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Baseball Notes

Budding slugger may be reined in by squeeze play

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / December 27, 2009

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When the Red Sox acquired Jeremy Hermida early this offseason, they believed they were getting a young outfielder with great upside. To develop that upside, however, Hermida needs at-bats, especially against lefthanded pitching (he hit .189 against lefties last season, though in 2007 he hit them at a .292 clip).

In Boston, Hermida is not going to get enough at-bats if he’s an extra outfielder, either platooning with Mike Cameron in left field or scraping them together if the Sox ever re-sign Jason Bay.

The acquisition of Hermida didn’t stop the Sox from signing Cameron or entertaining the idea of bringing Bay back. So where does Hermida play?

Those of us who grew up in the Boston area remember watching the slugging Sox teams that were always short on pitching. Even though we know in our hearts that pitching and defense win games - and the 2010 Sox will be heavy on pitching and defense - there’s that part of us that loves offense, the big thumpers, and we know that’s missing to some degree.

So Bay and Adrian Gonzalez become comfort players, ones we know will hit the ball out of the yard 30-50 times a season and knock in 100-120 runs.

Face it, when matched against the vaunted Yankees lineup, these Sox don’t quite measure up. When you bring up Hermida’s name, people think “complementary, backup player.’’ But that’s not what the Sox think he is or will become.

He’ll play at age 26 this season, the same age as Jacoby Ellsbury. At 6 feet 4 inches, 200 pounds, Hermida could emerge as a lefthanded power hitter. The last three seasons, he has hit 18, 17, and 13 homers for the Marlins, who drafted him 11th overall out of Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga., in 2002.

Hermida was a kid many scouts were in love with, and the Brewers nearly took him instead of Prince Fielder at No. 7. He’s now entering his prime, and what’s awaiting him? The bench?

If the Sox are truly serious about finding a creative way to fit Bay in their burgeoning budget, then Hermida becomes a fifth outfielder, like Brian Anderson or Rocco Baldelli. He could become trade bait in a Gonzalez deal, though he’s not necessarily one of the three or four pieces San Diego general manager Jed Hoyer wants.

Many teams trade for players hoping to catch their upside. Usually, the Sox aren’t one that can afford to do that because they need ready-for-prime-time players to compete in their division. But in this case, they were looking at Hermida much the same way they were David Ortiz when they picked him up off waivers from Minnesota.

Ortiz had put together decent seasons in Minnesota as a platoon player, but the Sox thought he had more upside if he could get consistent at-bats. His first obstacle was showing he was a better DH option than Jeremy Giambi, and once he did that, his confidence grew. His at-bats became consistent, and he turned into one of the most prolific DHs ever.

Hermida may never become that kind of power hitter, but his size, coupled with the fact that he’s a good defensive player with an above-average arm capable of playing right field, makes him an enticing player.

Again, that was the thinking when the Sox acquired him.

“To turn the corner, he’s got to play,’’ said a National League manager. “He could easily be a J.D. Drew type, maybe better, but if he’s platooning, not sure what that does for him or for the team. He’s reaching that critical age where he could just continue being what he is or he could become an All-Star player.’’

The Sox aren’t going to have much of an answer for now, because even they don’t know. Hermida is protection if an outfielder (such as Drew) goes down with an injury. He’s protection if the Sox do the unthinkable and deal Ellsbury. As it stands, the Sox will go into spring training saying there will be at-bats for Hermida, which they certainly must so that he doesn’t get discouraged.

TACTICS ON TAXES

Contract creativity can keep you away from the threshold

Creativity is key this time of the year. It’s tough to sign high-end players such as Bay and Matt Holliday, but if Bay wants to return to the Red Sox and if the Red Sox want to avoid paying a luxury tax, they and Bay’s agent would have to get very creative on a contract. The Sox, according to major league sources, are debating whether they’ll go for it and pay luxury tax money, knowing they have up to $48 million coming off the books at season’s end (Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Julio Lugo).

While Boston’s exact payroll figure is not yet known, the Red Sox appear to be moving closer to the $170 million tax threshold. If they find a creative way to keep Bay and still stay under the threshold, it would handcuff them in trying to make a midseason deal for, say, Gonzalez.

