Keeping up with the corners

Keeping up with the corners

Firebrand AL

Keeping up with the corners

MLB: APR 10 Red Sox at Angels Mike Lowell’s recent injury concerns creeping back into the active conscious of Red Sox Nation, depth at the corners and in the middle of the lineup has suddenly been thrust to the forefront of the early pre-trade deadline chatter.

Much of the Red Sox trade innuendo to this point has surrounded the potential acquisition of a shortstop or catcher, positions without organizational depth or strength. But with Jason Varitek and George Kottaras holding down the fort behind the plate with acceptable production* and Nick Green earning the job at short with Jed Lowrie waiting in the wings (and Julio Lugo being Julio Lugo), those positions may not be the most critical to address as July rolls in.

*Just to be clear, I don’t want anyone to think that I find Varitek and Kottaras’ collective production to be anything special. In fact, it’s still below league average. But in context of (1) what would be available on the trade market and (2) our collective expectations from the crew, I think this is a battery that the Red Sox could win a World Series with this year.

With a team that is playing .600 plus ball, you aren’t going to find too many critical path items that stand between that team and a post-season appearance. Theo Epstein’s job is to identify the items that could get in the way of that chance to play into October and solve for them before they become an issue that can derail the season. So it should be no surprise that given Mike Lowell’s tenuous hip situation and the importance that Lowell plays both manning the hot corner and a spot in the middle of the lineup, that the risk of losing him to injury for any extended time or like last year, for the post-season, needs to be planned against.

As Theo looks over the “Lowell Insurance Options”, one thing he is blessed with is an infield ripe with position flexibility.  Looking at the current mix of position players on the Red Sox roster, there are four people in the organization right now capable of playing first base at the Major League level, three shortstops, and four third basemen.

In depth chart order
1B: Kevin Youkilis, Mark Kotsay, David Ortiz, Lars Anderson (Jeff Bailey is also worthy of mention)
SS: Nick Green, Jed Lowrie, Julio Lugo
3B: Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, Jed Lowrie, Nick Green

Lets not forget that last season the Red Sox were a healthy Josh Beckett and David Ortiz away from a World Series with an infield of Kotsay at first, Lowrie at short, and Youkilis at third.  This team is a World Series contender with the current roster of talent.

At the same time, with the payroll flexibility they have and the ability to make some gambles to fill one of these three positions should Lowell miss time, I expect Theo to make a move to mitigate risk.

Lets start by assuming the Red Sox play it simple and bring in a third baseman to cover for Lowell allowing other in house options to stick at their more natural positions.

3B Options

In House: Lowell, Youkilis, Lowrie, Green – If the Red Sox were to acquire a third baseman, it is likely that Youkilis would remain at first base and that Lowrie and Green would split time at short with an occasional turn at the hot corner.

Mark Teahen, KC – .281/.340/.446 9 HR, 28 RBI
Teahan’s a “nice” player.  He’s a downgrade from Lowell at third, but someone who could slot into the back of the lineup and give you modest production.  The trade off you would consider here is “is Teahen at 3B > production than Kotsay at 1B?”.  I say yes.  I don’t think the price to acquire Teahen would scare away the Red Sox.

Garret Atkins, Col – .227/.301/.341 6 HR, 25 RBI
Atkins has been mired in a season long slump that he looks on the verge of breaking out of (13 for his last 28).  Atkins career line (Colorado aided) is similar to Mike Lowell’s (.292/.819/20 HR/100 RBI).  With the Rockies on a 17-3 tear over their last twenty games, are they willing to move Atkins for pitching?  Would a combination of pitchers not named Buchholz with a Delcarmen on top land Atkins?

Michael Young, Tex – .310/.360/.498 10 HR, 29 RBI
Michael Young made the transition from one of the games best shortstops to third base this season.  He’s clearly overpaid at this point in his career and bringing Young in this season would provide a potentially untenable situation moving forward with some pretty good dead money.  But he may provide the best value in a trade for 2009?  I think this is a long shot at best, but still an option.

Jhonny Peralta, Cle – .265/.344/.717 4 HR, 33 RBI
Another SS moved left to 3B, Peralta (and anyone on the dissappointing Indians) would have to be considered “in play”.  That he can man both the SS and 3B position gives some notion of flexibility that is intriguing, but I don’t see Peralta as a primary option.

Melvin Mora, Bal – .268/.329/.327 2 HR, 22 RBI
At 37, I think Mora’s power is all but gone.  If there were a chance of seeing the .279/18 HR/80 RBI guy of the past, it would be worth considering as Baltimore could sell real low here.  It’s an interesting insurance option with little commitment.  But I don’t think Mora’s got any gas in the tank left.

