Depth for Depth's Sake or a DH?
Last night the Boston Red Sox defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 2-1 to pull within 2.5 games of the division leaders from north of the border. The story of the game was the return to the lineup of one David Ortiz, who had sat out the entire Red Sox series in Seattle over the weekend. The Boston faithful stood and cheered wildly in support of Big Papi each time he came to the dish. Chants of "Papi" and standing ovations, however, couldn't seem to pull the big slugger out of his slump (sleepwalk? death march?).
He was 0-3 with two strikeouts and two men left on base. Ortiz is now batting .203/.317/.293. His wOBA of .279 trails all but Ty Wigginton among American League Designated Hitters. While it would be nice to chalk Papi's problems to a mere slump, something that will work itself out - it's only May 20 after all - it's becoming difficult to imagine a return to form for Ortiz. We saw chinks in the armor last post-season when Ortiz, one of the most celebrated clutch performers in baseball history, managed to hit just .186. His bat has been slower, his approach clueless for some time now.
Despite this, Boston finds itself just four games out of the best record in all of Major League Baseball. All the while, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia have battled injuries, Jed Lowrie has been out for almost the entire season and Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have posted ERA+ figures of 85 and 77, respectively. Brad Penny has been worse than both of them. Boston's starting pitching ERA is 5.76, tied with Baltimore for very worst in the American League.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, there is reason to believe things will get better on the pitching front. If you're to believe Fielding Independent statistics, Lester and Beckett have been among the unluckiest pitchers in baseball. Both hurlers' peripherals look solid. Moreover, Youkilis returns to the Boston lineup tonight and Matsuzaka makes his first start since April 15th on Friday night. All around their Designated Hitter, things are looking up for Boston.
Working in their favor, it's not like the Red Sox have no recourse for dealing with their little Papi problem. Their pitching depth is the envy of Major League Baseball. That so many quality pitchers sit in the organization, many without prominent or even Big League roles, borders on absurdity. This is particularly so in the presence of a gaping hole at DH. Let's run through Boston's pitching depth.
How would this starting rotation look?
IP H BB SO ERA
Masterson 41.1 45 14 35 4.57
Penny 36.1 45 16 20 6.69
Buchholz (AAA) 39.1 23 12 42 1.60
Bowden (AAA) 42.0 19 16 28 0.86
Tazawa (AA) 43.1 38 13 42 3.12
It might not light the world on fire, but it would probably stand up favorably to how Boston's starting pitching unit has fared to date (remember the 5.76 ERA), a unit good enough to stake the Red Sox to a 23-16 record. This rotation, the one that might improve upon the 23-16 team's pitching to date, would leave Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield and John Smoltz out of the mix. Assuming Smoltz's rehab goes as planned (his rehab clock will be set to expire June 19), Boston would have ten quite legitimate Major League starters.
The depth is even more ridiculous in the bullpen. Prior to the season, in Fort Myers, Bill James told me that the Red Sox had the best bullpen on paper that he had ever seen. He was also quick to caveat that the best bullpen on paper means next to nothing given the unpredictability that comes with forecasting 50-80 innings worth of pitching. Still, James's commentary has proven prescient. Even with Masterson sliding into the rotation, Boston's 3.00 bullpen ERA trails only Kansas City's in the American League.
Jonathan Papelbon, Ramon Ramirez, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Takashi Saito and Daniel Bard are all worthy of pitching high leverage situations right now. And remember, with Clay Buchholz dealing in Pawtucket, Dice-K coming back and Smoltz beginning his rehab, that means there will be another relief arm or two whom Terry Francona can feel comfortable using in a big spot. At the very least, you can add Justin Masterson to that mix. Assuming good health, here is what the Boston pitching staff will probably look like one month from now:
This leaves out Buchholz, Michael Bowden and Penny. Junichi Tazawa, too, if you want to accept the premise that it is likely that he is ready for Major League action. Still, look at that list. While depth is desirable given the unpredictable nature of pitcher health and effectiveness, you simply do not need your bottom three relievers to be as effective as Boston's will be - particularly with three or four pitchers left off the roster who would be of great use to other Big League clubs.
