BALTIMORE – It swept through the room in a fashion reminiscent of a tornado, touching down unpredictably in different parts of the visitor’s clubhouse in Camden Yards. As the final minutes ticked off and then passed in the moments leading up to the 2009 trade deadline, uncertainty and change swept the room and affected the lives of many Red Sox (while leaving a few, surprisingly, completely unscathed).
It was, more than one team member suggested, a tough day. There was the anxiety for many players of wondering whether they would be dealt, or how a player who was acquired might impact their time on the field. There was the melancholy of seeing teammates depart.
And yet, on the other side of that, there seemed to be near-universal agreement on the part of the Red Sox that for all the sense of destruction, that they became a better team on Major League Baseball’s deadline day. As the day progressed, an air of confidence seemed slowly to return to a clubhouse where it had been absent since the start of the second half.
On the field, the Sox won their second straight game, and the offense showed further signs of being reinvigorated. For the fourth straight contest, the Sox plated at least six runs, none more important than the two that scored on Kevin Youkilis’ go-ahead, seventh-inning homer in a 6-5 win over the Orioles (recap).
Off the field, a pair of trades left the Sox reinvigorated, excited for a sudden influx of impact talent. The acquisition of Victor Martinez from the Indians – in exchange for right-hander Justin Masterson and minor-leaguers Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price – gave the Sox a legitimate thumper, one who provides the team with a sort of insurance policy should David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis or Jason Varitek endure either ineffectiveness or poor health.
While Casey Kotchman will likely be thrust into a part-time role, his glove could make him a Mientkiewicz-like contributor (albeit, in all likelihood, without the odd fight with the club for possession of a memento) coming off the bench. There was a consensus that the Sox became better as the trade deadline came and went.
“We think Victor Martinez is a great fit for our club and provides a significant offensive boost, and he does it with some versatility that compliments our roster really well,” said Sox G.M. Theo Epstein. “He can catch and give ‘Tek a little bit of a rest behind the plate and he can play first base and get some at-bats there with Youkilis’ versatility, and he can DH a little bit. So we thought it was a good fit for our roster and provides some offensive support and some depth at the same time.”
That said, the Sox did not pursue Martinez in a vacuum. In the end, it appeared he was a consolation prize – a substantial consolation prize, to be sure, but a fallback nonetheless – should the team’s other explorations for an impact player not come to fruition.
The Sox had essentially negotiated the deal with Cleveland prior to yesterday’s deadline. The two sides had understood that there were no circumstances under which the Sox would trade Clay Buchholz to the Indians as part of a deal for Martinez, and so had assembled the prospective package of three pitchers.
That done, however, the sides waited as the Sox worked feverishly to find a deal for a player with even greater impact such as Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay or, according to multiple reports, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. Any of those deals would have required a massive prospect haul (Epstein said the club was considering deals that would have required parting with five or six prospects), and so the Sox needed to keep both Masterson and Hagadone available for any such deal. The Sox burned up the phone lines not just with the Blue Jays, Padres and Mariners, but also with potential third teams across baseball in hopes of finding the needed components to make a mega-blockbuster work.
“In previous days we had some things working that we were really excited about, and a couple that got really close and then didn’t happen, but that’s par for the course in trade deadline season,” said Epstein. “I think we shot big on a couple things, deals that could provide maximum impact, and we were very aggressive in the use of our own prospects. Those deals got close but didn’t happen.
“Maybe a foundation was laid for the offseason. Who knows? But in the end, we wanted to make sure that we had a deal that we could come back [to] and make, a deal at a reasonable acquisition cost and for a player who provides impact in his own right, and we were able to do that today, so it went somewhat according to plan where we knew if we did shoot for something really big and ended up missing, we didn’t want it to affect our ability to make a useful move, and that’s how it went down.”
And so, the team contentedly moved on to Martinez, a player who will impact the club both in 2009 and 2010, adding middle-of-the-order thump to a team that has, at times, seemed like it might be at risk of shortcomings in that area.
Yet while there was a common consensus that the Sox improved, the betterment did not come without its intrigue. The coming and going of the trade deadline had far-reaching impact across the Sox clubhouse, leaving few corners unscathed.
In the minutes preceding and following the 4 o’clock deadline, a pack of reporters spun from player to player, trying to find out how their existences had changed in a matter of hours or even minutes. The players, in turn, struggled to keep up with the whirlwind as the typical sense of clubhouse serenity suddenly vanished.
“Interesting dynamic. A lot of pieces and parts moving right now. The dust will settle,” catcher and captain Jason Varitek said.
(Random thought of the day: the observation would have gained from delivery as a haiku: Pieces and parts move. Interesting dynamic. The dust will settle.)
Here are the members of the Red Sox – new, old, and holdover – who were most affected by the day.