1B Options

In House: Youkilis, Kotsay, Ortiz, Anderson – Is anyone else secretly rooting for Lars to make a pre-September call up and lock down a spot at first with Youkilis moving to third down the stretch?  Anderson got off to an ok start in Portland this season, but the month of May saw him really struggle.  The good news is that he’s rebounded in June (.300/.411/.413).  Lars won’t have the impact of an Evan Longoria, but could he mirror the run that Jacoby Ellsbury had in 2007?  The Red Sox are clearly the better defensive team with Youkilis manning first base and I think they would prefer to keep him there all things being equal.  At the same time, if there is more value in acquiring a first baseman, the Red Sox won’t be afraid to go that route.

Victor Martinez, Cle – .316/.395/.527 14 HR, 57 RBI
Aside from being the best hitter on any of these lists, Martinez provides the flexibility of playing catcher or filling in as a DH along with playing 1B.  He’s also likely to cost as much as anyone on this list.  There is something to be said for Martinez playing 25% time at catcher giving Varitek more of a break down the stretch, with Kottaras still manning Wake, 15% time at DH giving Papi a break now and then, and the remainder of the time at 1B.  If Cleveland were taking calls on Martinez, I would have to imagine the Red Sox as an interested party.  But don’t go so far as to think they will overpay for him.  There are less productive, but more conservative options out there that make sense as well.

Todd Helton, Col – .313/.393/.508 9 HR, 53 RBI
If Helton were in the final year of a large contract, he’d be a perfect option.  Even if there were one year left, but Helton’s contract is so much an albatross around his neck that the Red Sox would have to be desperate to go down this path.  That said, Colorado could be so willing to get out from under the contract that this might be the player that they could acquire with the least talent headed out the door.

Kevin Millar, Tor – Cowboy Up
I still harbor some hope to see Millar man the dugout steps of Fenway again for just one game.  Others may be tired of his shtick but he’s as much the face of 2004 for me as anyone.  Snap, back to reality….no chance in hell. 

Nick Johnson, Was – .299/.408/.420 5 HR, 33 RBI
Johnson may just be the player that most “fits” with the Red Sox this season.  While Delcarmen for Johnson was swept under the rug earlier this season, if Lowell were to seriously miss some time, wouldn’t that deal start to look pretty intriguing?  In many ways, like everybody’s favorite, J.D. Drew, Johnson’s value in a lineup goes much deeper than his stat line.  He’ll turn that lineup over from the “top of the bottom third” more times than not.

Adrian Gonzalez, SD – .269/.414/.581 24 HR, 47 RBI
I think it would take Buchholz plus to get him.  Would you package Buchholz and Anderson?  If you bring in Gonzo, Anderson’s organizational value is fairly moot. I think this is the player the Red Sox look at and most covet as not only filling a need for now, but for the future as well.

Ryan Garko, Cle – .260/.355/.444 8 HR, 32 RBI
The fire sale may be on and if it is, could Garko be had for pieces that don’t play in Boston’s future?  Could be an interesting fall back plan at the deadline if the price were low enough and other options fell through.

SS Options

In House: Green, Lowrie, Lugo – As Joe mentioned, the shortstop position may be as much of a strength as it is considered a weakness.  Both Green and Lowrie’s ability to move to 3B in a pinch allows the idea of acquiring a SS to come into play as a Lowell insurance policy.  We’ve been round and round with the potential shortstops on the market, so I won’t spend too much time rehashing, but there is one interesting name out there.

Jimmy Rollins, Phi – .211/.254/.328 6 HR, 27 RBI
Rollins is in one hell of a slump.  It’s “Papi-like” in proportion. At the same time, we’ve seen Papi now turn around on a dime, why couldn’t J-Roll?  He’s a gold glove SS, one season removed from an MVP and a defending World Series champion.  Rumors that I hear have the ask at Buchholz and Green for Rollins.  It’s one hell of a gamble.  But if the Red Sox scouts think he’s able to turn it around, Rollins has two more years of a five year contract at “less than Lugo” dollars to play out.  Would you gamble Buchholz on Rollins and move Lowrie to third as Lowell’s insurance?

As you can see, the Red Sox are in the drivers seat with these negotiations.  They not only have flexibility and options, but they have the ability to walk away and stand pat.  Dealing from a position of strength will allow Theo Epstein to do what he does best and thats be creative, unearthing value against a strategic attack on both short term and long term planning.

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