Andrew Bailey finally landed, right where everyone thought he would land. The Boston Red Sox dealt Josh Reddick and a pair of prospects Wednesday to the Oakland Athletics to land Bailey, along with outfielder Ryan Sweeney. The deal presumably solidifies the team's plan to move Daniel Bard into the starting rotation for 2012.
The deal is a step forward for Boston. Sweeney and Reddick are more or less a wash, so they improved their bullpen substantially at the cost of only two mid-level prospects. They are now closer to winning the AL East in 2012 than they were Wednesday morning.
Still, there is work to be done. Unless the Tampa Bay Rays throw up their hands and just slot Dan Johnson in at first base, and unless the New York Yankees stubbornly stick with their current starting rotation going forward, Boston is not the favorite in the AL East at this moment. They need to shore up their starting rotation and (probably) bolster their outfield, finding a partner for Sweeney in right field. Here are 10 things they must do in order to head to Florida in February as divisional favorites.
Call it trying to do too much or simply reading pitches less well than he once did, but Carl Crawford's problems in 2011 trace back primarily to terrible plate discipline. He swung at drastically more pitches outside the strike zone in 2011 than he ever had before: 37.9 percent of all bad balls, up from a career average of 31.5 percent. Therefore, he posted the highest strikeout rate of his career (nearly 20 percent of all plate appearances), and his worst walk rate since 2005.
It shouldn't be terribly hard to fix this. When Crawford chose pitches well, he could still drive them. Neither his bat nor his feet seemed markedly slower last season than they had been before. He simply couldn't find the right mental approach at home plate. Assuming the Sox can remedy that, Crawford should bounce back and make theirs, by an even wider margin, the league's best lineup.
Matt Garza is available, and Matt Garza is better than Edwin Jackson. He's maybe five or 10 percent better, though, and he's likely to cost 15 or 20 percent more than Jackson. The Chicago Cubs will not deal Garza for fewer than two long-term assets, and the Red Sox do not need to drain their farm system depth further just for that marginal advantage.
Instead, Ben Cherington should spend some money (hardly a scarce resource in Boston) on Jackson. He's underrated, really, a young guy with a top-flight fastball who makes life Hell for right-handed batters and who has pretty good control. He would slot in nicely in Boston.
The Garza deal would cost Boston more than it would be worth. This trade, however, could be the right one on which to pull the trigger, for both the Sox and their departed GM, Theo Epstein.
Byrd could be part of an otherwise lopsided trade for an Epstein/Jason McLeod cheese ball, which would take care of compensation for Epstein's defection to the Cubs. Alternatively, the Sox could simply package two players to whom Epstein took a special shine and receive Byrd straight up.
Either way, the player they would receive would be a constant. Byrd will be paid $6.5 million in 2012, hardly a hardship, and would be a virtually ideal platoon partner with Ryan Sweeney.
He is a center fielder by trade, which would make him more than adequate to cover the cavern that is right field at Fenway Park, and he could rack up a bunch of doubles with his line-drive, pull-conscious right-handed swing. As a bonus, Byrd could be insurance against injury to Jacoby Ellsbury.
Daniel Bard has, in theory, three pitches. It's the effectiveness of his third pitch that seems to have captivated the Red Sox. They think they can make him an effective starter by simply asking him to pace himself and throw his decent changeup more often.
That's not the right model for this scenario, though. Instead, Boston should simply ask Bard to reel in his fastball a tad, and be the same two-pitch pitcher he has been the past three years. He just needs to do it every fifth day, to 25 batters, instead of every other day to five. The model, in fact, is Alexi Ogando.
Last season with Texas, Ogando moved from exclusive relief work to exclusive starting work without a change in repertoire at all. He threw his fastball three percent more often in 2011 than in 2010; his slider three percent less; and his changeup exactly as often, 4.8 percent of the time. If Bard follows that regimen, he has a chance to be a solid mid-rotation starter for the Sox, and if he does that, the Sox become AL East favorites.
With the addition of Bailey, the Red Sox seem to have a strong overall bullpen. Mark Melancon now slides into a setup role. Bobby Jenks doesn't slide into anything, but he'll probably plop into more of a seventh-inning slot. Alfredo Aceves is a terrific right-handed long man; Andrew Miller fills that role well from the left side.
Still, the relief corps is missing something. They need a lefty specialist, someone to get key outs against the likes of Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano. Darren Oliver is perfectly suited to that gig. Boston can bid a bit more for those services than other teams, so this is a no-brainer.
Clubhouse factors are overstated. Teams get far too much credit for their cohesion when they win, and when collapses happen, those same squads get far too much blame for lacking focus.
That said, the Red Sox do have a lot of established veterans on the roster, and sometimes, getting those players to watch video, work on what's not working and stay in premium shape can be tough. Baseball is about day-to-day adjustments, and too many veterans get lazy about those things.
That's why Bobby Valentine was the team's choice to take over as manager. He's a man of boundless energy, the kind that rubs off on everyone he encounters. The Red Sox need his constant kinesis to keep themselves on the top of their game. If he can set the right tone for the team in the spring, they will be a more disciplined bunch come autumn.
The Red Sox have depth, but too many American League teams fail to make the optimum use of their benches. Boston is in a position to be better.
In right field, Ryan Sweeney and some right-handed bat (Marlon Byrd, perhaps?) would make a terrific platoon. So would Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach behind the plate.
The most intriguing platoon possibility, though, might be at shortstop. Both Marco Scutaro and Jose Iglesias bat right-handed, but whereas Scutaro is primarily an on-base threat for the bottom of the batting order, Iglesias is a prospect with elite defensive skills.
That creates an interesting opportunity. When ground-ball mavens Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz start, the Sox could put the glove wizard Iglesias at shortstop and save some runs. When Josh Beckett takes the mound, Scutaro could provide offensive punch without costing the club.
The 2011 Red Sox did lack pitching depth, but realistically, it never should have gotten as bad as it did for them. They had Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield and (after the trade deadline) Erik Bedard on hand.
Yet, those players had an awful time staying healthy down the stretch. Lackey's and Matsuzaka's problems were arm and workload-related, and likely inevitable.
In the cases of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz, though, the Sox lost starts that should have gone to their top hurlers, because they all recovered on a much slower schedule than expected. That failure traces back to the training staff. If the Red Sox can find a group of athletic trainers who will keep ankle and back injuries to the lowest level of impact possible, they will get much better.
The Red Sox struggled to find the right lineup throughout 2011. The slow emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury as a superstar and the failure of Carl Crawford to find his usual rhythm made it hard to know where people belonged.
In 2012, more questions might pop up, but this is the ideal lineup set for the team come Opening Day:
|v. RHP||v. LHP|
With those personnel in that arrangement, Boston should lead the AL in runs scored again in 2012.
It's clear that the current market for starting pitching favors sellers. C.J. Wilson got more than he was worth. The Padres and A's extracted more from trading partners for Mat Latos, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez than anyone expected they would. Yu Darvish cost $51.7 million, and that was just to start talking.
Edwin Jackson is a great option, but even if they add him, Boston might need an extra arm down the stretch. The way to get it, though, would not be to continue paying through the nose and adding pitching at the current top-dollar prices.
Instead, if the Sox wait for July, they should be able to add Wandy Rodriguez or a comparable hurler at a much more reasonable cost.