Monday, November 10, 2003

It's Started.

The GM meetings are starting up today, and finally we're getting a few free agent rumblings around the league, so I figured I could begin talking hot stove - at last. It's not as good as actual baseball, but it's not so far off. Every year crazy names get dropped (Alex Rodriguez), drastic readjustments are proposed (Manny on waivers), and exciting new faces are brought in (Ramiro Mendoza, no wait..). So as this delightful season of gossip kicks into gear, let's take stock of where the Red Sox stand, what they're looking for, and who's out there.

Catcher: Varitek is signed through 2004, at a hefty 6.7 million. He will be coming up for contract at the end of the season along with Pedro, Nomar, Lowe, Tom Menino, and the guy who runs the Kowloon snack stand. Jason will prompt a very difficult decision as #1 prospect Kelly Shoppach is waiting in the wings and can play quality ball for little money. For 2004 though, Tek is almost certain to be in Boston. Doubling Doug Mirabelli, thank heavens, will also be kept around.

First Base: Kevin Millar will clock in at about 2.6 million next year, with a 3.5 mil mutual option for 2005. While he did finish the year with a more than respectable 25 HR's and 96 RBI, his second half was a disappointment. Kevin's slugging percentage dropped 90 points after the All-Star break, and he produced only 31 RBI. Either he tired during his first season with more than 450 AB's, or the league figured out how to pitch him. Either way, he's still a bargain - but his great personality and impressive first half kept him off the hook for sub-par play down the stretch. Oh, and World Series hero Dave McCarty will not be asked back.

Second Base: An interesting situation that probably warrants it's own article. Todd Walker was an offensive juggernaut in the playoffs, but was simply unacceptable with the glove. At least a dozen times during the season I comforted myself with the notion that, no matter what happened, I would only have to watch the ghost of Jose Offerman for one year. Now the season's over, Toddie Tin Hands wants back in, but Theo seems to be resisting. Sounds good, right? Problem is, I'm not so sure anymore. Everyone is all over Luis Castillo, but the guy slugs .350 for his career. You want a sampling of guys who slugged .350 last year? How 'bout Gary Matthews Jr., Endy Chavez, and Jack Wilson. Oh, you've never heard of them? I can't imagine why. Granted Luis does sport a career .367 OBP, which is good - but not spectacular. And yes, he's fast, but he got caught stealing 19 times last year (to 21 SB's), and the Sox don't figure to run much anyway. The major improvement with Castillo is his Gold Glove, but how much is that worth financially? With the Yankees interested, Castillo could run up into the 6-7 million range, and Walker could be brought back for maybe 4.5. I like Luis as a player, but I'm not sure I love him. And Walker is so darn handsome. Hmmmm. Other people to keep in mind: Fernando Vina, Kaz Matsui, and Rich Aurillia -- only one of which actually plays 2nd Base.

Shortstop: Nomar is here to stay for another 162 games, that's for sure. After that, who knows. I honestly believe the Red Sox view him as their most valuable all-around player, and would like to keep Nomar around for a long time. Problem is, no one really knows how much he likes Boston. Sometimes the media seems too much for Garciaparra, others he is thriving on the energy and spirit of the crowd. One thing Nomie should keep in mind: Over the last three years his OPS at home is .970, on the road it's .773. In Fenway he's a Hall of Famer, everywhere else he's John Valentin. Unless he wants to hear about Fred Lynn for the rest of his life, Nomar might want to find a way to stick around.

The Alex Rodriguez rumors are interesting, and not as ill-founded as they first seemed. ARod is the only player in baseball who might actually be worth over 20 million, and the Red Sox would love to have him. If they can ditch Manny, and Nomar is LA-bound. Worth watching I think.

Third Base: The Red Sox have the AL Batting Champion for another season at 2.1 million, with a team option for 2.5 in 2005. There is very little to complain about in Bill Mueller, even with an offensive decline expected for next year. Good hitter, good fielder, good guy. Wouldn't mind if he talked about God a little less, but you can't have it all. If third base proves an easier hole to fill, the Sox could move Mueller to second without losing much defensively, but unless you're dying to see Joe Randa in a Red Sox uniform, that probably won't happen.

Designated Hitter: .288 BA, 45 HR's, 146 RBI. That's what David Ortiz would have hit had he played 162 games. Wow. The Cookie Monster made 1.25 million in 2003 (shocking), and is going to arbitration this winter. He'll surely get a hefty raise for next season, and it's possible that Theo will try to lock him up long-term. Sounds good to me. David's HR to AB ratio was by far the best on the team (one every 14 AB's) and he drove in nearly as many runs as Ramirez in 100 less at-bats. His swing is ideal for Fenway, and his best years are still ahead of him. Add to all this a wonderful clubhouse presence, and you have someone who ought to be in Boston for a very long time. Sign him before he proves last year was no fluke.

Outfield: Let's talk a second about Trot Nixon. Trot is not my favorite player. He's the kind of gritty, hard-nosed Charlie Hustle that always gets big play in Boston, but rarely does much of tangible value. He's Tough with a capital 'T', and going into last season he was also Average with a capital 'A'. An adequate corner outfielder with forgettable numbers who for some reason Boston refused to package with Tomo Ohka to get Sammy Sosa. Couldn't hit a lefty to save his life, but boy was his uniform dirty. Whoopee. But then something happened. Last year Trot was 4th in the American League in OPS, 5th in slugging, and 7th in OBP. That's a sabermetricians dream, and for only 4 million dollars. The question is, what is it that happened? Nixon turned 29 in April, so perhaps he is entering his prime and 2003 is a reasonable sample of what he might produce in '04 and '05. Maybe that happened. Or maybe Nixon just got, well, lucky. Everybody has a career year sooner or later, and it could be that Trot's just passed. In that case, he should be traded immediately. No way of knowing until we see what he does in the next few years. Two things are for certain: 1) With the talent he displayed in 2003, Trot should be given the chance to hit lefties, and 2) He's more than just a Charlie Hustle. He's in his final year of arbitration, which could mean extended contract or trade out of town.
Other than that, you've got Manny and Damon. The Sox will try to move Ramirez, but won't eat a large portion of his contract in the process. That will make things difficult. Damon had an off year and finished the season with an iffy OBP of .345, but managed to score over 100 runs. He's owed 16.5 million over the next two years, and the Red Sox would certainly listen to offers. Damon's best skills, it seems, are in the field. If I had to make a guess I would say that Boston's starting outfield in 2004 will look a lot like it did in 2003.

Next up, pitchers and potential free agents. Who looks good?