Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Kickin' It, Roster Style

Every year, just about this time (ok, it started two weeks ago) The Ninth begins contemplating the layout of the Red Sox 25 man roster. It's almost entirely pointless, as someone will get hurt in Spring Training, a bubble player will be better than anyone expected, and another will be worse. Note, for instance, Steve Woodard and Brandon Lyon on last season's opening day roster. Who could've called that? But nonetheless, it sure is fun to fill up empty notepads and unused Day Planner pages with names, so here's how it looks.

1. Pedro Martinez, SP
2. Curt Schilling, SP
3. Derek Lowe, SP
4. Tim Wakefield, SP
5. Byung-Hyun Kim, SP
6. Ramiro Mendoza, RP
7. Bronson Arroyo, RP
8. Mike Timlin, RP
9. Alan Embree, RP
10. Scott Williamson, RP
11. Keith Foulke, RP

13. Jason Varitek, C
14. Doug Mirabelli, C
15. David Ortiz, DH/1B
16. Kevin Millar, 1B/DH/OF
17. Pokey Reese, 2B
18. Mark Bellhorn, 2B/3B
19. Nomar Garciaparra, SS
20. Bill Mueller, 3B
21. Manny Ramirez, LF/DH
22. Johnny Damon, CF
23. Trot Nixon, RF
24. Gabe Kapler, OF
25. Ellis Burks, DH/OF/PH

Pretty nice squad, but as you hawkeyes may have noticed, we left out the 25th man. Except in this case, because that player may very well be the last arm in the bullpen, we made him #12. But they need a lot out of Mr. 12.

Firstly, the Red Sox could use a second lefty in the bullpen. Embree is there, but he doesn't pitch particularly well against lefties, and he will be used more in set-up than as a specialist. So someone from the Bierbrodt/Malaska/Dinardo/Seibel (get ready, Cooperstown) group has a shot. Get your bets in now.

But the team could also use a backup shortstop. Pokey can certainly field the position, but he's set as the starter on the other side of the bag. If Reese gets hit for late in the game (which of course, he will) and God forbid, Nomar gets hurt, the Sox will be in trouble. Mueller and perhaps Bellhorn are emergency options, but not particularly good ones. Also, Garciaparra's decline at the end of 2003 was not helped by his workload, so a legitimate back-up would be helpful. A rehabbing Tony Womack is in camp, and could provide pinch-running assistance, so he may be a fit.

But Boston could also use a left-handed bat off the bench. With Ellis back in Boston, Francona has some nice offensive choices on the pine, but they're primarily righties. Bellhorn can switch, but his OPS from the left side is under .725. A legitimate lefty will make opposing managers think a little harder when going to their bullpen, and will give Tito more late-inning flexibility. Now obviously there aren't many righties in the Sox starting nine that you would hit for, regardless of matchups, but balance is important. And Pokey is not really someone you want to see hit after the seventh inning. As everyone knows, Brian Daubach is back, and makes perfect sense in this role.

But there isn't room. There can be only one Mr. 12. A drawback to the stacked roster. One thing to consider: are both Mendoza and Arroyo necessary? They both fill the long man/swing role on a staff that doesn't expect to have many 5th inning exits. How many times did Schilling and Pedro leave a game before the sixth all of last season? Ten times, combined. And six of those were after going 5 complete. So it's hard to imagine the need of long relief more than once every time through the rotation. And if you have two guys in that role, someone isn't pitching for at least a week. That's not good roster management. A Mark Malaska or a Tony Womack could more useful than a redundant long reliever. Mendoza isn't going to Pawtucket, so, barring injuries, could Bronson be going back down? We'll see....

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Spin Control

Happy Valentine's Day Red Sox fans -- the Yankees have Alex Rodriguez. As Dan Shaughnessy sits down to write the long-awaited sequel to Curse of the Bambino, Sox fans everywhere are crying in their Kix. And how can you blame them? Frankly, this one hurts. This story is like an aneurysm, it comes out of nowhere, sends my body into shock, and almost makes my brain explode. Larry Lucchino is making the talk show rounds and sounds about as convincing as Dennis Kucinich using the phrase "When I become president...". This is a sad day indeed (doesn't help that the Ninth is at work on a Sunday). Silver linings are hard to find. Jennifer Garner just flirted with the Red Sox for two hours, insisted that she really liked us but wasn't ready for a relationship right now, and then started dating Enrique Iglesias. I mean Enrique Iglesias. Of all people. But here's something to look at. And The Ninth realizes it is the proverbial mole hill compared to the mountain (poor, sad moles), but it warrants mentioning. In Rob Neyer style, here are two player lines:


