ST. LOUIS – It’s coming.
The All-Star Game marks not merely the end of baseball’s first half, but also the beginning of the most fevered stretch of the trade and rumor season. Multiple executives have suggested that in the days following this year’s All-Star break, they expect a logjam to break.
Teams that have been slow to define themselves as buyers or sellers may come off the fence in the coming couple of weeks, accelerating the pace of both legitimate trade activity and trumped-up rumors. The 17 days between now and the July 31 deadline for trades that don’t require players to pass through waivers will come with plenty of spice, real or imagined.
“Good old July 31,” said Sox All-Star first baseman Kevin Youkilis. “Let’s start a rumor today.”
Youkilis need not offer much encouragement. The Sox will be, as ever, aggressive in at least exploring every available avenue by which to improve.
It would not be surprising to hear of the Sox at least exploring the asking price for Roy Halladay, likely the best player available this summer. Still, the team does not have obvious deficiencies in either a rotation or bullpen that are talent-rich and very deep.
Accordingly, it would be somewhat more surprising to see the Sox make a move for pitching than offense. The Sox rank fourth in the A.L. with 5.3 runs per game, but the lineup production has been inconsistent over the course of 2009. The team ranks 12th in the A.L. in July with a .236 average, and a number of injuries and up-and-down performance cycles have raised questions about the strength of the lineup.
“As a whole, it’s been, I would say, average,” Bay said of the lineup’s production. “I’m saying that only because when I was here the last two months last year, David (Ortiz) was back from his injury hitting well, (Dustin Pedroia) was getting 12 hits a game. Everybody was clicking and it was a dozen runs a night, it seemed. That was normal.
“This year, everyone has been hot at some point, and everyone has been cold at some point. We haven’t really had that mesh together where we’ve had that run where everyone has been clicking at once,” Bay continued. “I think the offense can be a lot better because we haven’t all been clicking at one time.”
So, that makes it fair to ask: will the team make a move for a bat? Should it?
At the least, questions loom about the ability of returning third baseman Lowell and shortstop Jed Lowrie to remain in the lineup in the second half. In the case of both their surgeries (hip labrum for Lowell, removed ulnar styloid wrist bone for Lowrie), there is little exact precedent to know what to expect in terms of availability and production in the recovery season.
Meanwhile, the up-and-down seasons for Ortiz, Bay and Youkilis offer at least some grounds for question about production. Even the men in uniform have wondered whether an upgrade would be needed, before concluding that the team doesn’t have a glaring need.
“We’ve talked about it internally, the players,” said Bay. “But the question is, if you look at the players we have at every position, what do you do? Who are you, where are you looking to make that splash?
“There really isn’t a spot on that field right now. I think it’s just a matter of getting those guys we have out there, getting them to click all at once, but there really isn’t a spot I could tell you it has to happen there or we’re not going to do it. I think we’re in a good position.”
There is some truth to Bay’s assessment. The Sox might benefit from adding a bat this summer, but the team likely has enough firepower – barring injury – to be one of the better run-producing clubs in the A.L.
All the same, there will come a time in the near future when the team does need to add offense, and more specifically power. Bay is just a few months from free agency, and could be leaving. Despite his recent resurgence, Ortiz is no longer a given for 30-40 homers a year. Lowell and Ortiz, moreover, are signed only through next season.
Clearly, the team has some concerns about the long-term power potential of its lineup. That became apparent when the team made its push to acquire Mark Teixeira (who complements power with excellent defense and good on-base skills) this past offseason.
That being the case, here is a look at a few All-Stars who could – or, in some instances, have – become targets of Red Sox efforts to create a more powerful lineup, either in 2009 or beyond.
Signed through: 2009 (five-year, $15.5 million deal) with team option for 2010 ($7 million)
The Indians' season is in shambles, their 2009 campaign all but lost. Indeed, the team’s performance (35-54, last place in the A.L. Central) has been so bad that it is fair to wonder whether Cleveland will be forced not merely to throw in the towel on 2009, but also to step back and rebuild its core, something that could prevent the club from contending in 2010 as well. If that happen, then the Indians might have little choice but to consider marketing All-Star catcher Victor Martinez.
