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Baseball Notes

Potential trade consequences can run deep

By Nick Cafardo
December 20, 2009

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Do you break up what is pretty close to a dream rotation?

You’ve got Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. You’ve got veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield as a spot starter in case someone needs rest or is injured. Do you break this group up? Do you deal the rising Buchholz for a premier power hitter such as Adrian Gonzalez?

Most baseball minds answer yes. Do it. In a heartbeat.

But remember lessons from the past. When you think you have a deep enough pitching staff to move one big piece for offense, it doesn’t always work out.

“I really like the Red Sox the way they’re constituted right now,’’ said former Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi. “They’re going to pitch well and catch well. I know we had teams in Toronto where we had the best starting and reliever ERA and we still didn’t make the playoffs. If our lineup had played up to its potential we would have made the playoffs.

“But I think Boston’s lineup is very good. You’ve got tremendous bats with Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Cameron . . . and Marco Scutaro is really going to add a lot of offense. Big Papi had an off year and he drove in almost a hundred runs and hit almost 30 homers. [Jacoby] Ellsbury has that speed that is so effective. Some guys can run, but they have no impact. Ellsbury has tremendous impact in that he can disrupt. He can score on a wild pitch, score on a shallow sac fly. He can manufacture a run, not to mention what his speed does on defense and he’s young.

“Personally, if I had a rotation this deep, I wouldn’t move anyone. They also have the resources to go out and probably do a couple of other things. We all know you need seven or eight starters during the year. Last year they went with Brad Penny and John Smoltz and so what they have now is an improvement over that.’’

For the Red Sox and Yankees, it’s always about direct competition, and when you stack up their current rotations, it’s advantage Boston.

The Yankees did the right thing in the playoffs by going with their top three starters - CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte - who remain intact. But they still haven’t addressed the back of the rotation. Joba Chamberlain remains a No. 4 and they could also move Phil Hughes out of the bullpen. They passed on the bidding for Roy Halladay, content that the Red Sox didn’t get him and pleased that he’s in the National League. They may gamble on rehab guys like Ben Sheets or Jarrod Washburn, or take on Derek Lowe’s contract, but for now the Red Sox have it over them.

The Red Sox have been burned by the surplus pitcher-for-slugger swap before: Bronson Arroyo for Wily Mo Pena, in March 2006. While Arroyo has been a decent NL pitcher, Buchholz could be entering his breakout season, and has a greater upside than Arroyo.

The Red Sox certainly aren’t alone in pondering whether to deal pitching for a bat. The Braves are offering Lowe and perhaps Javier Vazquez in an effort to bolster their anemic offense. The Braves’ situation is different from Boston’s because an impact slugger would make them a contender in the NL East, while the Sox are already a likely playoff team if they do nothing else.

These are tough decisions that can critically impact teams. On paper, a Sox lineup with Gonzalez in the middle of the order would be ideal. But if you take Buchholz out of the rotation, insert a 43-year-old Wakefield, and start scrambling for more depth (Paul Byrd?), your pitching has been weakened.

Not many teams can match the Red Sox’ rotation depth; perhaps the Braves and White Sox. Matsuzaka has become a key figure. His washout 2009 season has compelled him to get in the best condition of his career. If he returns to his form from 2007-08 (33-15, 3.72 ERA), that would be quite a statement from a fourth or fifth starter, however you want to number him.

By keeping everyone put, the Sox would also protect their pitching depth in the future, with Beckett’s contract up after next season.

What about including Ellsbury, and not Buchholz, in a package for Gonzalez? Out of nearly 10,000 respondents to a Boston.com survey, 73.7 percent said no, don’t trade Ellsbury.

SHREWD ATTITUDE
Preferred route has no breakdown lane
The Red Sox have really protected themselves the past few years by either drawing the line on the number of years they’ll offer a free agent or trying to work in protections outside of the normal insurance they take out on player contracts.

In Pedro Martinez’s case in 2004, the Sox relied on the evaluation of their medical staff and fell short of Martinez’s demand for more years. The Mets gave him the extra year he desired, and sure enough, Martinez broke down less than halfway through his four-year contract.