Martinez was somewhat devastated by the news of the trade and the need to leave the only organization for whom he has ever played. He suggested at the All-Star Game in St. Louis that he wanted to retire as a member of the Indians, and his reaction to the deal to Boston did nothing to suggest a false note to that statement.
That said, there were no guarantees that he was going to re-sign following his current contract, which will pay him roughly $2 million for the rest of this year with a $7.5 million option for 2010 (the option went up by $500,000 with the trade).
Martinez was 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 .284 with 15 homers, a .368 OBP and .832 OPS. The Sox view him as a potentially powerful addition to the lineup.
"In getting Victor, we are getting a middle of the order, switch-hitting bat that can catch, play first, D.H. It’s a very valuable piece," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "There’s a lot of things to like about Victor. He can help take a load off of Tek. We can do a lot of different things to hopefully be able to attack some of the best pitching in the league. I think that’s the idea there."
“For the bat, the affordability, everything kind of makes sense,” said Mike Lowell. “We’ll see how it plays out, but I can’t see us being a worse team with him on your team. It’s definitely a plus for us and a big bat that can do some damage.”
The switch-hitter has handled right-handers (.301/.372/.471) better than he has left-handers (.243/.353/.456) this year, suggesting that he has a skill set that is complementary with those of both Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek, both of whom are excellent against left-handers.
The Sox envision using Martinez in a role similar to the one he played in Cleveland, dividing time between catcher, first base and designated hitter. He will get plenty of time at both first and catcher. With Cleveland, he divided his time fairly evenly between the two positions, but with much different results: he hit .247/.333/.371 with a .704 OPS as a catcher, and .329/.413/.553/.966 as a first baseman.
Martinez is considered primarily an offensive player. He receives credit for prioritizing his work with the pitching staff on days when he is behind the plate, but is considered average to below average at the position. It remains to be seen how quickly he gets worked into the mix behind the plate with the Sox for a couple of reasons.
First, members of the Sox pitching staff have an enormous level of comfort working with Jason Varitek (except, of course, for Tim Wakefield, who is paired with George Kottaras). Secondly, the task of learning a new pitching staff after being traded mid-year is often a daunting one, as it can take a while to learn what pitchers like to throw in different situations.
“It will be a process, but I think with his makeup that should be a smooth process,” said Epstein. “He’s very conscientious, he’s the ultimate teammate, cares about winning and really does see his job when he does catch as defense first even though he provides the big bat.
“So he’s going to jump right in, he’s got some shared history with John Farrell, our pitching coach now. I see it as a very smooth process. It’s never easy in the middle of the season, but I think he’s going to jump right in and be up to speed pretty quickly.”
He is expected to be in the lineup on Saturday as the starting first baseman.
Masterson (3-3, 4.50 ERA, 67 strikeouts in 72 innings) was the starting point of the deal for Martinez, a pitcher whose versatility – he seemed perfectly happy whether starting or fulfilling any bullpen role – proved of enormous benefit to the Sox. Masterson showed a remarkable ability to adapt to anything that was presented to him, never seeming overwhelmed by any transition, whether from the minors to the majors, the bullpen to the rotation, or any role within the bullpen.
"Our bullpen has been tremendous. He’s been a big part of it. He’s given us a guy that can warm up in the second inning, a guy that can warm up in the eleventh. That’s pretty special," said Francona. "He started some games. There’s no getting around that. This guy is special. And I don’t know what (the Indians) intend to do with him. He’s going to be a big league pitcher for a long time. You don’t get Victor Martinez without giving up some pretty special players. We know that."
His ability to handle left-handed hitters (who hit .283 with a .353 OBP and .808 OPS against him this year) remained something of an open question, and so relief seems his most likely destination. Yet for a day, that future took a back seat to his relatively brief but meaningful time in the major leagues with the Red Sox.
More than a couple players became choked up at the thought of Masterson’s departure. It is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the more beloved players on the Sox, and Masterson certainly loved being on the Sox, even as he tried to look forward to a new venue and opportunity.
“You look at the positives, my name was (listed) at the top (of a trade) for Victor Martinez. That’s pretty cool,” said Masterson. “It’s bittersweet. It’s kind of you have a lot of your firsts here, a lot of great things in a young career. Being traded for a great guy in Victor Martinez and a great player, that’s the business side of the game. It has to happen.
“It’s a bit of a surprise. A few tears were shed as you get to know a lot of the guys in the clubhouse. It’s just an opportunity where we’re going to have to build new relationships. It still remains that it’s a chance to impact lives in a positive way, whether on the field or off the field. It will just be a new venue in Cleveland, Ohio.”
Jason Varitek has been walking as if a mummy through the Red Sox clubhouse following games, wrapped with ace from head to toe to the point of stiffness in most of his limbs and appendages.