Martinez is in St. Louis for his third All-Star Game on the strength of a bounce-back season in 2009. He averaged 21 homers from 2004-07, hitting .302 with a .376 OBP and .860 OPS to establish himself as one of the top offensive catchers in the majors.
In 2008, however, his performance plummeted. He went deep just two times, hitting .278 with a .337 OBP and .701 OPS while dealing with “loose bodies” in his right elbow that ultimately required arthroscopic surgery in the middle of last year.
This spring, Martinez arrived to spring training with the Indians healthy. His power has returned, as he is hitting .294 with 14 homers, a .374 OBP and .859 OPS.
“When I got to spring training, I knew I was healthy. That was a big difference between this year and last year,” said Martinez. “All the trouble that I went through last year, it’s a big difference when you’re playing healthy…It was the first time for me in my career, having a lot of pain and stuff in my body. I went and got my elbow surgery, and then finally this year, I came back healthy.”
While that has earned Martinez his third All-Star spot, it has not been enough to sustain the Indians in the standings. With the Indians in possession of a 35-54 record and in last place in the A.L. Central, Cleveland has become a hotbed of rumors.
Already, the Indians dealt Mark DeRosa, and Martinez’ name has surfaced as a potential trade target of other clubs, including the Red Sox. According to league sources, Cleveland would likely seek such an extraordinary prospect haul in exchange for Martinez that the Sox - and most clubs, for that matter - would be disinclined to try to acquire the switch-hitting catcher/first baseman.
Martinez is currently playing in the fifth season of a five-year, $15.5 million contract that has a team option for 2010 at a very reasonable pricetag of $7 million. He suggests that he is able to ignore the rumor mill and to focus on what he does on the field.
“You’ve got enough to worry about playing baseball…I think I do a pretty good job on that, keeping away from that distraction. I don’t really pay attention to that. We’ll see. Whatever happens, happens. The only thing I need to make sure of is show up to the field and play hard every day,” said Martinez. “I would like to stay and hopefully retire as an Indian.”
Signed through: 2010 (four-year, $9.5 million) with $5.5 million team option for 2011
The Padres are currently terrible, and are likely to remain terrible beyond this season. And so, at some point, the question will become whether Adrian Gonzalez’ incredibly team-friendly contract – which will pay him roughly half of what Jason Bay received in the team-friendly deal that he signed after the 2005 season – will stretch far enough into the future for him to be in San Diego for a turnaround.
Gonzalez, who is also a Gold Glove first baseman who consistently rates as one of the best in the business according to Dewan’s system, has put up remarkable numbers with the Padres, averaging 30 homers a year. That is a nearly unfathomable total given that he plays in the homer-killing climate of Petco Park.
“You get there for the first time and everybody talks about it. Nobody really knows until they experience it. You have to play there as the home team to understand,” said Gonzalez. “This is where I’m at, and I’ve got to be okay with it. I can’t dwell on the fact that I hit there. I would be interested in the future to see what that would be like (to play in another park).”
Of course, Gonzalez – a San Diego native and icon in both Southern California and Mexico – would likely be willing to stomach the reduced power numbers if he were on a winner. Team officials have met with him to discuss a three- to five-year blueprint for a return to contention.
Because his contract is so favorable, San Diego could decide to retain him for the centerpiece of its rebuilding efforts. But if it appears that contention will not be realistic until 2012 or later, then that same deal could make Gonzalez (currently 27 years old) a trade chip to bring in a huge prospect haul.
While Gonzalez has been careful to make clear how dearly he holds his place in San Diego, he also sounds like someone who would not be bitter about relocating to a team in the playoff hunt.
“As far as the future, all I can say is I have two years left on my contract, and I don’t know what’s going to happen after that,” said Gonzalez. “I signed it with the idea for security – for financial security.
“I’ve always said that I’m a guy who can be on a team that contends for a World Series. For me, the most important thing about playing the game is to win,” he added. “We all play to win the World Series. That’s our main goal every year. That’s my greatest desire.”
Gonzalez’ contract gives the Padres the freedom to wait into next season or even the following year before deciding whether to move him. But if he does become available, his game has a Teixeira-like roundedness that would fit just about any criterion of the Sox.
