At Tomorrow's Deadline, Epstein Must Make a Move

E ASenior Analyst IJuly 31, 2009

When Theo Epstein was introduced as the Red Sox General Manager six years ago, one of the first things he did was announce his intent to transform the Red Sox into a player development machine.

Great news for Red Sox Nation at the time, as for years the Red Sox struggled in the player development part of the game. Free agent and trade acquisitions were keeping this team on life support.

Dan Duquette had an eye for talent, but most of it was found via acquisition by trade or free agency. Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, for example, could attest to that.

Six years later, and Epstein has certainly completed the task he put himself up to. He came right in and made the right decisions to help the team win in the present and in the future.

Emphasizing more about enabling home grown talent, the Red Sox have won two championships under Epstein, all while maintaining a top farm system among all the teams in Major League Baseball.

Most teams either have one or the other in terms of an outstanding player development system and a budget to acquire virtually any player on the market.

However, with the Red Sox, one of the largest baseball markets in the country, budget isn't an issue for Epstein, who has certainly set up his Red Sox for years to come through the draft.

His great draft finds and smart, cost effective free agent adds have garnered comparisons such as "the brains of Billy Beane combined with the budget of Brian Cashman."

Recently, though, Epstein has been far too reluctant to deal his prospects. While not the sentimental type who could never bring himself to trade players that he developed, he is more and more starting to commit the heinous crime of overvaluing his prospects.

Everyone loves the promise that the top prospects bring to the table, as they give hope to fans that they can produce for many years to come. However, the catch is that the player is at least a few years off from actually doing so.

After hurling a no-hitter in just his second Major League start, top prospect Clay Buchholz had established far too high expectations.

Now, just weeks away from his 25th birthday, Buchholz still has all of the stuff to be good in the big leagues, but none of the mentality.

With Josh Beckett and Jon Lester delivering at the Major League level, as well as a bushel of other prospects who could be just as good, one would come to think that Epstein wouldn't have a problem dealing one of the two prospects Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden.

Especially when trading one of those pitching prospects along with other Minor Leaguers would land the team an elite hitter like Adrian Gonzalez or Victor Martinez.

Buchholz is sitting on a gold mine of potential. The only problem with him is that he is about as confident on the mound as a socially awkward 13 year old boy is around a cute girl.

While Buchholz definitely can harness his stuff to become a reliable top-of-the-rotation starter and rack up the strikeouts, his lack of mental strength makes it no more than what it really is: potential.

As for Bowden, while he can also become a very good starting pitcher, he projects to be a middle of the rotation guy, a mentally tough Jeff Suppan. If he continues to post the type of Minor League numbers he is while in the Show, he will be a great starter.

While the only negative thing on his scouting report is that he has unconventional, quirky mechanics, the Red Sox have not tried to alter his delivery because he still maintains consistent arm movement and there appears to be no injury risk.

While Bowden may not develop into the ace he was once projected to be, he can still be an above average pitcher. However, the Red Sox have plenty of other guys who can develop into an above average pitcher, and his potential should by no means make him untouchable.

In dealing with Buchholz and Bowden in trade talks, Epstein has been treating his kids like they are can't miss, sure thing prospects, which is hardly the case.

With Buchholz' confidence issues, he could easily be doomed to the same fate as Bud Smith.

Smith was once rated as the number one prospect in St. Louis' farm system, just ahead of the promising young third baseman Albert Pujols. Remember the last time you saw him playing the hot corner?

Smith, a left handed starter for the Cardinals, no-hit the San Diego Padres on Sept 3, 2001, putting the exclamation point on his already impressive rookie season. In 2002, Smith would go 1-5 with a 6.94 ERA.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Smith, like Buchholz, had a very successful Minor League career. After an impressive rookie season, both including a no hitter, they experienced terrible sophomore slumps. Each pitcher barely posted an ERA south of 7.00.

Smith never pitched in the Majors again, but Buchholz' career is still a work in progress.

Smith was later traded to the Phillies as a part of the Placido Polanco for Scott Rolen deal and never pitched in the Big Leagues again.

If Epstein continues to be so adamant about hanging on to Buchholz, it might be only different detail when comparing the careers of Buchholz and Smith.

