And so, the first moves by Red Sox GM Ben Cherington are on the books. But he is not done.
In two days, Cherington began the effort to redefine the margins of his roster. In a vacuum, the moves – made, it is worth noting, in the aftermath of the significant-yet-overlooked development that was David Ortiz’ decision to accept arbitration and return -- look small. The Sox signed a backup catcher (Kelly Shoppach), traded for a reliever (Mark Melancon) and signed a utility infielder (Nick Punto).
The three players will earn a bit more than $3 million combined next season. These are moves that address the complementary pieces of a roster rather than its core.
Yet they highlight an interest in creating a functional roster, one, perhaps, where the whole has a better chance of being the sum of its part than was the case for the Sox at the end of last year, when the amassed assembly of talent enacted the greatest September failure of all time. Moreover, in some respects, the moves thus far remain preliminary ones that anticipate more action to come in the coming days and weeks.
So what did the Red Sox accomplish with Cherington’s first three additions to his 2012 big league roster and what remains to be done?
THE ARMS RACE
Every acquisition of a pitcher comes with a “buyer beware” sign, particularly in the high-stakes gamble that is free agency. The idea of investing huge, long-term dollars in a free-agent starter reliever is the sort of thing that can keep general managers up at night.
But the Sox entered this offseason in a position where some bold moves to address the pitching staff had to be made. The idea of minimizing risk was going to be, at best, a challenge.
Yet in Mark Melancon, the team acquired precisely the sort of arm that it covets: young (26 going on 27), cheap (he is not yet eligible for salary arbitration) and controllable (he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season). Melancon is viewed as a pitcher with excellent stuff, a fastball with the sort of movement to elicit lots of groundballs, and a curveball that can yield swings and misses. He has also developed a cutter and is working on a changeup to help him navigate the perils of left-handed hitters.
“We really like his stuff and have liked the stuff back to his college days in Arizona,” said Cherington, who said that the team views Melancon as “definitely capable” of closing even as his ultimate role is unlikely to be determined until spring training. “He’s a really aggressive pitcher, tough, confident. We think he has the intangibles to compete in the American League East. We just felt he was a really good upgrade.”
Melancon became the closer for a terrible Astros team in May, and ended up saving 20 games. His Houston manager, Brad Mills, a veteran of years of fighting in baseball’s toughest division, suggested that the right-hander has the arsenal to close in the American League East.
“I’m not going to sit here and say he’s going to dominate when he hasn’t been there, but he has the stuff to do it,” said Mills. “Once he sees that his stuff can play, and it is good enough to do it, once he sees it, then he’ll take the ball and run with it.”
Melancon’s salary will be a drop in the bucket for the Sox. Is Melancon the equivalent of departed closer Jonathan Papelbon? Probably not. But he is a very good back-end bullpen arm who will contribute somewhere in the late innings for the Sox (whether the seventh, eighth or, possibly the ninth) . . . and in 2012, he comes at roughly $12 million less than what the Sox paid Papelbon to close games for them last year.
The Sox needed to add quality options at the end of the game. Now, they have taken their first major step towards building the post-Papelbon bullpen. Perhaps the team will feature Melancon and Daniel Bard at the end of games. If the Sox end up moving Bard to the rotation (not a given), perhaps it will be Melancon and a free agent such as Ryan Madson (whom, yes, the Sox are continuing to monitor as a possible addition, watching to see if his price will crater given the disappearance of teams looking for closers). Perhaps it will be Melancon and a trade candidate such as A’s closer Andrew Bailey.
No matter the direction that the Sox decide to go, they preserved tremendous flexibility in trading for Melancon.
But at what cost?
WHAT THEY GAVE UP FOR MELANCON
The Sox believe that Lowrie’s hitting potential is well above-average for a middle infielder, and even feel that, in theory, he has the bat to be a third baseman. He showed that ability in stretches during parts of four seasons.
But just as frequently as those flashes, he also emerged as an injury-riddled player whose ability to impact the team was inconsistent. That being the case, Lowrie had drifted into the role of a utility player in the blueprint for the 2012 season, falling behind Marco Scutaro on the shortstop depth chart. His pronounced career splits against right-handed and left-handed pitchers (the switch-hitter was far better batting right-handed, his natural side, against southpaws) made him somewhat redundant with Mike Aviles.