The arrival of Martinez likely signals a decline (though it remains to be seen how steep) in his playing time. That could help to keep him productive and resistant to what have been career-long trends of decline in the second half (a common occurrence for catchers).
No one has gone so far as to say how Martinez will implicate the playing time of Varitek or any other current Sox regulars. That said, everyone is well aware that there will be a time share, and that Martinez was not acquired at the cost of three highly regarded prospects in order to be a bench/reserve player.
“I don’t really know (how the trade will affect playing time). We’ll see as time dictates itself. I don’t think, with the chaos of everything, they’ve had that opportunity to go through that. Either way, I think he’s going to help our ballclub,” said Varitek. “It’ll be a good thing for the team. He should be able to help us in a lot of facets.”
It seems a decent likelihood that Kottaras is not long meant for the major leagues. Martinez will immediately move into a catching timeshare with Varitek. That, in turn, makes Kottaras largely expendable (especially while knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is on the D.L.)
Asked about the significance of the Martinez acquisition on Kottaras, Epstein made little effort to the notion that the backup catcher may soon find himself back in the minors.
“Obviously,” Epstein said of Kottaras, “once the players report we’ll have corresponding roster moves.”
Martinez, it is worth noting, would have been Wakefield’s catcher at the All-Star game had the pitcher entered the contest. Though he was never subject to the actual undertaking, Martinez expressed an enthusiasm for the possibility of catching the knuckleball. At the end of the All-Star game, he approached Wakefield in the American League clubhouse.
“I was ready for you!” he pronounced.
Soon, the truth of that statement will likely be seen. That, in turn, will mean that Kottaras – who is out of options – will have to clear waivers if he is to be sent to Triple-A. And that, in turn, means that he could get plucked by another team.
If that happens, then the Sox will lose a player who has proven he can handle the responsibility of being Wakefield’s partner in whiffledom. That, in turn, would create some urgency to Martinez’ adaptation to catch the knuckler, since it would remove a potential failsafe option.
MIKE LOWELL/KEVIN YOUKILIS
Like Varitek, Lowell is likely to see some drop in his playing time with the arrival of Martinez. Of course, that had already been the case once the Sox dealt for Adam LaRoche.
True to their plan, the Sox have been more conservative in putting Lowell in the lineup since his return from the disabled list for the start of the second half. He has played in 10 of the team’s 14 games, and his judicious usage has seemingly resulted in sustained productivity.
Lowell is hitting .389 with a .429 OBP and 1.012 OPS as well as nine runs batted in over his 10 second-half games. But with Martinez getting starts at first base, catcher and to a lesser extent D.H., Lowell would seem somewhat more likely than first baseman Kevin Youkilis to lose playing time.
Youkilis, on the other hand, is likely to see a steady amount of playing time at third base with Martinez in the mix regularly at first base. Whether mere coincidence or small sample size, it does seem worth noting that the corner infielder’s offensive numbers have been much better this year at first (.333/.456/.607/1.063 entering Friday, when he hit a game-winning two-run homer while starting at first) than at third (.227/.315/.445/.760).
The first time Clay Buchholz was asked about whether or not he might be traded came about five minutes after he reported to spring training. That line of inquiry from the media didn’t stop. To the contrary, it seemed to grow louder when he kept dominating throughout a season in Triple-A with no apparent path into the big-league rotation.
Through the process, Buchholz seemed incredibly calm. The familiarity of the trade questions allowed them to roll off of him. Or at least, that had allowed the questions to roll off of him – up until a relatively sleepless night heading into the trade deadline. Suddenly, with his name popping up almost everyone in rumors – for Martinez or Roy Halladay or Adrian Gonzalez – Buchholz started to wonder whether fire lay at the root of the smoke.
“I (tuned out the rumors) until last night. Then, all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Tomorrow is the day.’ I got over it. I’m still here,” said Buchholz. “A lot of different things could have happened. I’m glad the day’s over. I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep last night. I came in here, was a little antsy, nervous walking around. Tough day. Tough day overall.”
And so it was with some relief that 4 p.m. came and went with Buchholz still a member of the Red Sox. Yet even as he discovered that he would not be going anywhere over the course of the year, the young pitcher still did not gain a sense of long-term security.
Just as he did with the trade rumors, Buchholz tries to tune out the notion that he is, in a sense, auditioning with every start, whether to stay in the Sox rotation for the rest of this year or to make a case for his candidacy as a 2010 starter. Buchholz would like nothing more than to have team officials tell him that he was being groomed for a rotation spot next year, though he recognizes that such assurances must be earned.
“(If the team told Buchholz he would be in the rotation next year) it would be a lot easier to cope with instead of having to think that you have to go out and do better than you’re capable of doing every time you step on the field,” said Buchholz. “Last couple of starts, I haven’t really gone out and put that much pressure on me. But it’s a big pressure situation for somebody in my spot, knowing that the only reason I’m here, the only reason I have a shot right now, is because Wake’s not ready to go yet.
