Ask Amalie: Spring training edition

It’s one week into spring training, and nothing has been quite as exciting as watching Jose Iglesias take ground balls. That’s not to diminish the work of any of the other members of the Sox that have been through the player development complex over the past few days, but Iglesias’s soft hands have been one of the biggest topics of conversation at camp so far. Can he hit enough for the majors? Where will he start the year? Can he end the ridiculous Sox shortstop run? Of course, that’s not to say that there haven’t been more stories in spring training, ranging from the expected (Dustin Pedroia’s trash talk, players slimmed down and ready to go) to the unexpected (Daisuke Matsuzaka’s minor back injury). But, so far, camp has been mostly quiet, though it will certainly be interesting to hear Mike Lowell address the media today.

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So in between all the spring training stories and spring training video and spring training photographs, here are the answers to a few questions for your perusal. We have Jacoby Ellsbury trade talk, a ranking of the Red Sox farm system, and the status of Tim Wakefield’s spot (or lack thereof) in the rotation.

Since we’ll be delivering the mailbag every other week to you, we need questions! So please take the time to send those things you’ve always wanted to know, whether they’re about the players or the game or anything you’ve ever really wondered about. I’m happy to take off-the-wall questions (as long as I can manage to find answers). If I haven’t been able to get to your question yet, feel free to re-submit it. So until next time, enjoy the weirdness and wackiness of spring training, especially because it means that spring is not that far away. Opening Day will be here before we all know it.

Craig from Preston, Md. asks: Over the past months I continually hear people, some knowledgeable and some not, willing to trade Jacoby Ellsbury. I’ve been a Saux fan since 1941 and during this entire time they’ve been primarily a station to station offensive team. We’ve finally gotten someone who can hit, field and also run and steal bases with the ability to disconcert pitchers. Why does his name continually come up in trade talks and just how serious is Theo considering him as a trade viability?

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Answer: This appears to be a bit of a hot-button topic these days. I know that many people are passionate about Jacoby Ellsbury, and therefore unwilling to see him be traded. While I understand that he’s a good player — on his way to very good — he’s certainly not untouchable. He needs to develop his ability to get on base, and would be better if he demonstrated a bit more power. In fact, among leadoff hitters with at least 200 at bats, Ellsbury ranked just 20th in on-base percentage with a .347 OBP at No. 1 in the order. Sure, he’s still young, but there are parts of his game that still need work. As for why his name comes up in trade talks so frequently, that’s simply a part of baseball. Any young, good player will hear his name come up in talks now and then (or frequently). If you were a rival general manager, why wouldn’t you ask Theo Epstein about Ellsbury? I think Epstein would trade Ellsbury in the right circumstances, just as he would trade any of his players in the right circumstances. Untouchable players are few and far between, and I’m not sure the Sox have any at this point. I’d call Casey Kelly as close to that as you get in the organization, but the right deal usually can get around quite a few reservations about shipping away talent.

Stefan from Hamburg, Germany asks: Hi Amalie,how do you rate the Red Sox’ farm system? The comments that mostly appear in RS articles makes you think it is among the top 5 in baseball. Researching surveys around the web (i.e. mlb fanhouse) suggest a more mediorce ranking. Especially with the projected “bridge” to be finished in 2 years, I wonder what the construction bureau (F.O.) has up its sleeve, i.e. what they only see from the inside, if at all. Do we need another pair of glasses?

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Answer: In the 2009 organizational talent rankings by Baseball America, the Sox came in at 13th, between the Phillies and the Reds. That’s a drop from the last couple years. (They were second in 2008.) The Sox have mined their minor league system in recent seasons, plucking such notables as Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Jed Lowrie, Clay Buchholz, Ellsbury, and Pedroia. Given the amount and quality of the players that have made the major league roster, there was bound to be a slide in the rankings. The Sox are mostly barren at this point in the upper minors, with a few potentially helpful players at the higher levels (Junichi Tazawa, Michael Bowden, Mark Wagner). But most of their talent remains slightly lower in the organization, in the form of players like Kelly and Ryan Westmoreland, Ryan Kalish and Iglesias. I would think that the Sox might be ranked somewhere at the bottom of the top third in baseball when Baseball America comes out with its next rankings.

Mark from Burlington, Vt. asks: If all goes as expected and Wakefield is in the bullpen, I know he’ll be a long man, but do you expect him to be utilized largely as Dice-K’s “personal long reliever”? Or do you think Dice will go farther into games this year?

