Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Aggressive offseason moves


Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. Some big moves the last couple of weeks, so let's get to a couple of them.

Marlins trade P Josh Beckett, 3B Mike Lowell and P Guillermo Mota to Boston for SS Hanley Ramirez and P's Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado and Harvey Garcia

Certainly a big move by the Red Sox, but one they probably have to make if they have any plans of being a big competitor this year. With Curt Schilling's status still in question, and a bunch of mid-rotation guys filling out the rotation, the Sox needed to go out and get an ace pitcher. With the free agent market littered with the second tier types that Boston already had in spades, going the route of the trade was the only way they were going to get a top guy. The question is, did they get one?

Everyone knows about Beckett's huge postseason in 2003, knocking off the Cubs in the NLCS, and shutting down the Yankees in the Bronx. His regular season career has been considered a bit of a disappointment though. 2005 was the first year that the former #2 draft pick even reached double digit wins, as well as the first year he surpassed 160 innings.

Beckett, though, hasn't suffered from the usual arm problems that plague young pitchers. His problem has been with blisters on the middle finger of his pitching hand. It's certainly been a frustrating problem, but if the Red Sox can solve the problem, or pitching in the colder weather relieves it at all, then the low innings count that Beckett has logged to this point becomes a positive. His arm should be through its formulative years without the wear and tear many managers pile on their young pitchers.

So, while he has the chance to put up a lot more innings going forward, the question becomes, how good will those innings be? In 609 big league innings so far, Beckett has a 3.46 ERA. Half of those innings, though, have been logged in pitcher friendly ProPlayer Stadium--on the road, his ERA is a 3.83. Certainly a very good ERA, but not typical of an ace pitcher, and the American League is the harder pitching park. So his ERA doesn't scream "ace starter."

Looking a bit deeper into his numbers though, and there's a LOT to like about Beckett. In those 609 innings, he has 607 strikeouts, 223 walks, and 55 homers allowed. Those aren't just numbers helped by his home stadium. On the road for his career, in 282.1 innings, he has 265 strikeouts, 95 walks, and 29 homers allowed. Just about anyone will be excited about a 25 year old with a strikeout per inning, a K/BB of near 3:1, and a homer allowed about once every 10 innings. So while we can't call Beckett a slam-dunk ace, there's a ton here to like, and if the blister problem is solved, he'll likely be one of the better pitchers in the American League.

Lowell is an interesting case. He's making $18M over the next two years, a lot for a team like Florida to pay, but more than worth it for a team with deep pockets like Boston to get Beckett, who isn't free agent eligible for two more years. Lowell was pretty terrible last year. Common opinion seems to be that he was fighting nagging injuries, but whether they'll continue to nag, and how far back he'll be able to come is an open question. Still, if he can split the difference between his last two years, he'll be at least as productive at the plate as Kevin Millar, while adding top notch third base defense. The Red Sox led baseball in runs scored last year-- their problem was preventing their opponents from scoring just as many. Unfortunately, Lowell isn't a huge upgrade defensively over Bill Mueller at the hot corner. If the Sox can improve their defense at first as well, it'll be a net improvement, but the Red Sox defensive problems last year were more in the outfield than the infield.

The Red Sox added Mota late in the deal, saying they would've called off the whole thing, noting Beckett's injury problems, if the Marlins didn't include Mota. Mota's a nice reliever, but the Red Sox were foolish to make that bluff, and the Marlins did well to pick up an extra pitching prospect in the deal, and shed Mota's salary at the same time. From the Red Sox standpoint, Mota will most likely pitch better than a lot of the guys they ran in from the bullpen last year, but guys like him are always available, and it was risky to endanger getting Beckett.