The Mets, desperate for a righthanded bat, may make the same mistake with Jason Bay (above) by offering a fifth year. The Sox offered four, anticipating Bay’s shoulder history could result in lost time down the road. This was the major reason the Sox, according to Peter Gammons of MLB and NESN, were willing to offer Matt Holliday five years and $82.5 million, because there are no major preexisting physical issues.

The Sox got protection in J.D. Drew’s contract on a preexisting right shoulder issue, enabling them to void the contract should Drew miss 35 days or more on the disabled list either last season or in 2010. His agent, Scott Boras, signed off on it.

Apparently, Lackey’s agent, Steve Hilliard, gave the Sox protection in Lackey’s contract should he incur a major injury and miss significant time. Because of this, the Sox were willing to give Lackey a five-year deal after the Angels had come after him hard with a four-year proposal.

According to Sox GM Theo Epstein, Beckett approved of Lackey’s deal, which begs the question of whether Beckett would also agree to give the team protection in a new contract if his shoulder issues were to resurface.

The Sox aren’t afraid to let Beckett pitch through this coming season to see how he holds up before committing to him. Beckett is pitching for a contract, which is always a good thing for the team. It behooves Beckett to get back to top form, because then he’ll break the bank in Boston or elsewhere.

OPEN MIKE
Consultations held about Cameron
The good news is that Mike Cameron (left) loves to play, hustles out every ball, takes his walks, and is a tremendous guy in the clubhouse. But suffice it to say Cameron is going to have to prove himself in Boston because those who followed him in Milwaukee definitely saw his warts.

Three baseball people - a manager, coach, and scout - assessed Cameron’s game:

Power: All three thought Cameron’s power numbers should improve at Fenway because he’s a pull hitter who should take advantage of the Wall. The more playing time, the more extra-base hits.

Strikeouts: Lots of swings and misses. Cameron struck out 156 times last year and the feeling was that would stay the same, or increase, with the Sox.

Overall offense: All three pointed out that Cameron had only 70 RBIs last season hitting behind Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. Cameron hit .233 with runners in scoring position and .232 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Cameron will likely hit at the bottom of the Sox order, which is good because last season he hit .209 in the five-hole, and .272 batting sixth. Cameron did not hit well against NL Central teams, including those with good pitching (Cardinals, .212; Cubs, .214) and those without (Pirates, .170; Astros, .276). Cameron’s .954 OPS against lefties “didn’t feel as if it was that good,’’ according to one evaluator. His .748 OPS against righties speaks for itself.

Running game: Last season, Cameron stole only seven bases (Ellsbury had that many by April 24), but our group indicated that shouldn’t be held against him because Brewers manager Ken Macha is not fond of stealing (Milwaukee had just 68 steals, third fewest in the NL).

Defense: The consensus was Cameron can still go get it in center field, but they were less enthusiastic about his arm strength, which would make him better suited to play left at Fenway.

Overall, the consensus was that the Sox should use Cameron as a platoon player. By picking the right spots for him and Jeremy Hermida, the pairing could have the same type of success as Earl Weaver’s outfield platoon of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Last offseason, the Brewers had a deal in place to trade Cameron to the Yankees for Melky Cabrera, but it broke down. The Yankees were also interested in Cameron before the Sox signed him.

ETC.
Apropos of nothing
1. Think the Yankees will regret losing Hideki Matsui?; 2. Wonder where Michael Bowden fits in the Red Sox’ plans?; 3. Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is in phenomenal shape according to folks at Athletes’ Performance, will be at Disney World tomorrow; 4. Two red flags: Curtis Granderson had a .327 OBP last season and hit .183 against lefties; 5. If the Braves get another hitter, I’ll be as impressed with them as I am with the White Sox.

Updates on nine . . .
1. Mark DeRosa, INF/OF, free agent - DeRosa has drawn a lot of interest, but no team has been willing to get up into DeRosa’s asking price, which has been in the $10 million per range. The feeling is the price has come down recently. The Mets could pull the trigger and use him at first base. He could be a very good fit for the Red Sox.

