Making sense of the Beltre deal. Which is not at all as easy as it sounds.
Let’s review, shall we?
Stage One: Theo Epstein looks to trade Mike Lowell to the Rangers for catching prospect Max Ramirez. This makes sense. Mike Lowell had a tough year last year, and it’s only going to get tougher. It’s true that he showed flashes brilliance in the field, but that was in Anaheim, where the weather is nice and warm. Not so in Boston. In Boston, it’s either freezing cold or scorching hot. Lowell would’ve flourished in Texas, with its mild climate and considerably less pressure-cooker-like atmosphere, and the Rangers’ catching prospect would’ve been put to good use in our system, where he would’ve been groomed to give Tek some days off.
Stage Two: The deal is called on account of Mike Lowell’s right thumb. To emphasize, it was the thumb, not the hip. Let me repeat: thumb, problem; hip, not so much. This makes sense. From Lowell’s performance toward the end of last season, it was clear that his hip was no longer a big issue. (That is to say, it’s still an issue but not a focus.) Given the right atmosphere, environment, and amount of days off, all signs pointed to a fairly productive year, both at the plate and in the field. This, however, was with the understanding that Lowell’s thumb was sprained, not injured. After he failed the physical, what Texas basically had on their hands was a choice between keeping tMax Ramirez or trading him for a third baseman who, in addition to a well-established health concern, would need surgery. And that wasn’t a gamble Texas was willing to make. From their perspective, they didn’t want to chance having to start someone at the hot corner who was slated to make multiple trips to the DL, not to mention the fact that the hip affects Lowell’s defense more than his offense. The thumb would affect Lowell’s defense as well as his offense. Simply put, no thumb, no swing, no runs, no deal.
Stage Three: Mike Lowell’s surgery is a success. Red Sox players, staff, fans, and writers welcome Mike Lowell back into the fold. Red Sox Nation is urged to table our wishes for infielders named Adrian. Lou Merloni writes a column urging us to separate Mike Lowell from the Edgar Renterias of the baseball world. As in, when did Mike Lowell reach that point where he was dragging us down to the point where exploring other options became a necessity at all costs? (I mean that literally. Moving Lowell would necessitate us eating a big chunk of his salary.) I mean, teams routinely field much worse than Mike Lowell. Presumably, with additional days off in the form of Youk-Lowell shifting to Kotchman-Youk, Lowell would be able to minimize the effects of his hip on his range and maximize his plate appearances. Recovery from his surgery is fairly brief, and only one or two weeks of Spring Training would be missed. So not the end of the world.
Stage Four: In complete defiance of Scott Boras’s obsession with long-term contracts, Theo Epstein signs Adrian Beltre to a one-year deal. Let’s walk through it. The deal is worth nine million dollars with a player option worth six million that will increase to ten million if he makes 640 plate appearances. The deal was contingent on a physical, which Beltre passed, despite last season’s left shoulder issues. The deal was a product of interest that’s been expressed since November. And the deal is very consistent with Theo’s commitment to a major defensive upgrade. He is expected to bat in the bottom third of the lineup. (Ellsbury, Pedroia, V-Mart, Youk, Papi, Drew, Cameron, Beltre, Scutaro. Bang.)
Stage Five: Theo Epstein trades Casey Kotchman to the Mariners for utility man Bill Hall, a prospect to be named later, and cash. Kotchman is happy to reunite with good friend Chone Figgins. Lou Merloni writes a column in which he changes his mind, citing the flexibility and ability that a one-year deal with Beltre gives us.