Yet Bay and Holliday still intrigue the Sox. The addition of Holliday, whom the Sox offered a five-year, $82 million contract, would mean paying a luxury tax.

A couple of agents see one way to add Bay at close to the $60 million over four years he turned down is by offering a lower-base one-year deal with most of the money backloaded in three option years. That way only the lower base salary of one year would be tacked onto the payroll.

The Sox showed creativity when they protected themselves on John Lackey’s deal by adding an option for a sixth year should Lackey miss any time because of elbow surgery. Lackey would have to play at the major league minimum in the sixth year should he miss time with such an injury.

On the other end is low-salary creativity. Baseball executives believe there will be some great value players available in free agency into mid-January, with several established players signing minor league deals.

“The Pirates will load up on players like these,’’ said one National League GM. “There’ll be good value, players who can fill a role for your club.’’

One NL scout believes that you can have too many players with minor league deals and invitations to major league camp.

“It can definitely create kind of a crowded situation sometimes in spring training, but sometimes you don’t want to miss out on taking a look at players who may be able to fill a role,’’ he said.

Old hands have something left

Old guys who may be able to round out a rotation:

1. Randy Johnson. The Big Unit likely will declare his intentions in January. After being shut down with a rotator cuff tear last summer, Johnson did return to pitch in relief for the Giants in September. Johnson, 46, still can pitch on a limited basis and he could return to San Francisco, in the area where he grew up. More than likely, he would want to stay on the West Coast. With Ken Griffey back in Seattle, how about RJ? Johnson has 303 wins, but he needs 125 strikeouts for 5,000.

2. Pedro Martinez. Given the way he pitched at the end of the season, he still could help at the back end of a National League rotation. You’d have to be careful about using him too often; he may have to skip a turn now and then. The Mets are considering him again, and with good reason: They need him.

3. John Smoltz. He didn’t get it done in Boston (2-5, 8.32 ERA in eight starts) but pitched better in St. Louis (1-3, 4.26 in seven starts). His ties to Nationals president Stan Kasten from Atlanta give Smoltz, 42, an opening there, but does he want to spend what could be his last hurrah with a team that won’t win?

4. Livan Hernandez. Still kicking, with an arm that just won’t die. He’s had a couple of miserable years, but he still manages to go out there and throw 180 innings. At 35 (ahem), Hernandez likely will get a team to bring him into spring training, or he could be someone who gets picked up early in the season.

5. Jose Contreras. Tough go of it with the White Sox (5-13, 5.42) but in seven games with Colorado he had a 1.59 ERA. Another guy who can get on a roll. Contreras, 38, likely will get a spring training invitation and be an endpiece for someone.

6. Paul Byrd. The 39-year-old rent-a-pitcher still is capable of a good game now and then. He made four respectable starts for the Sox last season. He still can trick hitters and likely would be better in the National League. Again, an emergency-type guy if all else fails. Byrd may want to continue to be a late-season guy who comes along in August and helps a team get through a tough stretch.

Etc.

Apropos of nothing
1. Seems like David Wright is no longer a great fit for the Mets (because of Citi Field), but he would be for the Red Sox (because of Fenway); 2. The Yankees stole Javier Vazquez; 3. Brian Cashman is up to something; 4. Whoever gets Xavier Nady gets the best value of the offseason; 5. Are the Pirates still in the league?

Updates on nine
1. Troy Glaus, 1B, Braves - A low-risk, high-reward signing, Glaus has tremendous power (five 30-homer seasons - two of 40 - and four 100-RBI seasons), and if he is healthy after back and shoulder injuries diminished his career the past few years, he could be a monster. Glaus is agile enough to be a decent first baseman and a heck of a target for his infielders. The one negative trend for the Braves is the lack of commitment to payroll that the owners are making. They had to pass on their own free agents Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano for cheaper versions in Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito. And they traded a good pitcher (Vazquez) for Melky Cabrera.

