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Will glove be a better fit?

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff December 15, 2009 08:41 AM

Did the Red Sox really just sign a 36-year-old journeyman outfielder in lieu of one of the market's top free agents and actually get better in the process?

Yup.

At least, that's the theory of Dave Cameron over on Fangraphs.com. Last night, colleague Daigo Fujiwara pointed out Cameron's article from Nov. 9 making the argument that the underrated Mike Cameron was actually a better overall player than Jason Bay.

Bay has produced +28 runs above average per 600 PA with the bat since 2002, while Cameron is at +13 runs above average per 600 PA over the same time frame. Thatís a 15 run per season gap. Itís a real difference, but probably smaller than the perception of their relative offensive abilities.

Thatís just the offensive side, of course. On the other side of the ball, Cameron is one of the better defensive center fielders in the game, while Bay is a bad defensive corner outfielder. You donít have to trust UZR to agree with those assessments. Those arenít controversial statements.

If we want to look at the numbers, Cameron is +6 UZR/150 over the last eight years, while Bay is -8 UZR/150. But, of course, they arenít being compared to the same average baseline, since Cameron plays CF and Bay plays LF. Historically, the gap between an average LF and an average CF is about 10 runs, so the gap is actually 24 runs over their careers.

Even if you donít like UZR, and you want to cut that number in half to account for your uncertainty about defensive value, youíll still come out with a total value that makes them about equal. And, given the samples we have, you should trust UZR a lot more than that. With a correct amount of regression, the defensive difference comes out larger than the offensive difference, making Cameron the better player overall.

Namesake nepotism aside, Cameron also points out that the new Red Sox outfielder has been worth about 29.6 wins above replacement since 2002, the first year WAR was recorded. That puts him in similar company with guys like David Ortiz, Aramis Ramirez, and Jim Thome.

Fast-forward more than a month later, and the Sox signed Cameron yesterday for two years and $15.5 million, about what it would have cost for one year of Bay. That means the Red Sox won't have to be married to Bay for the next four or five seasons, something they likely didn't want to do based on medical reports, defensive play, and his general streakiness at the dish. What they lose in offense, they make up in defense for the next two seasons, allowing them to spend their money more wisely when the free agent market has something more valuable down the road.

If you're paying Jason Bay $60-75 million to play left field for the foreseeable future, it's kind of difficult to convince Carl Crawford the position is his if he wants it next winter. With Cameron, the Sox now have the added flexibility of moving him to center should they wish to include Jacoby Ellsbury in a package for some much-needed offense. Improving what was one of baseball's worst defenses is one thing, but somebody still has to hit the ball.

Also, not for nothing, but when you're talking about upgrading defensively, it's kind of cool when Cameron's most similar batter on Baseball Reference is Tom Brunansky, author of one of the most memorable catches over the last 20 years in Boston.

It was a busy day over on Yawkey Way, the Red Sox finalizing a deal with Cameron hours after we learned that free agent hurler John Lackey was in town for a physical and is set to dot "i's" and cross "t's" any moment now on a five-year contract. That was the real stunner. It's the longest deal Theo Epstein and Co. have ever given a free agent pitcher (outside of the circumstances surrounding Daisuke Matsuzaka), which means no doubt that Josh Beckett, who is two years younger than the 31-year-old Lackey, won't accept any less than that while negotiating an extension.

Yes, Lackey is a fiery competitor, but he's only won 23 games over the last two seasons, missing time with various injuries. Lackey pitched 200-plus innings four of his first six seasons in the big leagues (198 1/3 in 2004), but has only managed 163 1/3 and 176 1/3 the last two seasons. After striking out 199 and 190 batters in consecutive seasons in 2005-06, Angels fans watched his rate dramatically dip, down to 179, then 130, and 139 each of the last three seasons.

In other words, this isn't like signing CC Sabathia. There is a bit of risk involved. Firebrand's Evan Brunell has a great, if sobering rundown on many of the factors that make Lackey unlike any other Epstein signing before. Brunell, for one, doesn't understand the deal, stating, "It flies in the face of everything Theo seems to value: Not marrying himself to a pitcher long-term ó especially one that is entering his age-31 year, and one with red flags all over the plate statistically and physically."

Odd? Indeed. I'm vastly curious to see what Epstein's answer is when asked why the Red Sox decided Lackey was worth five years other than he was the "best guy available" and five years was what it would take to "get it done."

Still, in one rapid-fire day, the Red Sox made their 2010 mantra clear: Pitching and defenseÖsomething, something. They're clearly not done either, still needing to finalize the Mike Lowell deal, sign Adrian Beltre, or remain content with a Kevin Youkilis shift to third and Casey Kotchman as an everyday first baseman. So long, Jason Bay and Matt Holliday, but forgive us if we don't back up the welcome wagon for Adrian Gonzalez just quite yet.

In the end, Jason Bay had a nice, if indeed forgettable, stay in Boston. Maybe there's a chance he could return, shifting Cameron to his natural center field (something that could also happen anyway should Jeremy Hermida warrant more playing time in left) and dealing Ellsbury.

But maybe that much-talked about bridge leads to Carl Crawford next offseason.

Or Felix Hernandez in 2012.

These Red Sox are undergoing a rapid makeover before our eyes. Let's see them add a big-time slugger though before we start espousing how good they can be.

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