All of this brings me back to Ortiz. Smoltz's rehab expiration of a month or so from now offers the Red Sox a nice timetable to evaluate their options. If Smoltz looks strong, they have lots of options. If Brad Penny improves, they have even more. If Smoltz has a setback, Penny continues to struggle and say, Beckett and/or Dice-K have a DL stint, that pitching depth may need to be tapped. And finally, maybe there is some way Ortiz regains his stroke. Then there is less urgency to look to do a deal.
But let's assume that things go reasonably smoothly for Smoltz and that he joins the rotation. Let's also assume that Buchholz and Bowden continue to pitch like MLB contributors and that the bullpen effectiveness keeps up from top to bottom. And finally, we'll assume that Ortiz is, as so many of us suspect he may be, finis. Then it's time for the Red Sox to look around. What follows are some of their potential options.
Sports Radio Caller Pipe Dreams?
Would the Mets consider a deal of Mike Lowell, Buchholz, Masterson and Delcarmen for Wright? Maybe not, but the third baseman seems to be under-appreciated in the Big Apple at times and New York could use some young arms to help in the bullpen and back of the rotation.
Hanley Ramirez or Joe Mauer
I understand that you might have to empty your farm system for either of these two players. But both guys just might be worth it. I can't imagine a package Florida or Minnesota could ask that I would not listen to if you put me in charge of the Red Sox. The only problem is that neither team may listen long enough to even entertain a deal.
Proven Producers on Teams Going Nowhere
After a slow start, he has been excellent in May and Oakland appears to be headed for another disappointing season. He is a free agent at year's end, so Billy Beane's ask might be manageable.
Berkman is signed through 2010 (with a '11 club option and a $2M club buyout) but given that Houston is in last place and sports what is arguably the league's worst farm system, Drayton McLane and Ed Wade would be wise to consider a fire sale sooner rather than later. Did I mention Russ Ortiz takes a regular turn in their rotation.
A Good Ol' Value for Value Baseball Deal
Mike Scioscia sure doesn't seem to value him the way the Red Sox might. I wonder what the Angels would want in return for him? Seems to me the Red Sox have the arms to get something done.
Colorado still seems to want Yorvit Torrealba getting innings, which makes me think that the right package could net Boston the young slugging catcher. Boston could DH Iannetta for a year, maybe two depending on what happens with Jason Varitek, and then slide him behind the dish longer term.
Less Pricey, Stop Gap Solutions
Jermaine Dye or Jim Thome
The White Sox seem down and out but Dye and Thome continue to produce. Both would come with favorable contract situations, too.
He has struggled in May and of all people, Andruw Jones is coming on strong and seems to be taking playing time away from him in Texas. Moreover, we all know how much Nolan Ryan would like to beef up his pitching arsenal.
Oakland may not wish to part with the cost-controlled, steady producer but for the right package, how long can you hold the line for a one-tool player like Cust?
Don't laugh, the Nationals first baseman that could never stay healthy has already played 38 games this year, as many as he played all of last season. His .438 on-base would look great in the Boston line-up and getting him off the field and into the DH role would only increase his chances of staying healthy. He's in the final year of a regrettable Nationals contract and Washington is going nowhere. He has to be there for the taking.
Boston doesn't have to do a deal, of course. Dozens of players within the organization would represent an upgrade over Ortiz's production if slotted into the DH role and as I have mentioned numerous times, the Red Sox are obviously still a good team despite their gaping hole in the middle of the batting order. I also respect the political considerations that factor into such a deal. But given their pitching surplus and obvious upgrade opportunity, why not go for it? Their financial advantages and proven drafting acumen should allow Boston to undergo whatever restocking efforts a bigtime deal would necessitate, anyway.