Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chasing Manny

While there are multiple reasons for the Red Sox's stumbles during the 2009 season (starter injuries, significant decline from some veterans, fatigued bullpen, arguable game-to-game mismanagement, etc.), my personal theory is that the Red Sox have not suitably replaced the dominant lineup presence provided by Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz during most of the Epstein Era. Obviously this is no mean feat -- there are few 1-2 hitter combinations like that in history -- and if the goal is "just" to be a playoff team 8 out of every 10 years then the Red Sox are doing fairly well.

However, in many respects the expectations for a team with the salary and acumen of the Red Sox is to be a more significant playoff threat -- if not a routine title-contender. If so, the offense needs to be more imposing to succeed. Assuming that (1) JBay can maintain his career-best 2009 numbers for the next 3-5 years and (2) The Yankees or Mets don't cut in line to sign him first, keeping him is a major piece of the hitting puzzle. A full season from V-Mart (which also lets the Sox rest Tek's wobbly body more often, keeping him fresher) will also help cover some offensive vulnerabilities. The problem with these two players though is they're both in the nebulous 31 years-old range, still in their prime, but close to the age where many (but not all) ballplayers start to decline (esp. catchers). While the Sox are much stronger financially than almost all of their MLB compatriots, if the only real opponents these days are the Angels and Yankees, they can't risk long-term albatross contracts for short-term gain.

What I feel the Sox need is an uber-bat, capable of hitting 40+ homers with the extra thrust of Fenway behind him. The problem is that our outfield is occupied already; presuming we regain JBay, Drew is here through 2011 and still productive, and while Ellsbury isn't a homer-threat there really aren't any CFs who are. Unless the Red Sox are convinced Papi has had it, they won't risk carrying two defensively-useless leviathans either. This means someone who can at least serviceably play the infield (sorry old man Thome or Delgado).

Here's a list of possible suspects (I'm ignoring players who are under long-term deals or who are highly unlikely to be moved), with the benefits and hazards of each:

Matt Holliday (2007-2009: 0.400+ average OBP, hits the 40 2B range)
- He is more likely a fall-back option if another team steals Bay from the Red Sox. He's still young enough (29), a free agent this year, and he hits righty with power and patience. There are a number of alarm bells however. His power has dipped the past two seasons, it was Coors-inflated to begin with, and his brief stay in the AL was a bit of a roller-coaster. If we sign JBay, I doubt we'd take Holliday as a first-baseman, but if we lose Jason this is the quickest fall-back option.

- Desire meter: 2.5/5 Heath Ledger Resurrections
- Ease-of-Acquisition meter: 4/5 Dumb McCarver Comments

Ryan Howard (one of only two players to average 35+ homers 2007-2009)
- Howard is a free agent in 2011. Crazy power, decent patience, used to playing in media-heavy markets. Even if he doesn't ever reach his 2006 line again, he's still a major force and is only 29 despite being stuck in the minors for 100 years. He does face inferior NL pitching which must be factored in, and he already plays for a franchise capable of a few big contracts who have greater means to re-sign him.

- Desire meter: 3.5/5 Heath Ledger Resurrections
- Ease-of-Acquisition meter: 1/5 Dumb McCarver Comments

Carlos Pena (2007-2009 averages: 37 HRs, 0.934 OPS)
- Pena is the prototypical prospect who figured it out "late" in his career. He's gone from an average power hitter with nothing else to offer to one of the best mashers in the league, raising his homer total while generally increasing his contact and patience. He's already proved himself in the AL East as well. While a free agent after 2010, he'll be 33 after signing, making him more of a short-term than long-term solution.

- Desire meter: 2/5 Heath Ledgers
- EoA meter: 3.5/5 Dumb McCarvers

Adam Dunn (one of only two players to average 35+ homers 2007-2009)
- Full disclosure - I've been a fan of Dunn for a really long time. Routinely exorciated by dumb commentators for his K-rate, Dunn quietly put together one of the best performances of 2009, and you could set your watch to his 40ish homer rate (@29 he already has 5 seasons of 40 or more, in 2009 he "slipped" to 38). All this despite playing on the horrible Nationals (and before them the almost-as-horrible Reds). Oh, and don't even get me started on his OBP numbers. He's a free agent in 2010 (and will only turn 30 then), and perhaps the Nats will seek a trade if the ownership group wants to throw in the towel on next season. He's not a good defensive first baseman or OF, and maybe even a poor one ... but I think the bat makes up for it.

- Desire meter: 4.5/5 Heath Ledgers
- EoA meter: 3.5/5 Dumb McCarvers

Prince Fielder (2007-2009: 43 HRs, 33 2Bs, 0.968 OPS)
- In my eyes this is practically the dream acquisition, a young player with uber-power and good patience. Obviously the biggest problem is that he is under Brewer control for a while still, and teams are often loathe to part with their cornerstones. But, if Milaukee decides that their playoff window has closed already (which it probably has), this is the kind of trade that could revitalize their farm system. It'd obviously mean no more Buchholz (plus more), but still, he's the best available young, impact bat (Braun is better but recently signed through 2015).

- Desire meter: 5/5 Heath Ledgers
- EoA meter: 2/5 Dumb McCarvers

Adrian Gonzalez (SLG and OPS has increased every year 2007-2009)
- This is the next-best youth option besides Prince Fielder. Ad-Gon is still only 27, has missed only three games total in 3 seasons, and puts up strong numbers for one of the worst teams and in one of the worst hitter parks (if all his games were on the road he would be on pace to hit over 50 homers in 2009). The Red Sox pushed hard on the Padres at the deadline to acquire him, and he must still be on their radar screens. The usual NL-hitter caveat applies, and unfortunately the Padres have him under control through 2011 if ... they so choose.

- Desire meter: 5/5 Heath Ledgers
- EoA meter: 3/5 Dumb McCarvers

Albert Pujols (Hall of Fame numbers, arguably one of the best all-around players in MLB history)
- Pujols I say? Impossible you say! Maybe I say. Almost surprisingly, Lord Albert is a free agent in 2011 (assuming St. Louis exercises the 2010 option), and while the Cardinals adore him, there is the chance with every free agent that he will switch teams. Provided he didn't Almonte the MLB, he'll still only be 31 when his contract expires. And while the Yankees have infinite money, TexMex is their first baseman for a long time, and they have to figure that Jeter and/or A-Rod will end up DHing someday. This puts Boston in a prime position to scoop up Pujols, and if he is interested in chasing the recordbook, an AL-team who could use a short-term 1B and a long-term DH who's park caters to righy hitters and is a perennial playoff contender could be the perfect fit.

- Desire meter: 100000/5 Heath Ledgers
- EoA meter: 2.5/5 Dumb McCarvers

The wild card in this is David "Papi!!!!!!!" Ortiz, who's batspeed decline is uber-documented. If he can regain his stroke, a lot of the offensive problems happily go away. I doubt though that we'll ever see the old Ortiz again, making the search for his offensive replacement even more important. There really aren't many options in the 2009 FA class (in fact, being able to hold onto Bay is our #1 priority); so much of our lineup is going to look like this past season's unless a trade is made (and for the love of god ... Pedroia 1st, Drew 2nd, Youk 3rd, JBay 4th, VMart 5th plz). If we have the money and the willingness to part with prospects, there are gettable players available, and maybe (emphasis on the maybe) a hall of famer or two. The next year or so is going to be really interesting in Sox-land, as virtually everyone but Youk, Pedroia and Lester is a free agent of some sort by 2009-2011.