Answer: I’m not so sure that it’s expected that Tim Wakefield will be in the bullpen. I’m not expecting it. When Terry Francona was asked about the possibility last week, he said, “Wake’s a starter. We need some time to answer those questions [about his role]. I can’t do that today. We’re trying to put a staff together for the whole year. We’ll figure all that out. Rather than try to answer that, the best way to go about it is to get guys really healthy and productive and then if we have to make decisions, we’ll gladly do that.” Francona has maintained throughout the offseason that Wakefield is a starter. And you can be sure that Wakefield re-signed with the Red Sox to be a starter and to break the franchise career wins record. He reiterated that when speaking to the media recently, emphasizing that he should be one of the five starters, and that the coaching staff had mentioned that the team is better with Wakefield in the rotation. So I’m not sure he’d be a happy camper out in the bullpen. My guess is that he’ll be more of a spot starter. It will be an interesting story to follow this spring. As for whether Matsuzaka might last a little longer in games, I’m not sure I know the answer to that. The Sox certainly hope that’s the case, but we’ll have to see him more to see if he’s gotten to a point where he can be more efficient and throw more innings.


Jeff from Millbury asks: While the Sox are pretty clear that they see having more than 5 starters available as a feature rather than a bug, the question still remains as to how the rotation will pan out if all 6 probable starters are healthy for opening day. Assuming all that, we know the Beckett/Lester/Lackey is a go, but beyond that, who starts in the bullpen? Matsuzaka seems the least suited for it, and Wakefield has said he’s earned a starting spot, but would it help Buchholz? What’s the common wisdom currently?
Answer: And it’s a good question, related to the one above. There’s certainly the chance that one of the six starters won’t make it through spring training healthy, but there’s no guarantee of that (nor would the Sox ever really hope for that). That means that the Sox could be left sifting through their six men for just five starting spots come the end of March. As you said, the Big Three (Beckett, Lester, and Lackey) are all certain to be in the rotation. Matsuzaka is not at all suited for the bullpen, and the Sox have been clear that they see Wakefield as a starter, as I mentioned. But those in the organization seem to be counting on Buchholz as a key part of their rotation. When Epstein spoke about Buchholz last week, he certainly sounded like he was speaking about a pitcher he expected to see starting every fifth day. I think there’s nothing left for Buchholz to prove in the minors, especially given how good he was down the stretch last season. He was as good as anyone in the American League at points, and there seems to be only one place for him — the rotation. So, as I mentioned above, it’s certainly possible that Wakefield could be bound for spot starting duty. The Sox keep talking about the long haul with him. Perhaps there’s a subtle message there.
Adam from Chicago asks: We have two guys named Ramon Ramirez now. Which is the one we got from KC and where did the other one come from?
Answer: Love Chicago! Now, back to your question. Yes, this might get a bit confusing if Ramirez & Ramirez end up pitching for the major league club at the same time. Their personal stats, in fact, are almost as close as their names. Ramon Ramirez, the original, stands at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, and was born in 1981. Ramon A. Ramirez, Part Deux, stands at 6-foot, 190 pounds, and was born in 1982. Fortunately, though, they don’t look at all alike. And the original Ramon wears No. 56, while the new arrival wears No. 71. Ramon A. was claimed off waivers from the Rays in December after the Rays had claimed him from the Reds in November. Really, it’s all very confusing.
Bob from Mountain View, Calif. asks: Amalie, please help me to get some sanity on something from last year. The Sox traded Julio Lugo to St. Louis, they agreed to pay his entire salary (about 12M?) and all they got in return was a minor leaguer (Chris Duncan) who they released after about a month? Is this is how it went or was there more to it? If so was it really so bad to have him on the team that they would pay ALL of his salary to have him play somewhere else, and to get nothing in return?
Answer: No, Bob, you’re not missing anything. You’re entirely correct. The Red Sox were so ready to be done with Julio Lugo that they gave him away for nothing. That’s essentially what they did, getting a player that had little chance of ever doing anything in the organization. The marriage between Lugo and the Red Sox was never a good one. The athleticism that he’d shown with Tampa Bay was never evident in Boston. He didn’t have the defensive ability to man the position, nor did he ever demonstrate the offensive ability that so attracted the Sox to him. The fit was simply a poor one. And, now that it’s all over, there’s no question that it was a bad deal from the beginning, something that even members of the front office will admit. With Lugo not able to play shortstop at all by the end, and not able to produce with the bat, there was no place for him on the major league roster. The Sox knew that they would get more out of replacing him with Jed Lowrie, once he came off the disabled list, than by leaving him active. It’s actually amazing to me that in his time with the Red Sox, given the amount of money he was paid by them, that there were so few positive moments that directly involved Lugo. At the end it just got to the point that they that they weren’t getting enough to keep him. Since the money was a sunk cost, they decided that they would be a better team without Lugo.
