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Identifying potential Sox trade partners

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 11, 2008 12:41 PM

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Years ago, the spin was altogether different: Who could possibly want what the Red Sox have to sell? But now, with the Boston farm system among the most productive in baseball, particularly with regard to pitching, the Red Sox have the goods.

MAZZ'S HOT STOVE SERIES: Continuing today and ending on Nov. 13, the day before free agents can sign with any team, the Globe's Tony Massarotti will tackle an offseason topic of interest to Red Sox fans each day. Check out the schedule below.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 4:
    Shortstop in focus
  • Wednesday, Nov. 5:
    Yankees: Under construction
  • Thursday, Nov. 6:
    Handicapping the field of potential Manny suitors
  • Friday, Nov. 7:
    Top prize: Mark Teixeira
  • Tuesday, Nov. 11:
    Most likely Sox trade partners
  • Wednesday, Nov. 12:
    Big-ticket starters and the art of building a bullpen
  • Thursday, Nov. 13:
    Tony's best- and worst-case offseason scenarios for the Red Sox and Yankees
  • MORE FROM MAZZ:

  • Sox' 5 biggest offseason questions
  • Player-by-player Sox overview
  • Big names in play
  • Agent could Boras to death
  • Red Sox aren't afraid to be bold
  • Sox look soft in the middle
  • So what can they get for their product?

    Now in their seventh offseason since their historic change in ownership, the Red Sox clearly have demonstrated a willingness to think big. During the Henry era, the Sox have executed offseason trades for, among others, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Mike Lowell, the latter two coming in the same transaction. Generally speaking, all of Boston's big trades have come using prospects inherited from the Dan Duquette regime, largely for a pair of reasons.

    1. General manager Theo Epstein was intent on restocking the farm system with players drafted by new Sox administrators, meaning he focused more on adding than subtracting.
    2. Epstein clearly likes his own minor leaguers better than those of Duquette, which is entirely understandable.

    Think about it: Excluding rent-a-player acquisitions like Eric Gagne, Paul Byrd, and Mark Kotsay -- all of whom were shrewd pickups by Epstein -- the young Sox general manager has protected his youngest assets. The Sox went just far enough in talks for Johan Santana last winter to send him somewhere else. A year earlier, the Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, and Julio Lugo, filling their needs via free agency. And following the 2006 season, owner John Henry was among those who argued for signing A.J. Burnett rather than trading for Beckett, largely because the former did not require the forfeiture of any young talent.

    As much as the Red Sox have argued that the free-agent market is "inefficient" -- that is often Epstein's description of choice -- they have shown a willingness to sacrifice dollars more than players. Given the success of the Boston operation on the whole, that is not meant to sound like a criticism as much as it is a statement of fact, demonstrating just how much value the Sox place on their prospects.

    The point? The Red Sox have made it quite clear at this stage that they will not give away their young players. Just the same, the Sox have a handful of needs this offseason, some of which (like catcher) might more easily be filled through trade than via free agency, depending on developments in this year's market.

    Here is a look at some teams that could be a "fit" for the Sox come trade time, starting with the most obvious:

    • Texas Rangers. The Rangers need pitching and have catching to deal, which makes them the ideal trade partner for the Sox. Quite simply, there is no better fit. Texas has four catchers on its 40-man roster -- Gerald Laird, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, and Max Ramirez -- and one major league evaluator recently suggested that the Rangers would be willing to deal two of them (so long as Ramirez is one of the two).

      That leaves Laird, Teagarden, or Saltalamacchia as the centerpiece of any deal.

      Clearly, if the Sox wanted Laird, they easily could get him. The defensively skilled Teagarden (who is also blessed with power) and the hyped Saltalamacchia are more desirable targets that will cost more, though Epstein and his baseball operations staff understand the difficulty in finding good young catching. If the Red Sox ever were to give up a top pitching prospect like Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, or Justin Masterson -- the last is unlikely -- this is precisely the kind of deal that would inspire them to do it.

      So why hasn't a deal been struck yet? As every executive likes to say at this time of year, there are a lot of "moving parts." If the Red Sox can upgrade their offense significantly on the free-agent market, they can make a lesser trade (Laird?) and keep their pitching prospects because the rest of their lineup would allow them to carry a mediocre catcher. At the same time, if the Sox lose on someone like Mark Teixeira, the cost for Saltalamacchia or Teagarden could go up.

