last season.
3. Lackey is right up there with Burnett and Sabathia. Over the last four seasons, here's how the trio stacks up in ERA+:
* Sabathia, 133
* Lackey, 129
* Burnett, 110
4. To get a starting pitcher the caliber of Lackey, the Red Sox had to bite the bullet a little bit at the back end of the contract.

"You always want shorter deals," Epstein said. "You always want to try to get the best deal you can for your club. But John is someone who, with his track record and his consistency, has put himself in a position to deserve a contract like this. If you look at recent signings -- last year's free-agent pitcher signings, for example -- certainly John ranks right up there with those guys who got similar contracts, if not exceeds them."

To an extent, that's true.

But the free-agent market doesn't necessarily work that way. Just because the Yankees were willing to give Burnett $82.5 million over five years, for example, didn't mean Lackey suddenly was entitled to a similar number. Precedent is all well and good, but if no team was willing to offer Lackey $82.5 million, he either would have had to accept a lesser deal or walk away from the game. The gues here is that he'd have been just fine with a lesser deal.

The Angels, who didn't have a tremendous amount of financial flexibility this offseason, had a limit to how far they'd go with Lackey. Several other teams were in the mix -- "There were more than two," Lackey said, declining to offer more specifics -- but only one team other than the Yankees signed a starting pitcher for more than $40 million over four years last offseason, and the Atlanta Braves have spent most of the winter trying to unload Derek Lowe's contract.

If the Yankees weren't in on Lackey -- and there have been no indications that they were -- it's hard to find a team that would have been willing to go even close to the five years and $82.5 million the Red Sox were offering.

Epstein might have been trying to simplify everything -- and to avoid going into negotiation specifics -- with his implied comparisons to Burnett and Sabathia. He might have faced a challenge from a bidder like the Angels or the Seattle Mariners or the New York Mets, and the fifth year might have been necessary to secure the services of the best starting pitcher on the market.

Given how fiercely Epstein sticks to his guns about his philosophies -- and refusing to go long-term with players on the wrong side of 30 is one of his philosophies -- it's likely that the Red Sox faced a late challenge from another bidder and had no choice but to offer the fifth year.

Epstein certainly didn't want to go to a fifth year.

Only he and Lackey, though, know if he really had to.

"It's something we had to think long and hard about, but, in the end, we believe in John," he said. "We believe in our pitching staff and our starting pitching going forward and that this puts us in the best position versus other alternatives that we had. If you look on paper, we'll put our starting five up there with anybody's."

Cameron-Ellsbury alignment still TBD

Even during the regular season, Terry Francona is loath to divulge his starting lineup for a game until he absolutely has to.

The Red Sox manager wasn't about to divulge his starting lineup for Opening Day in December.

New acquisition Mike Cameron is a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder whose reputation only is underscored by advanced fielding metrics. Jacoby Ellsbury, on the other hand, is a rising star who appears to have all the physical tools to play a Cameron-esque center field. Defensive metrics didn't hold him in high esteem last season, but it's not hard to imagine a leap forward as his reads and routes improve.

Francona, general manager Theo Epstein and bench coach DeMarlo Hale, who doubles as the Red Sox outfield instructor, will have a decision to make about who plays center field.

That decision, Francona said, hasn't yet been made.

"What we need to do -- and I've already talked to Cam about this -- is, in the next week or so, I need to sit down with Theo, Mike, Jacoby and probably DeMarlo and figure out what's in our best interest," Francona said. "I need to talk to everybody first. It's been kind of a whirlwind week for everybody. We'll sit down and try to put the right pieces in the right place. I have some ideas on it, but I want to talk to everybody first."

Cameron hasn't played a corner outfield spot since he played right field with the Mets in 2005, giving way to Carlos Beltran. Cameron has played all of 9 2/3 innings in left field in his major-league career and hasn't made an appeared out there since 2000.

Ellsbury, on the other hand, made 36 starts and played almost 350 innings in left field as part of a time-sharing arrangement with Coco Crisp two seasons ago.

But if the Red Sox see Ellsbury as their center fielder of the future -- something that's a likelihood but no lock, especially considering what the fielding metrics say and who his agent is -- they might be better off playing Ellsbury full-time in center field to accelerate his learning curve.

Cameron, for his part, expressed no reluctance about playing left field for the Red Sox. He did not, however, shy away from his confidence in his ability to play center.

"I think I've played Gold Glove-caliber center field my whole career," he said. "I just don't get a chance to be recognized for it. But the numbers speak for themselves. I still feel that I'm able to move around pretty good, and I play probably one of the better center fields this year than I've played in a long time."