With Lowrie, Scutaro and Aviles, the Sox had surplus inventory, players whose skill sets were at times difficult to differentiate. All three hit lefties well. All three have defensive limitations, with Lowrie having suffered through a dismal defensive season in 2011 (a stark contrast, it is worth noting, to his career to that point, where he had proven sure-handed enough to be passable at short).
Lowrie did not have a path to a starting spot at the outset of 2012 barring an injury to a teammate. Longer term, the Sox -- who once thought he could be their shortstop of the future -- could not commit to him as a starter given the uncertainty about his ability to stay on the field. Moreover, with Scutaro on the 2012 roster and Jose Iglesias being groomed as a future starter, there was very little window for Lowrie to assume a significant role.
It wasn’t just the Sox who had drawn that conclusion. Other teams had also shifted their assessment of the 27-year-old. He once had made a convincing case to many teams that he was a major league starting shortstop or infielder. But the Sox, seeing value in him on their team, hadn’t sold high. Instead, they saw his trade value erode steadily as other teams began to question whether he could be an everyday infielder.
The Astros -- whose roster is such a mess that former Sox castoff Angel Sanchez was in the mix for regular playing time at short -- were in a position to take a chance on Lowrie and give him the opportunity to start. Whereas there was no clear everyday role for him in Boston, that isn’t the case with his new club.
“If he steps up and is able to be our everyday shortstop, that helps everybody out. It’s going to help his career and it’s sure going to help our ballclub and our organization,” said Mills. “It’s almost like you’re going to wipe the slate clean and almost start all over. That’s a situation that he’s in. He has the opportunity to do that. He has a lot of skills. He’s shown that at times in Boston.
“We know he has those abilities. Any time we can get an offensive guy like Jed, and a guy who’s talented and able to play three infield positions – or really all four – it’s nice.”
The Sox thus traded Lowrie at a time where they could still gain value for him as a potential starter. The likelihood of being able to do so had they waited was dwindling, particularly given that he was going to be a utility backup for the Sox.
If Lowrie can change his career path and establish that he can remain on the field and blow past his career high (88 games in 2011) to stay at shortstop for 120-140 games, it will be easy to wonder whether the Sox overpaid for a reliever. But the reality is that Lowrie likely never would have a shot to flourish into such a role with the Sox, and so, he was eminently tradable.
The Sox asked themselves internally whether Weiland might be the same type of player as Melancon. The team believes that the 25-year-old right-hander (0-3 with a 7.66 ERA for the Sox in his first taste of the majors in 2011) has a chance to be a back-of-the-rotation starter, even if there is a decent chance -- despite his significant progress as a pitcher -- that he ends up moving to the bullpen, where he can become a good late-innings contributor.
However, even if Weiland ends up being a pitcher capable of delivering a comparable impact to Melancon, he was not going to be able to do so out of the gate for the Sox in 2012. And given their current pitching needs, and the fact that a team that has spent around $350 million in the last two seasons has not had a single postseason game to show for it, the Sox had to pay a premium to accelerate the timing of the impact on their pitching staff.
And so, they gave up six years of Weiland in exchange for five of Melancon, while parting ways with a player in Lowrie who will have more value to the Astros then he had with the Sox.
While Weiland represented a meaningful depth option for the Sox, he also represented a replaceable one. The Sox have left-hander Felix Doubront, a pitcher who now has health questions attached to him but who can impact the team either as a reliever or as a rotation depth option. By sometime in 2012, right-hander Alex Wilson may be ready to step into the majors as a spot starter or impact reliever, capable of delivering what the Sox would have hoped for out of Weiland.
A MORE FUNCTIONAL BENCH
Kelly Shoppach put up numbers that, at first glance, looked atrocious in 2011. He hit .176 with a .268 OBP, .339 slugging mark and .607 OPS, hardly the sort of performance that would demand that the Sox acquire him and, in the process, displace a franchise icon in Jason Varitek.
But in other ways, Shoppach -- signed to a one-year, $1.35 million deal -- represents a good fit for the Sox roster. He is a tremendous catch-and-throw guy behind the plate, having gunned down 41 percent of attempted base stealers last year (in contrast to Varitek’s 14 percent). And, as a right-handed complement to switch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who fares better against righties than lefties), he represents a solid platoon option. Shoppach hit .241/.344/.444/.788 against southpaws last year, production that would make him a strong option off the bench.