Player 1 606 104 185 34 45 140 .306 .388 .588 356

Player 2 607 124 181 30 47 118 .298 .396 .600 364

Ok, who is the greatest shortstop who ever lived, and who is the All-Star third baseman that will almost certainly be forgotten by history? Guesses? Stop raising your hand Mr. Kucinich. Player 1 is Phil Nevin, and 2 is ARod. Now this display is somewhat unfair, as we've used only one year from each player (Arod's most recent and Nevin's last injury-free one), and we had to multiply out Nevin a bit to give even at-bats. Also, Phil's last healthy season was by far his best, while Alex's 2003 campaign was somewhat subpar. But the numbers, even with these skews, are pretty revealing. They're pretty similar seasons, hu? ARod is a remarkable shortstop, and deserves every accolade he gets at that position. You move him ten steps to his right however, and things change a bit. The numbers he puts up are wonderful to have, and obviously make a great improvement over Mike Lamb, but he looks a lot more like top a 5 MVP candidate than a top 5 All-time candidate over there. Look, a HUGE part of Alex's value is gold glove ability at the most important position. You move him to the hot corner and not only are you losing the full impact of that glove, but you're moving his offensive production to a position that demands that type of excellence. To hit over 40 HR's as a shortstop is historic, but third baseman do it all the time. Tony Batista, Troy Glaus, Phil Nevin, Vinny Castilla. A nice cocktail party, but pardon me if I don't take a picture. That Polaroid film is expensive. Third baseman are supposed to knock the ball around, shortstops are supposed to pick it up. Because ARod could do both made him a marvel. But to do that at third gets you into the Mike Schmidt/Brooks Robinson debate, not the Willie Mays/Babe Ruth one. Now the Yankees have more money on the left side of their infield than the Pirates do on their entire roster, and they still don't have a guy who can play short. Don't get me wrong, it's emotionally devastating that New York could pull off in two days what it took Boston two months to fail at, but by putting Rodriguez at third, they've turned him into a different level of player. Phil Nevin ain't bad, but he's still Phil Nevin.

Monday, February 09, 2004

And Bill Never Even Threw a Pitch

Let's talk about baseball, because really, that's more fun. Admit it.

Bill James really got trashed last season. The Red Sox wanted to try something different with their bullpen, it failed miserably, and a lot of the blame went to poor Bill James. Make that rich Bill James. Around the All-Star break, Boston capitulated and acquired Byung-Hyun Kim, a "legitimate" closer, and their bullpen problems settled down quickly. Boston media types chortled, shook each other's hands, and smiled widely at the demise of the "bullpen by committee". For some reason, this experiment made them nervous, and they could relax now that it was deceased. The Red Sox would never attempt such a controversial game approach again in this, the toughest market in baseball. Right? Well get those pacemakers out of moth balls boys, because the Bill James Closer (BJC) might be making a return.

A lot of things were misunderstood in 2003. First and foremost, what the Red Sox attempted to do with their bullpen had really very little to do with Bill James. Theo Epstein was unwilling to pay top dollar for a mediocre closer (take a bow, Ugie), so he opted for multiple hard-throwing set-up relievers. The notion was that Grady Little would make a daily closer selection based on match-ups, hot hands, and availability. Hence the title: Closer By Committee (Not sure how "Bullpen By Committee" got coined -- aren't all bullpens committees?). It was not an inherently bad idea, but it wasn't one that belonged to Bill James. He had stated a few years back, with some fanfare, that teams ought not restrict their closers to only the ninth inning. The most important outs of the game, James argued, sometimes occurred in the seventh or eighth, and it only made sense to ask your best reliever to pitch them. Getting three outs with a three run lead in the ninth was not always the best use of your prime arm. James never said "don't bother to get the prime arm, because boy those guys are pricey", he only suggested that once you had Mariano Rivera, you let him pitch when it mattered most. Completely logical, surprisingly simple, and solidly intelligent. But it never really happened that way. Theo got the wrong pitchers, and Grady Little never figured out how to use them. Instead of identifying his best arm and using it in the game's biggest moment, he spent months figuring out who would pitch the ninth inning, and only the ninth inning. That's getting James about as wrong as you can. So things never gelled, and when the Sox gave up on the system that they weren't even using correctly, the media touted the BJC a failure. Since then, Epstein has come clean about his mistakes. He admits both that Boston is a tough place to try a daring makeover, and that he did not assemble the right pitchers for the job. Whether he had the right manager is another question entirely, but oddly, he didn't speak to that. What Theo was careful to point however, was that he hadn't given up on the idea. "The concept isn't wrong," he insisted. Let's look then, at what the Boston GM has put together for 2004.

By signing Keith Foulke and retaining Scott Williamson, Theo Epstein has added two pitchers who:

  • Have Closed and Set-Up in the Past

  • Can Go Multiple Innings

  • Are Not Concerned With High Save Totals

  • Pitch Several Days in a Row

  • Have Contrasting Stuff

  • Now Theo has said not word one suggesting that he and Francona will try the BJC in 2004. But if, for instance, The Ninth were trying to build a staff that could pull it off, Foulke and S-Willy would be at the top of the list. Because they have both filled many bullpen roles in their career, they would be comfortable pitching in a tight seventh, a breezy ninth, or a decisive eighth. How many pitchers can say that? Also, they're very durable, so a two inning stint to get through a tough order or into extra innings is not out of the question. A couple days in a row. Psychologically as well, these are fairly mature players. They won't gripe if they're out of the limelight of the ninth inning, or if their stats don't look as pretty as some of their peers. And Williamson is fastball/split compared to Foulke's fastball/change. One following the other would be fairly tough to handle. The problem with the BJC has always been that you still need someone to pitch the ninth. Sure it's a nice idea to bring your best guy in when the situation demands, but if that happens to be the sixth inning, what do you do at the end of the game? Consistently losing in the ninth takes its toll, and you need a high quality, confident arm there. The Red Sox would now be able to have that. It's like this: 3-2 in the sixth, Giambi on second, Foulke comes in to get Sheffield. He's pitched there before, he knows how to do it. Keith gets through the frame and shuts them down in the seventh. Then, if the game stays close, you can bring in Williamson for the two inning save. There is not a big drop off in quality, and Scott is more than comfortable in the role. Foulke is the better pitcher and could be used as the primary BJC, but having Williamson available to finish occasional games and set-up in non-decisive situations could really make this work. There would be one closer, but two players who might finish games. The way Bill James intended it.

    Why hasn't Theo mentioned it then, if he and Francona will lead bullpens into the 21st century? Well, after what happened last year, would you?