If Manny Delcarmen weren't "one of us," a Boston boy, born and bred in Hyde Park, a West Roxbury High local kid done good with the Boston Red Sox, we have to wonder whether there would be much hesitancy in dealing him away.
Right now, the relief pitcher might be the only thing standing in the way of the Red Sox potentially making a blockbuster deal that would promise to improve them offensively for 2007 and solving a potential offseason pressing need.
There's a reason why many people tend to believe that the Todd Helton discussions between the Red Sox and Rockies that came to light last month are not quite as dead as they seem, if for no other simpler reason than the deal makes plain sense. By most accounts, the teams were discussing a deal that would send the Gold Glove first baseman to Boston in exchange for third baseman Mike Lowell, relief pitcher Julian Tavarez, and one of Craig Hansen or Delcarmen. It was, of course, the third piece of the puzzle that the Red Sox balked at.
Troy Renck reported in yesterday's Denver Post that talks could be rekindled this spring "because the Red Sox like Helton and Colorado covets payroll flexibility because so many young core players are starting to make more money." But Theo Epstein isn't about to surrender young pitching, a trend that became clear at last year's July trading deadline, when some of the kids might have been used as bait in a Roy Oswalt acquisition but were not.
"We're not mortgaging the future of this team," was Epstein's line, just a few months after the team sent a pair of top prospects to Florida for Josh Beckett, and a top-notch third base farmhand to the Indians for Coco Crisp, moves which essentially might have mortgaged the future of the club (in Theo’s defense, he wasn’t GM of the club when the Beckett move was made).
There is a lot expected out of Crisp in 2007, and not just because his initial season in Boston was marred by injury. How good might Andy Marte, dealt to Cleveland for Crisp last season, look right now, waiting in the wings as Lowell plays out the final season of his deal? Instead, the Red Sox, as it stands now, have nobody ready to step into the corner, their third baseman of the future playing over at first. And with a potential 2008 free agent market that isn't exactly sparkling (Lowell might be the best of the bunch at third, Carlos Guillen at first) for infielders, yet is a bonanza of starting pitching (Carlos Zambrano or Curt Schilling?), the Sox might be better off addressing the need now.
If the deal were Lowell and Tavarez for Helton, it would probably already be done, despite the concern for Helton's decreasing numbers and the monstrous salary ($102.1 million due through 2011). But surrendering arms, particularly young ones, in a game in which the wealth of pitching -- despite the general knowledge of its importance -- seems to greaten every season, is not an avenue the Sox are wont to explore. On another possible avenue, the Rockies had expressed offseason interest in Crisp, as well, and one wonders whether the Sox can include their center fielder in any future discussions, which would open the door for more playing time for Wily Mo Pena.
Yet still, it might come down to the realization that giving up one of Delcarmen or Hansen is the proper avenue to solve other needs. In all likelihood, there isn't room for both on this season's roster, at least out of the gate. Hansen's recent back troubles (he had an MRI on Monday that revealed nothing serious) might have something to say about where this is all going by the time we're done with everything. That might make Delcarmen a more attractive option for the Rockies. Although, from the Sox' perspective, if they pursue that avenue, you've now given up a young arm while keeping the one that could have health issues if this continues to flare up.
Hansen certainly has the better pedigree, which might bring more back in return. The 2005 draft pick out of St. John's came into the league touted as the future closer of the Red Sox, a role he very well could assume in 2007 if he matures into it. Still, that's a large “if” after a rocky 2006 in which he sported a 6.63 ERA, and missing time with back issues isn't going to help matters either.
Delcarmen has had a solid career in the Sox minor league system, recovering better than some might have expected from his 2003 Tommy John surgery. But while he has shown flashes of lights out stuff at the major league level, he has yet to do it on a consistent basis. The club is willing to wait, for sure, to see if Delcarmen can put it together, but too much waiting sometimes ends up in Brian Rose.
Despite health concerns and a perceived decrease in offensive numbers from Helton, Fenway Park would seem a dream for a lefty swing like his, and his .404 on-base percentage last season was 15th-best in the majors. That would give the Boston lineup five of the top 40 on-base guys (Manny Ramirez, No. 1, David Ortiz, No. 13, J.D. Drew, No. 18, Kevin Youkilis, No. 32) in the big leagues. That would be a significant offensive upgrade from Lowell, who posted just a .315 OBP after the All-Star break last season.
Lowell's .339 OBP was 111th in the majors last season, his .814 OPS 78th. Helton's .880 OPS last season was the lowest of his career since 1997, when balls flew out of Coors Field as if John Wasdin played the role of designated hurler. But whether it is the humidor's effect on soggy baseballs or a general lack of quality bats hitting around him in the lineup, the LoDo stadium isn't the homer haven it has been in the past, only the 10th-most homer friendly ballpark in the majors last season, a title it used to assume on an annual basis.
For all the talk of how strong the Sox 2007 lineup is, top to bottom, there are certainly major questions marks in Lowell, Crisp, Varitek, Julio Lugo, and Dustin Pedroia. The best lineup 1 through 9 in baseball? It's going to take a lot of convincing for the sane to admit that before we even get to March.
This spring, much of the discussion has centered around which pitching candidate is going to be the closer in a bullpen that has gone major retooling in the offseason. But to be honest, while there are hurdles to clear there, the pitching may be the lesser of this team's concerns. Aside from Ramirez and Ortiz, there are potential weak holes throughout the batting order. How will Lugo and Drew adjust to Boston? Is Crisp fully healed? Can an aging Varitek rebound? What to expect out of Pedroia in his rookie campaign? And can Lowell be the Lowell of April-June of 2006 instead of the one that regressed to 2005 in the second half?
That's a lot to answer, which is why, you know, they play the games. What we learn starting tonight in the exhibition season will do little next to nothing in ironing out much of what this team has going for it. So don't expect any major revelations about the pitching staff or how devastating this lineup can be anytime soon. It's hard to argue, nonetheless, that the team would not be vastly improved with Helton over Lowell, not just for 2007, but for seasons ahead.
There’s probably only room for one of them (Hansen or Delcarmen) on the Sox’ Opening Day roster. Whether the other is in Denver or Pawtucket is another matter yet to be determined.