Not to say Buchholz isn't a bad pitcher, as that isn't the case. He's a piece of work, and Epstein should trade him now--before it's too late. Buchholz has been on a short leash pitching anyways, so it's not like he's been an abundant help to the team.

Epstein should recognize that Buchholz is at peak value and deal him now, before it's too late. The lefty is still a commodoty on the trade market, and the Red Sox just happen to need a hitter. A good hitter.

Enter Adrian Gonzalez, a first baseman whom with the San Diego Padres hasn't ceased to post mind blowing power numbers.

Even at cavernous Petco Park, surrounded by pedestrian hitters like Scott Hairston and Kevin Kouzmanoff, Gonzalez has a cumulative .274 average, 94 home runs, 278 RBI, and 219 walks over the past three seasons.

Going through a gnarly rebuilding process, the Padres have been hesitant to listen to offers on their All-Star first baseman, but surely would move him at a steep cost. This may be Epstein's chance to put Buchholz, his top trade chip, to good use.

Certainly in any deal involving Gonzalez the Padres would command either Buchholz or Bowden. Depending on other prospects included in the deal, maybe both.

This is where Epstein swoops in to take advantage of the situation. Since the All-Star break, the Red Sox have played to the tune of an 8-13 record, and are 11-12 overall this month.

With this lousy play, the Sox have since handed the Yankees a 2.5 game stranglehold on the division lead. With the offense performing miserably the last month or so, something needs to be injected to this lineup to up the performance, and I'm not talking about steroids.

Gonzalez has hit 28 home runs this year, 19 of them coming away from Petco. Away from San Diego, Gonzalez has hit .262, with an on-base percentage of .370, to go with 19 home runs and 36 RBI.

Gonzalez, one of the best opposite-field hitters in the game, would love hitting at Fenway Park, where he could abuse the Green Monster. Dropped in the middle of the lineup and surrounded by the likes of Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay, and the offense gets going.

Furthermore, Gonzalez was selected for the 2008 Gold Glove award at first base, so trading for Gonzalez would not sacrifice defense at the position where fans are accustomed to seeing Kevin Youkilis make great plays every night.

Francona could slide Youkilis over to third base, while creating a rotation between Ortiz, Lowell, Youkilis, and Gonzalez; playing the match ups to decide who gets a night off. It would create great offensive and defensive depth.

Oh, did I mention the best part yet? Gonzalez is just 27 years old and under contract through next season, including a club option for 2011.

Needless to say, Gonzalez won't be moved for anything less than an offer in San Diego's favor, but that's something that Epstein not only can afford to, but needs to do.

Boston's offense hasn't been anything short of anemic as of late, and Gonzalez would be just the guy to keep everyone playing at their tip top game.

All Epstein needs to do is let go of some of his goldmine of potential to get a guy who is elite now. It may not be easy to give up a slew of guys who can help the team win in the future, but he's dealing with replaceable prospects here.

The Red Sox easily have the farm depth to pull off a deal for Gonzalez. A potential offer could look something like this:

1B Lars Anderson, AA: Ranked as Boston's third overall prospect, Lars is deemed the future centerpiece of the offense and first baseman for years to come. Has the potential to be an elite power hitter. 21 years old, would likely not go far with the Red Sox with Gonzalez around.

OF Josh Reddick, AA: Great all-around athlete, currently the number two prospect in the Red Sox system. Very good contact hitter. Sky high power potential depending on how his body fills out. Great arm and very good range to go with his slick bat. Major League ETA mid-2010.

SP Clay Buchholz, MLB: We all know the drill with Buchholz by now. Lanky, very thin build with solid mechanics. Can rack up the K's with the best of them. Only thing keeping Buchholz from panning out as a top of the rotation starter is his confidence. Pitching at Petco Park would be good for him.

RP Hunter Jones, AAA: Jones isn't the flashiest prospect in Boston's system, but he's a hard nosed guy who can go out on the hill and get the job done. He has very good composure on the mound and works very well with men on base as well as in pressure situations. Has a good arsenal and finds most of his success against right handed pitchers despite being a lefty. Currently 2-3 with a 3.58 ERA for Pawtucket.

It might take more, but the Red Sox can easily trade for Gonzalez without taking too big of a hit on the farm. When Epstein is talking with the Padres about the slugger it is imperative he chooses production over potential.


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