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At very least, Beltre an upgrade

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 5, 2010 09:09 AM

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In the simplest terms, with regard to the starting lineup of the 2010 Boston Red Sox, the impact seems obvious. Adrian Beltre is in. Casey Kotchman is out. So continues Theo Epstein’s winter construction of the Golden Glove Bridge.

Whether or not you like Adrian Beltre, you’re missing the point. He’s better than Kotchman. In the long term, the investment is minimal. At the very least, the Red Sox have added defense and more power to a lineup that badly needed some of the latter, though the ramifications of the Beltre signing could affect the Sox on multiple levels, beginning with:

  • Mike Lowell and David Ortiz. Clearly, the Red Sox don’t feel Lowell can play the field anymore. Whether the Sox elect to utilize Lowell as a designated hitter remains to be seen – either full-time or against left-handed pitching - particularly as Lowell recovers from what seems like minor thumb surgery. And given that the Sox were prepared to eat $9 million of the remaining $12 million on Lowell’s contract to trade him for Max Ramirez, there is the possibility that the club will dispose of Lowell again (by trade or otherwise) before the start of the season.

    Beyond that, here is something to consider: Lowell might be a better full-time option at DH over Ortiz, assuming he can stay healthy. Last year, Lowell had an .867 OPS against lefthanders while Ortiz posted one of .716. The difference against righthanders was not nearly as great as one might have thought - .828 for Ortiz, .784 for Lowell – which cannot help but make one wonder if Ortiz could be competing for a job in spring training.

    Of course, if Ortiz hits righthanders like he did in the latter stages of 2009 – he had a .946 OPS against beginning June 1 – then the Sox might have to give serious consideration to a platoon. That could put a great deal of pressure on manager Terry Francona to appease a pair of proud veteran players who generally are accustomed to playing everyday.

  • The defense. With Beltre in the starting lineup over Kotchman, the Red Sox will feature one of the best defensive infields in their history - assuming newcomer Marco Scutaro grades out as the Sox project. Keeping Youkilis at first base gives the Sox recent Gold Glove winners at first (Youkilis, 2007), second (Dustin Pedroia, 2008), and third (Beltre, 2007-08), which takes the philosophy of pitching-and-defense to new levels. Add in center fielder Mike Cameron (`01, `03, `06), and the Sox could boast seven Gold Gloves in their starting lineup on a nightly basis.

    Furthermore, Jacoby Ellsbury should score quite well defensively in left field. And we all know that J.D. Drew can handle right.

    Ah, but only if the Sox still had an elite defensive catcher.

  • The lineup. Given his propensity to swing – over the last five years, he ranks among the 15 most impatient hitters in the American League based on percentage of pitches taken – Beltre hardly seems to fit with the Red Sox philosophy of patience and plate discipline. Nonetheless, Beltre posted a .277 batting average and .813 OPS away from canyonesque Safeco Field during his time with the Mariners, numbers that are eerily similar to Lowell’s career averages (.280, .810). Over the last couple of seasons, he also has annihilated lefties (a .932 OPS).

    Get the picture? Factoring in defense, what the Red Sox could be getting here is a younger Mike Lowell – with better speed.

    As a result, the Red Sox’ projected lineup now looks something like this, leaving room for some platooning and pinch-hitting depending on left-right matchups:

    Starters
    1. Jacoby Ellsbury, LF
    2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
    3. Victor Martinez, C
    4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B
    5. Ortiz/Lowell, DH
    6. J.D. Drew, RF
    7. Adrian Beltre, 3B
    8. Mike Cameron, CF
    9. Marco Scutaro, SS

    Bench
    Casey Kotchman, 1B
    Jed Lowrie, IF
    Ortiz/Lowell, DH
    Jason Varitek, C
    Jeremy Hermida, LF

    At the moment, one obvious problem is that the Sox have too many players (5) on their bench to accommodate a 12-man pitching staff, which has been their preference under manager Terry Francona. Unless the Sox carry just 11 pitchers, someone from the group of Lowell, Kotchman, or Ortiz will need to be trimmed from the roster.

  • The payroll. With the Beltre acquisition, the Sox actual cash outlay for the 2010 season currently rests in the vicinity of $160 million, rivaling the franchise-high total established in 2007. Under the formula used to calculate the luxury tax – this includes roughly $10-$11 million for benefits and uses the average annual value of all contracts – the Sox project closer to a whopping $180 million. That figure places the Sox about $10 million over the luxury tax threshold and means that the Beltre deal actually will cost the club closer to $12-$13 million (instead of $10 million) given the tax implications.

    One obvious question here is whether the Beltre acquisition will affect the Sox’ financial flexibility and, thus, their ability to add players during the season. The team could save some money by executing another trade for Lowell – they would have saved $3 million in the deal with Texas - or even moving Kotchman, who is eligible for arbitration and will end up with a salary of roughly $3 million.

    Also, consider this: If Kotchman ends up going to arbitration, his salary would become non–guaranteed until late in spring training.

  • The long term. For the Sox, one of the real beauties of the Beltre deal is that the team is committed to only one year, perhaps two, though the second season would be a bargain ($5 million) if Beltre opts to return. Regardless, the Sox are hardly crippled by this. The Red Sox love short term deals, almost independent of salary, and the fact that Beltre effectively has a one-year, $10 million contract will serve them well.

    Here’s why: If Beltre has a good year and leaves, the Sox can either re-sign him or shake hands and part ways. In Beltre, Lowell, Ortiz, Varitek, Julio Lugo, and Josh Beckett alone, the Sox will have in the neighborhood of $45-$55 million to spend next winter depending on where they set their payroll, leaving them great flexibility for what projects to be a far better free agent class than this one.

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    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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