Signed through: 2010 (two-year, $18 million deal); under team control through 2011
In some ways, it would be hard to craft a better successor to David Ortiz than Prince Fielder.
Milwaukee’s 25-year-old slugging first baseman can simply mash. He features a no-holds-barred left-handed stroke in which he nearly jumps out of his shoes with every swing, including one on Tuesday in which he blasted a ball 503 feet en route to winning the All-Star Home Run Derby. It would be difficult to say whether Ortiz or Fielder attacks the ball with greater violence.
“I’ve always swung like that. Coming up in high school, coaches would tell me to swing easier. I don’t know how to do that. So I just swing hard,” said Fielder. “I like the way (Ortiz) hits. I do. He hits for average, drives in runs. That’s the kind of hitter I want to be.”
Thanks to a two-year deal he signed prior to this year (forgoing two years of arbitration), Fielder would seem likely to stay in Milwaukee through 2010. But he could command a huge payday through arbitration for the 2011 season. Depending on the Brewers’ revenues and competitiveness at that point, Milwaukee could be forced to look at dealing him.
One caveat regarding any potential Red Sox interest in Fielder: unlike Teixeira, Fielder’s defense detracts from his considerable offensive prowess. According to John Dewan’s Fielding Bible, he has converted five fewer plays into outs than the average first baseman, a total that has cost his team four runs and ranks 27th among big-league first baseman.
By contrast, Kevin Youkilis has made 10 more plays than the average first baseman, the second-best mark in the majors. Meanwhile, Youkilis – according to Dewan’s measurements – has been a slightly below average third baseman.
So, while Fielder represents an offensive force, the Sox would either have to use him as a D.H. (perhaps as a successor to Ortiz) or risk making themselves worse at two positions.
Signed through: 2014 (six-year, $70 million deal)
Looking back to his days as a pup on the diamond for the Red Sox – back in the Gulf Coast League, in Sarasota, in Portland – Hanley Ramirez is not surprised by anything that has happened to him in his major-league career, save for one thing.
“Getting traded. I never thought I was going to get traded when I was coming up with the Red Sox,” said Ramirez, now representing the Florida Marlins at an All-Star Game for the second straight year. “That happened, but I’m happy to be here with Florida.”
That is not to say that Ramirez doesn’t enjoy Boston, or wouldn’t have liked to be a member of the Red Sox. He remains “really close” with David Ortiz, and described great encounters with the Fenway fans during his visit with the Marlins to Boston for an interleague series last month.
He also caught wind of the offseason rumors that suggested the Red Sox were interested in reacquiring his services. Because talks between the Sox and Marlins never advanced much beyond the exploratory phase, Ramirez never had to think too hard about returning to the franchise with whom he signed out of the Dominican in 2000, though he did consider it flattering to hear that Boston made a run at him.
“They see the way you play and they want you back, but I can’t control that. I’ve got to just keep playing hard and showing everyone I deserve to be in the big leagues,” said Ramirez. “That’s nothing I can control, so I go like, ‘Yeah, good.’ It’s good when teams are after you and you know you’ve got to get better and better and better everyday. I was kind of like, ‘Hmmm…’” he said, moving his neck from side to side as if in deep contemplation.
“But it never happened. I love Florida. I’m happy to be here. I wish I can end my career here. They’ve got a great front office, coaching staff, and my teammates are the best teammates I’ve had in my life.”
While Ramirez was stunned by the trade that sent him to the Marlins in 2005, he joins the consensus of opinion that the deal benefited both sides. Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell helped propel the Sox to a title in 2007 — making Boston the only team this decade with two championships — while Ramirez is the centerpiece of the Marlins’ future.
“It really did (help both teams). Boston has two World Series, and I think we’ll have a couple. We’ve just got to keep working,” said Ramirez, who has an N.L.-leading .349 batting average to go with 14 homers, 13 steals and a .979 OPS. “I’ve got to keep working and keep getting better.”
Ramirez is in just the first season of a six-year, $70 million deal that seems destined to be a bargain so long as the 25-year-old remains healthy. For now, he is affordable even for a small-revenue club like the Marlins. As such, Florida would have little incentive to move him barring an offer that would ravage a farm system.