2. Coco Crisp, OF, free agent - No surprise that San Diego is a front-runner to land Crisp with his ties to Padres GM Jed Hoyer, who advocated trading for Crisp while in the Red Sox’ front office. Crisp, 30, had two shoulder surgeries as a Royal last season. Health always seems to be an issue with the athletic outfielder.

3. Garrett Atkins, 3B/1B, Orioles - A good “value’’ signing at one year, $4 million. Plenty of baseball people believe he can rebound from a poor 2009 season and provide the Orioles with the same type of righthanded power he exhibited in Colorado. Some scouts believe Atkins is best used at first base rather than third.

4. Derek Lowe, RHP, Braves - If the Braves can’t work out a deal with the Angels for Javier Vazquez, reportedly for outfielder Juan Rivera, Lowe could enter the picture instead. Lowe has three years and $45 million remaining on his contract. He acknowledged he didn’t pitch well last season, but he still won 15 games. Lowe may soon become the next big target for teams in need of a starter.

5. Chien-Ming Wang, RHP, free agent - Fifteen teams have inquired about the rehabbing righty, according to agent Alan Nero, and while Nero wouldn’t confirm which teams are involved (except the Yankees, who would like to match any final offer) you can bet the Red Sox are one of them. The plan, according to Nero, is for Wang to visit Dr. James Andrews Jan. 4 and get an updated timeframe on his comeback. The big righthander has had foot, hip, and shoulder issues the past year-plus, but appears to be in good shape. Nero said Wang has been long-tossing since Dec. 1 with no issues, and is hoping to return to the mound in early May.

6. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Padres - The Padres are really downplaying the trade rumors. President Jeff Moorad told reporters he doesn’t believe Hoyer and Theo Epstein have been in discussions. Sounds like a ploy to keep ticket sales from declining. Don’t discount the Orioles being a major player for Gonzalez. They were in on Mark Teixeira last offseason and have the prospects to make it happen, but as one NL executive pointed out, “I would think the Padres would ask for Matt Wieters or Brian Matusz and I doubt the Orioles are giving them up.’’

7. John Henry, Red Sox owner - Henry said the team has not changed its budget or decided to increase the money devoted to player salaries since the start of the offseason. “No change,’’ he said. With all the talk about bridges, there was belief that the Sox were under budgetary restraints. While there is a budget, it’s apparently a little more flexible than assumed.

8. Aaron Harang, RHP, Reds - The Dodgers have shown interest in Harang as a fourth or fifth starter, which is what he is at this stage of his career. While Harang tied for the NL lead with 16 wins in 2006, he hasn’t been the same pitcher since a four-inning relief appearance in an 18-inning game at San Diego on May 25, 2008. In 44 starts since that game, Harang is 10-25 with a 4.87 ERA. The Dodgers, who are going to get massacred in arbitration, have already lost Randy Wolf from their rotation. The Reds need a bat.

9. Milton Bradley, OF, Seattle - Traded from the Cubs Friday for pitcher Carlos Silva, the troubled outfielder will have Ken Griffey around to keep him in line. Griffey has done wonders in making the Mariners’ house a home. He was the first player to get Ichiro Suzuki involved in the clubhouse camaraderie. Manager Don Wakamatsu is a good communicator and can control a guy like Bradley. This also likely spells the end of the Jason Bay watch in Seattle.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: “Since 1960, no catcher has hit fewer home runs in 7,000-plus at-bats than Jason Kendall, who has 75 in 7,193 ABs. Bob Boone is next on the list, having hit only 105 dingers in 7,245 ABs playing from 1972-90.’’ Also, “Since John Lackey’s debut in 2002, he has an ERA of 3.81. Over that same span, Josh Beckett’s is 3.83, Andy Pettitte’s is 3.82, A.J. Burnett’s is 3.77, Roy Halladay’s is 3.13, and Johan Santana’s is 2.89.’’ . . . Happy 60th birthday, Cecil Cooper.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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