“It’d be awesome if someone wanted to come up to me and said, ‘Hey – every fifth day we’re going to throw you out there. Don’t worry about everything else,’” he added. “But you get that from doing your job. I can’t gripe or complain about it.”
ADAM LAROCHE / CASEY KOTCHMAN / RED SOX LATE-INNING DEFENSE
Those No. 23 LaRoche jerseys are already a collector’s item.
Adam LaRoche’s nine-day tenure in Boston came to a sudden end on Friday, when he was traded to the Braves for first baseman Casey Kotchman. LaRoche’s head seemed to be spinning by the rabid journey that had seen him go from Pittsburgh to Boston to Atlanta in the span of roughly 200 hours.
The Sox suggested that they were concerned that LaRoche’s swing timing mechanism might not translate to maximum productivity in a part-time role, particularly given the likelihood that the part-time role would become more part and less time with the arrival of catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez.
Though LaRoche will likely see more regular time with his return to Atlanta – the organization that drafted him and with whom he debuted – he could not hide his disappointment at leaving a contender.
“I consider myself an everyday player,” said LaRoche. “I said it before, I didn’t mind sacrificing that for a couple months for the chance to get back to the playoffs. I never complained here about not playing. I’d gladly take that role to get in and help wherever I can to be on a team like this.”
Kotchman’s more disciplined approach at the plate, suggested Epstein, translates a bit better to sporadic playing time, as does his well above-average defense (compared to LaRoche’s more or less average defensive abilities). Kotchman could end up taking on a role akin to that of Doug Mientkiewicz in 2004, though in this case, his late-inning entry into games as a replacement at first would allow the Sox to field their best defensive infield by having Youkilis shift across the diamond to third.
It was, of course, Penny who spent most of the first three months of the season as the whispered-about trade target. Yet those murmurs died down during a stretch where the pitcher became an effective and important member of the rotation, particularly once Daisuke Matsuzaka landed on the disabled list in June.
He seemed to take the notion of the rumor mill in stride while his name was a part of it. As it turns out, there was a reason for that.
“Tito had been pretty honest with me the whole team. He told me they weren’t going to trade me. You’ve got to believe him,” said Penny. “(Francona offered that message) the whole time. He said it was all press driven.”
THE RED SOX PROSPECT POOL
The Sox gave the Indians a solid return on Martinez: a pair of former sandwich round picks in Hagadone and Price and a second rounder in Masterson. Indians G.M. Mark Shapiro said earlier in the trading process that his team wanted “pitching, pitching and more pitching,” and Cleveland got that in almost literal fashion: three young pitchers, all of whom have a chance to reach the bigs and perhaps even to be impact pitchers there.
All three pitchers have legitimate major-league stuff. Masterson’s sinker/slider/mid-90s fastball combination has already shown the ability to achieve major-league success.
Hagadone, who recently returned from Tommy John surgery, had been topping out at 95-98 mph in his 10 starts this year, and has shown an excellent slider. He has struck out a whopping 11.5 batters per nine innings with Single-A Greenville. While he had bee developed as a starter, he, too, was viewed by the Sox as more likely to emerge as a reliever than starter.
Price, primarily a reliever in college at Rice, was being developed as a starter by the Sox as well. He features a mid-90s fastball, slider and a work-in-progress change. After early-season success in Greenville (2.45 ERA), he earned a quick promotion to High-A Salem. Though his raw numbers (1-6, 6.54) there were poor, his strikeouts and walk rates suggested better performance than that.
It was a sizable price for the Sox to pay, but one that they were willing to part with for a few reasons. Among them:
1) They kept intact the cream of their pitching crop. Most notably, the team did not have to plunder the ranks of Buchholz, Junichi Tazawa, Casey Kelly, Stolmy Pimentel or Michael Bowden – the pitchers who are viewed as having the greatest potential to be impact big-league starters in the Sox’ system. Daniel Bard, who has been completely dominant this month, also remained off limits. The team’s pitching depth, quite obviously, is such that they can deal three hurlers without leaving a barren wake.
2) The Sox have eminent confidence in their ability to scout the right pitchers and restock the system. The Sox have become a pitching factory capable of adding multiple impact pitchers on a nearly annual basis. Masterson and Hagadone, while viewed as hurlers with the potential to be dominant big-league relievers, were also viewed as replaceable.
“I think generally we felt great about our depth,” said Epstein. “There were some deals that we were talking about which included giving up five or six good prospects, and even those deals, had they gone down, we looked and liked what would have remained in our system. So yeah, we feel great about what remains in our system and our ability to continue a flow of young players up to the big league level and/or use them in deals, but it hurts to give up players you believe in. Any time, it hurts.”