    • Milwaukee Brewers. Let's start with the fact that while Milwaukee's payroll was about $80 million this year -- double the total from 2005 -- the Brewers still spend a little more than half the total of the Red Sox (about $155 million in 2008). Milwaukee made the playoffs this year behind a starting rotation that included CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, but both are free agents. The Brewers might be lucky to keep one, which means they'll be looking for pitching.

      Like Epstein, general manager Doug Melvin has done a nice job of amassing young talent, so Milwaukee has offense to deal for pitching. Among those potentially available are first baseman Prince Fielder and shortstop J.J. Hardy, each of whom could fill a need in the Boston lineup. If the Sox lose out on Teixeira, Fielder is an obvious backup plan. If the Sox lose out on both, they could attempt to upgrade the offense at shortstop and catcher while keeping Kevin Youkilis at first base and Mike Lowell at third, making Jed Lowrie available by trade or employing him as a utility man.

      Why are Hardy and Fielder potentially available? Money first, organizational depth second. Fielder is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time this year (his salary will explode) and he has been dissatisfied with how the Brewers have negotiated with him in the past. In Hardy's case, the Brewers have prospect Alcides Escobar on the way and Hardy is also eligible for arbitration. Lots of possibilities here and the Sox have a strong relationship with Melvin.

    • Philadelphia Phillies. Admittedly, this isn't the kind of trade that would get fans buzzing -- at least in Boston -- but the clubs could match up well depending on other developments. If the Red Sox address their lineup concerns with a presence like Teixeira or Fielder, Lowell will be available. Phillies third basemen ranked among the worst in baseball this year in terms of offensive production, and Philadelphia tried to sign Lowell last winter.

      What would the Sox get back? Bullpen help or prospects, the latter of which could help re-stock the system (or address another need) if the Sox make other moves. Philadelphia had the best bullpen ERA in the majors this year and has the payroll to take on Lowell's contract, assuming the player's health. That said, Lowell (hip surgery) needs to prove he is healthy before any kind of deal can happen.

      Keep in mind: The Sox are not necessarily looking to trade Lowell as much as it is an option. Beyond his obvious value as a player, part of the reason the club was willing to sign him last offseason is because third basemen are in short supply, which means Lowell has value on the trade market.

    • Cleveland Indians. The odds are not likely that Cleveland will trade catcher Kelly Shoppach, but again, there's a fit if these teams want to explore it. The Indians ranked among the major league leaders in offensive production from their catchers last season and they effectively have two starters in Victor Martinez and Shoppach. The latter, of course, is a former Red Sox prospect whom the Sox sent away in the Coco Crisp deal, but his value has now skyrocketed after a season in which he hit 21 home runs.

      For what it's worth, Shoppach is now 28, only offering further evidence that catchers are often late to develop.

      Like many clubs, Cleveland is in the market for pitching and/or an infielder, which makes the Sox a good match. The problem (for the Sox) is that Indians general manager Mark Shapiro recognizes Shoppach's value and easily could make Martinez his first baseman while shifting Ryan Garko to designated hitter given the dropoff in Travis Hafner's game. In the end, the Sox likely would have to persuade the Indians here, and it's not in Epstein's nature to overpay. Still, the teams match up, which makes anything possible.

    • San Diego Padres. Just as Duquette frequently dealt with his former team, the Montreal Expos, so Epstein has dealt with his former club, the Padres. San Diego GM Kevin Towers looks to be in the process of blowing things up and starting over, which means everyone is available. Already, the Sox reportedly inquired about a deal that would send Crisp to the Padres for shortstop Khalil Greene, though, obviously, the Padres would have made that deal by now if it had any real appeal to them.

      Still, the Padres were so bad last year that Towers seems to be putting most everyone up for auction. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez would seem untouchable given that he is young, productive, and cost-effective, but the Padres also have a power-hitting prospect in the 6-foot-6-inch, 270-pound Kyle Blanks, a 21-year-old slugger who has knocked in 100 or more runs in each of the last two minor league seasons. Again, Epstein has a great deal to offer if the Padres truly want to go young, though it seems more likely that the Padres would trade Blanks, who might have limited value in Boston at the moment. (Note that the Sox tried to get Gonzalez from the Rangers before Texas foolishly shipped him -- and pitcher Chris Young, no less -- to San Diego in a deal centered around Adam Eaton.

    Remember: The Sox' most valuable assets are their prospects, which means that the club's best chances for a deal are with rebuilding clubs or those possessing a small payroll (or both). Crisp and Lowell are not likely to get them anything big in return. Also, because the wild card has created interdivisional competition, deals within the league are now comparable to those within the division, making trades with NL clubs more likely.

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    Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

    About Mazz

    Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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