2. Kerry Wood, RHP, Indians - The Indians would love to move his $10 million salary and $11 million option for 2011, but with a glut of reliever/closer types out there, there has been no cry for Wood, who still can bring it. Wood might be enticing to the Red Sox if they decide to expand their budget.

3. Fausto Carmona, RHP, Indians - The Tribe would say he’s not available, but baseball executives don’t buy it. Carmona has been an enigma at times, but as one longtime National League talent evaluator said, “He’s got one of the best three sinkers in the game.’’ Not a front-end starter, but if a team needs a middle-to-back-end guy, the rebuilding Indians would have to listen.

4. Dan Uggla, 2B, Marlins - There’s no doubt the Marlins are planning another payroll dump, and Uggla would appear to be at the center of it. There was a lot of early talk about him going to the Giants, but that seems to have quieted down. Some scouts believe Uggla is best suited for the American League as a DH or someone you can move around, like a Mark DeRosa. The Marlins, who receive a ton in revenue-sharing and central-fund money, are looking to keep their profit margin high.

5. Jon Garland, RHP, free agent - A market is beginning to develop, and Texas appears to be the early leader. Another mid-to-back-end rotation guy that is probably better off in the NL, but that doesn’t mean an AL team won’t take the plunge if the price is reasonable.

6. Orlando Hudson, 2B, free agent - Seems he was the hot name for a long time, but that has quieted. The Mets remain the most interested, but until they are able to move Luis Castillo - a big if - the Mets may only be able to dream about a Jose Reyes-Hudson DP combo.

7. Vladimir Guerrero, DH, free agent - His choices are limited by what are seen as diminished skills in the outfield. Suffice to say he will be somewhere. Now that the Rangers have pulled out of the Mike Lowell deal, Guerrero could be a candidate for them. However, Jermaine Dye might interest Texas more (and maybe the Mets), considering he still can play the outfield.

8. Russell Branyan, 1B, free agent - An interesting bat to consider. Seattle may re-sign him if it’s for one year, but Branyan wants to cash in on his career year. So far, it’s not happening. He’s out there with guys like Jack Cust, Adam LaRoche, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Delgado, Jim Thome, and Hank Blalock. So the competition is fierce.

9. Miguel Tejada, 3B/SS, free agent - Still a very good bat who would be more valuable at third base. He may have the Mitchell Report stigma, but he loves to play the game and is a great teammate. Tejada could be a good fit for the Twins, who are trying to come up with a third baseman. He remains a good fit for the Rangers in a modified Lowell role (DH, 3B, and fill-in SS). He would have been a decent fit for Boston had Lowell gone in a deal.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck Files: “Derek Jeter, Ivan Rodriguez, and Chase Utley all hit 161 homers between 2000 and 2009.’’ Also, “In this decade, Johnny Estrada had the most at-bats (2,079) without hitting a triple.’’ Also, “Javier Vazquez led all pitchers this decade with 193 quality starts, one more than Barry Zito. Mark Buehrle led the American League with 190, while Roy Oswalt led the NL with 185.’’ . . . One of the great scouts of all-time, Houston’s Stan Benjamin, died just before Christmas on Cape Cod. “Not many scouts could brag they got a hit off Carl Hubbell,’’ said longtime Astros scout Paul Ricciarini. “He was a role model. I will miss his guidance, humility, and incredible discipline.’’ . . . Lou Gorman, one of the greats, is back home after long stays at local rehab facilities following back and leg surgeries . . . It’s a winter tradition: the 71st Boston Baseball Writers Association dinner Jan. 14 at the Westin Waterfront. Award winners include Nick Green, Bill James, John Farrell, Lou Merloni, and Rockies manager Jim Tracy. For tickets ($150 apiece), make checks payable to “Boston Chapter, BBWAA’’ and mail them to: Boston Chapter, BBWAA, P.O. Box 7346, Nashua, N.H., 03060. Proceeds from the event will help the chapter continue to support charitable causes . . . Dick Berardino will present Kevin Youkilis with the “Dick Berardino Alumni Award’’ at the Lowell Spinners’ annual dinner Tuesday night at Lowell Memorial Auditorium . . . Happy 68th birthday, Phil Gagliano, and happy 28th, David Aardsma.

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

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