The Smell of Spring / Assessing the Red Sox’s Off-Season Moves

So I am ready to jump right back into baseball. With Spring Training upon us, I’ve spent a few lunches looking at the Sox’s major off-season moves. The questions surrounding the Red Sox this season focus on whether this team has enough offensive firepower to win games. I decided to look at the changes one at a time to see how they break down.

Lowell Out, Beltre In

When I first heard about this move, I was less than pleased. Looking at the numbers, I’m still not happy. Beltre could be mediocre at best, and threatens to be an absolute disaster. Granted, his dismal 2009 numbers were impaired by serious injuries. But no one is sure he is completely recovered from those injuries. Even if he returns to “Seattle years” form, the Red Sox’s starting third baseman wouldn’t fit the patient, grinding line-up they have assembled. In the past ten seasons, Beltre walked 50 times only once; over the same span, Lowell has crossed 50 walks 5 times. Beltre’s career 162 game average BB:K ration is 46:104; he strikes out twice as often as he walks. Lowell’s? 56:83. Additionally, Lowell has near equal power (23 HR per 162 games vs. Beltre’s 24) and a much better career OBP (.343 vs .325).

Beltre was the quintessential one-year wonder, he has done nothing of significance since his “incredible” (“grumble, grumble”) 2006 campaign. His OPS+ since then? 93, 105, 112, 108, 88. Remember that an OPS+ of 100 represents an average, replacement level player.

I get that most feel Lowell has lost his defensive prowess since the hip injury and cannot be counted to play more than 120 games. But Red Sox fans should be weary that Adrian Beltre might turn into the next Edgar Renteria.

Bay Out, Cameron In

I admit that when I first heard Cameron was coming aboard, all I could hear was the whiff of his bat. But, looking closely at the numbers, replacing Bay with Cameron isn’t quite as devastating as I initially thought. Notice I said “quite as.”

Unlike Beltre, Cameron fits the Sox’s philosophy. He is a grinder whose 4.05 pitches/plate appearance tops Bay’s 3.95 (.10 might seem insignificant, but its not). Further, Cameron’s career 162 game average BB:K ratio is almost equal to Bay’s: 75 :156 to 86:157. I never realized how often Bay strikes out; adding Cameron to the line-up doesn’t really increase the number of K’s.

Unfortunately, Cameron’s career OBP% is .40 lower than Bay’s (a mediocre .340 versus Bay’s steadily productive .376) and he average 10 fewer home runs per 162 games (23 vs 33). As with Beltre, Cameron’s signing has been discussed in defensive terms, but he’ll need to make a whole pile of amazing plays (i.e., “there’s no way Jason Bay gets to that ball”) to begin to make up for the impending drop in outfield offensive production.

Scutaro In, Maybe?

Given the sorry shape of the shortstop position in Boston the past few seasons, there really isn’t anyone to whom Scutaro can compare. Though the young Jed Lowrie had an impressive rookie campaign (including 4.06 pitches/per plate appearance), I don’t think anyone considers him a candidate for a full-time position. But the reason I tag a “maybe” onto Scutaro is that he is coming off of the proverbial career season. I know this sounds ridiculously reductive and preposterous, but I think a Red Sox post-season berth can be directly tied to Scutaro walking at least 85 times next season. Yeah, I think its that simple–and that it could be a significant challenge.

Consider that last season was the first time in Scutaro’s 8 year career that he managed to walk more than 57 times, walking 90 times in 680 plate appearances. His career OBP coming into last season was .325. Last season? .379. Given that his batting average showed only a modest increase last season (up to .282 from a career average of .262), that means most of his offensive production came from patience at the plate. Scutaro never had an OPS+ over 100 in his career–he’s always been a below-average player. Now he’s being asked to repeat last season’s OPS+ of 111, 4.06 pitches/plate appearance performance.

Consider too that Scutaro hit 2nd all season for the Jay’s last year. A major part of his challenge will be to maintain the same plate discipline while hitting 7th, 8th or 9th in the order. He won’t be seeing as many good pitches lower in the order without the great bats surrounding him. I guess if Ellsbury struggles or if the top of the order suffers a key injury Scutaro could find his way higher in the order. But he better be ready to get his first at bat in the third inning some nights.

Of course, if the Sox do make the playoffs, it won’t be solely because of Scutaro’s patience at the plate. But I would be very surprised is Scutaro returned to pre-2009 form and the Red Sox still mustered enough offense to make the post-season.

And, unlike our other candidates, Scutaro is not an upgrade in the field. Throughout his career, his defensive numbers have been better at second base. So, on top of having to repeat incredible offensive spikes in production, he has the challenge of playing (slightly) out of position.

Victor Martinez In All Year

I think I have been a bit gloomy thus far, so I’ll end on a [slightly] positive note. The Red Sox will have Victor Martinez for an entire season. But Martinez is not a top of the line slugger, as much as he is a grinding, productive catcher (an OBP of .372 versus a SLUG of .465). Though his power number check in at just 21 HR per 162 games, he has grown more patient at the plate with every season, finishing last year with a 75:74 BB:K ratio and 4.05 pitches/per plate appearance (up from career averages of 67:79 and 3.80).

Over all, I think the Red Sox have taken a small step back offensively. How small a step will be in part up to David Ortiz, but I’ll leave that pondering for a future post. In concluding this one, I’ll say that the upcoming season is definitely going to be less about fireworks and more about sparks. Sparks grinding off the wheel.

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4 comments

  1. santosis

    Thanks for the comment, mlb. I can see Martinez moving to first base or DH, and, yes, his offense would be a bit subpar at either position (more so at first base, many AL teams slot aging players into the DH role, so those offense numbers are often less than what you might anticipate).

    I’m not sure if I labeled the Sox as poor in this post–which I wouldn’t do. There’s essentially 5 economic tiers in baseball–and tier one has only one team (200 million plus). Tier two, occupied by the Red Sox, Mets, Dodgers, Cubs, Tigers, and Phillies (generally 120-135 million). Tier three holds most of the teams in baseball (generally between 80-105 million). Tier four is a bit bloated this coming season, but regularly includes

    Of course, there are some gaps in my numbers, but if you look through the history of salaries in Cot’s Contracts, you’ll see that team salaries generally fall into these categories. This season I noticed that a number of teams in the 80 million dollar range dipped a bit low–probably, I imagine, due to the economic recession.

    I’ve been meaning to write a post about this for awhile, and not sure if I ever did. I would simply point out that the average salary difference between the Red Sox and the Mets (the top two salaries for several years running) is 67 million dollars. That’s more than the TOTAL payroll for 7 MLB teams.

  2. santosis

    Whoops, I realized I stopped writing the post half-way through there. Well, anyway, I got to the conclusion and think you get the jist!

  3. raysfanboy

    I think that Cameron is certainly a downgrade. He might make the outfield defense a little stronger, but he won’t help driving guys in or getting on base.

    The Scutaro situation is intriguing because of the exact reason you said: he had a career year last year. Tough to follow those up with more career years, or even solid years. He might be a bust in pressure-filled Boston.

    No matter what, though, you guys are solid top to bottom. Adding Lackey is huge. It will take all my guys have to keep up with you.

    http://raysfanboy.mlblogs.com/

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