While you can debate the claims of Marlins management about the need to dump salary, they did a good job getting a good haul of talent in return. Hanley Ramirez is the bigger name prospect, but Anibal Sanchez is the real gem. The 21 year old Sanchez has been tearing through the minors the past two years this year moving from Class A to AA, logging 136 IP, a 2.85 ERA 40 BB, and 158 K's. (!!!!!!) The Red Sox, for the first time in nearly 20 years, had depth to deal from in their organization, and only projected Sanchez as their third best starting prospect, behind Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon. Those are some impressive numbers though, and Sanchez projects to be a top guy. He project so well, in fact, that some have criticized the trade, saying that there is a good chance that Sanchez will be a better pitcher in three years than Beckett. While that very well may be true, it is clearly not the goal of the 2006 Red Sox to build a team to win the World Series in 2008. This is a franchise positioning itself to win this year, and every year, and it was smart to deal from what they considered to be a strength.

Hanley Ramirez has been at the top of prospect lists for years, but it has been more for his tools than his actual production. While the Red Sox have been touting him for some time, their actions spoke louder than words, when they signed Edgar Renteria to a $40M contract last offseason, and drafted Dustin Pedroia with their first pick in the 2004 draft. Pedroia moved up the ladder quickly, and will be in the mix at 2B for the Red Sox this year. Ramirez fans liken his progress to Renteria and Orlando Cabrera, while cynics see more of Donnie Sadler.

Delgado and Garcia are both relief pitchers who were considered afterthoughts in the deal, but both had quality years in 2005 in single A. They give the Marlins quality organizational depth, and a couple pitchers who could help them in 2007.

White Sox trade CF Aaron Rowand and P Doug Haigwood to Philadelphia for 1B Jim Thome

This is probably the most surprising move of the offseason so far. The White Sox, touting their team chemistry and defense in the World Series win, trade their popular CF for an aging slugger coming off a major injury.

In the first reports of the trade, it was rumored that Jose Contreras or Brandon McCarthy were going to be the one going to Philadelphia, which would've been a huge steal for the Phils. As it is though, this is one of those trades that could benefit both teams.

The Phillies take on the situation is obvious. They had a logjam at first base, with Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard and Thome, and a hole in centerfield that they tried to fill last season with Kenny Lofton. Rowand is a mediocre hitter who is unlikely to match his 2004 season again. He's a legitimate excellent defensive player, though, and with the Phillies getting plenty of offense from other positions, they can afford to use a lineup spot on a top notch defender at what is fast being recognized as the most important defensive position on the field. It's not like Rowand is a waste of an at-bat either. He fouls off a lot of pitches, and will probably put up an OPS around .750, more than enough for a fielder of his quality.

Haigwood is a 22-year old fireballer with great strikeout numbers. His control can be rocky at times, but he was absolutely lights out after his promotion to AA Birmingham. In 67 innings, he struck out 76, walked 31, and gave up zero homers on his way to a 1.77 ERA. He's a guy to keep an eye on. The White Sox needn't worry though, as they held on to McCarthy, a guy who very well could make a major league impact as soon as this year.

Everyone knows about Jim Thome. The gigantic slugger seemed to be cutting a trail to Cooperstown before he injured his right elbow, leading to a disastrous season. Suddenly, Thome went from a franchise player to a 35 year old backup.

So why would the World Series champions trade Rowand for such a high-risk guy like Thome? Well, for one, it's becoming more and more obvious that Paul Konerko is headed out of town, to one of the coasts. Konerko was the most productive hitter on the team, and not by only a little bit. A healthy Thome could match Konerko's production, even outdo it. However, the chances of Thome ever being the 40 home run hitter he was in 2004 seems unlikely. However, even having an awful season, he still managed a .360 OPB, not up to Thome's old standard, but a nice sign that his batting eye is still intact. It's not hard to imagining Thome putting 50 points back on to his batting average and having a .250/.380/.450 type-season.

The White Sox won the World Series in 2005 with great pitching and defense, and some pretty mediocre hitting--they were 9th in the AL in runs scored. With the pitching likey to drop off a bit, Kenny Williams made a tough, aggressive move that he should be commended for. It's hard to break up a World Series team, but a team can't stand pat and expect to stay competitive. Just ask the 2003 Angels. With the Indians a good bet to show improvement next year, chances are not in the White Sox favor to even repeat as division winners, never mind World Champions, but it's good to see that they are a franchise willing to take the risks necessary to try.

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