Before we get to the confusing part, let’s take a moment to celebrate what we’re getting. Beltre put up barely decent numbers at Safeco and Dodger Stadium, so coming to a park that’s friendly to right-handed power hitters promises a nice statistical boost. Home numbers: .253 average, .311 on-base percentage, .416 slugging percentage. Road numbers: .287, .338, .488, respectively. Now, check out the similarity between that latter series and Lowell’s career stats: .280, .343, .468, respectively. And just to leave no stone unturned, in 162 games Lowell hits on average forty doubles, twenty-three home runs, and ninety-eight RBIs. Compare that to Beltre’s average thirty-nine doubles, twenty-six homers and ninety-nine RBIs in 162 road games. Coincidence? I think not. Also, the deal, coupled with the Kotchman transaction, will have minimal impact on our finances. And it kept Boras off our backs because, after said statistical boost, Beltre’s marketing value will increase substantially. The brevity of the contract keeps the Major League option open for our top prospects. So our defense goes through the roof, our pitching is way too solid for words, our offense will in all likelihood defy expectations, our top prospects stay in our organization, and we maintain flexibility, both financially and baseball-wise.
But in light of Lowell’s remainder with us, the fourth and fifth stages of this saga aren’t easy to explain. After Lowell-to-Texas failed, everyone more or less accepted the fact that Lowell would be the face of Fenway’s third base in 2010. That thought process was fueled by the fact that we’ve had our foot in Beltre’s door since November; we wanted to trade Lowell to make room for Beltre, so as soon as Lowell wasn’t going anywhere, it seemed pretty obvious that neither was Beltre. Then we suddenly signed Beltre and made room for him by shipping Kotchman across the country. What’s unclear to me is the effect this will have on Lowell’s role. Will playing time be split fifty-fifty, sixty-forty, or eighty-twenty? It’s a Crisp-y situation; once it became apparent that Ellsbury was about to start in center field, Coco Crisp was allowed to walk, and rightly so. Coco Crisp is a starter, not a benchwarmer. Same with Lowell, but also with Beltre. What do you do when you have two starters, one of whom was explicitly acquired to replace the other before the other left the picture, a state of affairs that received extra emphasis when Kotchman was shipped off? With all eyes on Beltre, what is Lowell’s fate in 2010?
That’s actually a fairly easy question to answer. We’ll either move him or we won’t. If we don’t, he’d contribute in the field when he’s called upon and wouldn’t when he isn’t. And he’d see a good amount of time at the plate as a pinch-hitter. The upside of this is that it builds in much-needed rest time for Lowell and gives us a considerable upgrade in defense and age in Beltre. And one thing that we can’t altogether rule out if we keep Lowell is the possibility that Beltre may turn out to be a chip for Adrian Gonzalez come the trading deadline. It would be swapping one corner infielder for another, but Youk’s versatility would allow us to do that. Besides, when you’re talking about someone like Adrian Gonzalez, you trade first and maneuver later.
Our last piece of big news is our outfield situation. Ellsbury has officially been moved to left in order to make more room for Cameron in center. This is way better than having Ellsbury in center than Cameron in left, even though having Ellsbury in left is a complete waste of his talents. Whatever; when Cameron leaves Boston, Ellsbury goes back to center. Meanwhile, it’s a wise choice. Cameron’s only start in left was in 2000, and he hasn’t been in either corner since that nasty collision he had with Carlos Beltran back in ’05. Meanwhile, Ellsbury is young, skilled, adaptable, and flexible. He’s so good that he could handle any of the three outfield positions. In fact, the relative ease of playing left as opposed to center decreases his risk of injury, and the decrease in covered territory could translate to an increased application of his abilities to the basepaths. Basically, it comes down to the fact that Ellsbury would be infinitely better in left than Cameron but would be less better, though still better, than Cameron in center, while Cameron’s performance in left would presumably be abysmal to his performance in center.
Loose ends for the week: Josh Beckett will be gold this year because he’s up for contract, Papi will be feeling the offensive pressure (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it means a really good workout regimen), and Randy Johnson finally retired. Also, congratulations to three New Haven County, Connecticut communities that successfully pressured Cablevision into adding NESN to its basic lineup in those markets.
In other news, the Bruins lost to the Rangers, beat the Sens, got smoked by the Blackhawks, and lost to the Rangers again. The Patriots continue to power through the loss of Wes Welker as the postseason starts tomorrow with a confrontation with the Ravens.