“We felt like there were a couple of things that were important to us as far as the catching position. One was to continue to find ways to help in the running game and help control the running game, which was an area of concern for us last year,” said Cherington. “Shop’s been able to help the pitching staff control the running game I think pretty consistently throughout his career. He’s also a guy that can consistently hit left-handed pitch and that sort of fits in and makes him a good complement to Salty.”
Meanwhile, after the trade of Lowrie, the Sox moved quickly to sign Nick Punto to a two-year, $3 million deal. Whereas Lowrie was redundant with Aviles -- a player primarily capable of hitting from the right side but a below-average defender at multiple infield positions -- Punto appears to be a more complementary option.
The 34-year-old is offensively limited, as he is a career .249/.325/.327/.652 hitter who has never had more than four homers in a season. But he is a reliably healthy player, and he is a solid to above average defensive option at second, third and short, something that could be important for the Sox given that the left side of their infield defense (Scutaro and Kevin Youkilis) dealt with injuries last year that limited the Sox’ work in the field.
Indeed, when Youkilis was first limited and then unable to play in September, Lowrie and Aviles struggled badly in the field, contributing to team-wide defensive butchery that played an oft-overlooked part in the team’s September collapse. The Sox allowed a .344 batting average on balls in play in September (while also permitting 13 unearned runs), tied for the highest mark in the American League and a huge bump up from its .288 season BABIP.
“Nick’s a guy we’ve had interest in in the past. The timing has never quite worked out to get him here,” said Cherington. “But he’s a guy that plays really good defense, smart baseball player, puts together a good at-bat, is really good in the clubhouse, is just a smart, smart baseball player and I think understands his role on a winning team. He certainly showed that this year and down the stretch in October with St. Louis.”
In a vacuum, the Sox would have preferred a one-year deal for a player like Punto, who spent last year with the Cardinals on a one-year, $750,000 deal. (Punto started 15 of 18 postseason games for the World Series-winning franchise.) However, the bar was set early and often at two years for utility players this offseason, with players such as John McDonald, Willie Bloomquist, Jerry Hairston, Laynce Nix and Clint Barmes all receiving multi-year deals.
And so, the Sox were comfortable with this deal for Punto, given that his salary is essentially a wash with what Lowrie would have earned, and given that he helps the team to upgrade tangibly in at least one area (bench defense) and, perhaps, intangibly in another (clubhouse).
BUT WHAT IS LEFT TO DO?
The Red Sox are not done.
“The offseason certainly isn’t over,” said Cherington. “We’ve got a lot of time between now and spring training and we’re going to continue to look for ways to upgrade the team.”
The team’s focus remains primarily on run prevention and, more specifically, pitching. But with one important (and cheap) addition now having been made in Melancon, and with both Bard and Aceves being considered as potential options for either the rotation or bullpen, the team has a number of options at its disposal.
The club continues to explore both the trade and free agent markets for further pitching additions. The team is looking into both starters and relievers. One more move for a significant pitcher seems a strong likelihood, and there appears to be a good chance that the team will even make two additional acquisitions.
In that regard, the payroll flexibility afforded by Melancon is one of the elements that made him so appealing to the Sox. In all likelihood, he will cost the team little more than $500,000 next year.
As such, the Sox still have money left for a potential free agent deal. They won’t be diving into the Prince Fielder sweepstakes, but there will likely be room to capitalize if a player who had been aiming for the high end of the market adjusts his asking price to shoot lower.
Madson, who closed for the Phillies last year, represents one possibility, given that there is no clear landing spot in a big market for him. A year ago, when the market went dry for Rafael Soriano, the Yankees offered a safety net with an inexplicable three-year, $35 million deal to add him in a setup role. This year, with the Yankees not in the market holding out a ridiculous contract for a setup man, Madson may be left to seek a shorter-term (1- or 2-year deal) for a lower-than-expected annual salary.
Of course, Madson’s agent Scott Boras excels at pulling rabbits out of hats. Or, as the agent put it, “I’m kind of in the musical chairs game. … I only need one chair.”
Still, that chair might not be quite as comfortable a perch as Madson once appeared likely to enjoy.
The market for starters seems somewhat less likely to plummet. Still, the Sox continue to monitor potential fits on short-term deals (hence, the absence of the Sox from the now-concluded C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle derbies, and the non-participation of the team in the Yu Darvish posting sweepstakes) who would allow them to stabilize the back of a rotation whose only known members for next year are Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz.
There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when some free agents will feel a sense of panic. It typically occurs either just before or just after the holidays, as players confront the possibility of spending a week at home with extended family members facing question after question about an unsettled future and/or why they didn’t submit a winning bid for a LeapPad on eBay.
The end of a calendar year thus typically spurs players and agents to set aside patient negotiating tactics and jump towards an end game. When that happens, the Sox hope, they will be positioned to have enough money and an impressive enough opportunity to add arms.
Meanwhile, the chief movers in the trade market this offseason -- the Athletics and White Sox -- both appear to have cooled a bit in their approach to the trade market for now. Perhaps they will accelerate anew their shopping of arms once Darvish’s destination becomes clear. It remains the case that both the A’s and White Sox are expected to take offers on top talents such as starters Gio Gonzalez, John Danks and Gavin Floyd as well as reliever Andrew Bailey; the Cubs will also listen on pitchers such as Matt Garza, though there is a strong chance that Chicago will wait until the season to deal arms.
Beyond those options that would be dropped directly into key roles in the rotation or the bullpen, the Sox are still engaged in explorations to build depth in their system as insurance for the inevitable injuries and attrition that they will encounter during the season. But their greater need in the short-term is for key contributors who would be expected to contribute out of the gate.
BUT CAN THE SOX MATCH UP ON THE TRADE MARKET?
Obviously, the Sox parted ways with a couple of tradable assets in Lowrie and Weiland. However, even though the team has a limited stock of major league-ready assets as trade chips in the upper levels -- particularly players who could act as the centerpiece for deals for top-end arms -- the Sox have found enough interest among a number of teams in their prospects to suggest that more trades can be done.
(One aside: According to a major league source, there has been significant interest in Ryan Lavarnway, but the Sox -- while not ruling out trades for any players -- have shown little inclination to move him given their view of the 24-year-old as a potentially elite offensive catcher. The signing of Shoppach was done with an eye towards allowing Lavarnway to get more development as a catcher in the minors in preparation for a future big league role with the Sox; it was not evidence that the team has plans to deal him.)
In fairness, there are some teams who are singularly unimpressed with the state of the Sox’ system, and who are unlikely to match up with the Sox in a deal for top pitchers. However, there are teams that have given the Sox reason to believe there are trades to be made, with as many as 15 or 20 names having been brought up as key pieces of potential deals.
In particular, teams like the A’s and White Sox -- who appear to be focused on competing a few years down the road, rather than in 2012 or even 2013 -- could match up well with the strength of the Sox’ system, which resides in the lower levels of the minors.
The Sox have a number of high-ceiling players with, as former GM Theo Epstein described it, superstar potential but who are likely a couple years from the majors and thus carry greater risk of flaming out. For teams like the A’s, who appear to be targeting a potential move to San Jose in 2014 as the focus of their competitive ambitions, the idea of dipping into the lower levels for high-ceiling players represents a workable construct. The same is true of the White Sox, who will likely need a couple years to rebuild if they commit to moving their key big league assets.
The flurry of activity represents a starting point in the tweaking of the Red Sox roster. However, it is impossible to understand the impact of these moves without seeing what subsequent maneuvers await the Sox.
The addition of Melancon and the building of what the Sox expect to be an upgraded bench are meaningful. But in the absence of further pitching additions to either the rotation or bullpen, the Sox would still be entering next season in a state of significant uncertainty about their pitching staff.
Yet the need for more moves underscores the notion that Melancon was a strong initial gesture. The reliever represents a building block for the offseason. He is young, cheap, talented and under team control for the long haul. He upgrades the bullpen in a way that does not interfere with any other moves the Sox were considering.
And so, he fits in with what the Sox must do this offseason. Now, however, next steps remain. That being the case, for now, the Sox’ offseason grades as incomplete. It will take time for the complete picture of the team’s maneuvers to come into view.