Rick from Yarmouth asks: I was recently checking the upcoming 2010 mlb draft order. I noticed that the Red Sox received a first-round and sandwich round pick for Billy Wagner (1st rounder from Atlanta). For some reason, they only recieve a sandwich pick for the loss of Jason Bay. Why do they not receive a first-round pick or even a second round pick from the Mets for Bay? He was a type A free agent and I thought that meant they get a 1st rounder and a sandwich pick. Please explain because I can’t find the answer any where.
Answer: Thanks for the question, Rick. The Sox did, in fact, receive both a first-round pick and a sandwich pick from the Braves when Atlanta signed the Type A free agent. They then lost their first-round pick with the signing of Type A free agent Marco Scutaro and their second-round pick with the signing of Type A free agent Lackey. (This is slightly confusing because the Blue Jays actually ended up with the Sox’ second-round pick, and the Angels got their first-round pick, since Lackey was rated more highly.) With the loss of Jason Bay, the Sox would have gained a first-round pick had most teams signed him. But the Mets’ first-round pick was protected, meaning that the Sox only received a sandwich pick and a second-round pick for Bay. So they didn’t get as much as they would have had another team inked the left-fielder — or had the Mets been better (and not had a protected first-round pick).
Steve from Sarasota, Fla. asks: With 500 plus home sellouts and two World Series titles, do you think the Sox feel a bit trapped by their own success? Will they continue to spend they way they do to maintain a championship contending team or is a “rebuilding” year acceptable to ownership?
Answer: I don’t think that’s the case. I think that this ownership group has proven that they’re willing to spend in some cases, just not spend quite as wildly as the Yankees. Even in a year that Epstein referred to as a “bridge” year, the Sox spent enough that they’re going to be over the $170 million threshold for the competitive balance tax. They signed Lackey, Adrian Beltre, and Mike Cameron this offseason. While those names might not be the offensive forces that most of Red Sox Nation would have like to have seen in Boston in 2010, the team also didn’t sit back and let other teams sign all of the free agents. It will be interesting to see if Epstein’s strategy of pitching and defense results in a playoff appearance, and if it results in playoff success. But I would hardly say that the Sox are on their way to rebuilding seasons. As you’ll recall, the Sox have reached the postseason every year since 2003 (with the exception of the injury-riddled 2006), giving this front office and ownership quite a good record on contending. I can’t see that ending any time soon.
Ryan from Boston asks: Amalie, the fourth bench spot is obviously wide open. Assuming Mike Lowell is either traded or begins the year on the DL, who is most likely to get the spot and how dependent is the decision on whether or not Bill Hall can play shortstop?
Answer: The first three bench spots (should Lowell get traded) would belong to Jason Varitek, Jeremy Hermida, and Bill Hall. The Sox are planning on getting Hall a good amount of time at shortstop as the season wears on. Though he’s unlikely to spend a lot of time there early, Hall will get some time to prove whether or not he can play shortstop if need be. As for that fourth and final spot on the roster, it’s likely to go to either Jed Lowrie or Tug Hulett. Those are the two serious utility infielder candidates that the Sox have on the roster at the moment. It will be interesting to see whether Lowrie can demonstrate to the team that he’s healthy enough to be relied upon for the duration. Epstein has been pointed in his comments about Lowrie and his health, and there’s certainly the possibility that the Sox could determine Lowrie is better suited to Triple A to begin the season.
Matt from Franklin asks: It seems apparent that the Sox will want some injury protection caveats in Beckett’s next contract. Do you think Beckett is amenable to such contingencies and if not, will the Sox let him walk if he refuses to include them? Thank you.
Answer: It’s hard to know how amenable Beckett will be to injury protection in his contract, a contract that he showed no interest in discussing recently. It’s certainly not the first choice of any player to have such clauses in their contracts, but the benefit can be a team willing to spend a little more. The Sox have gotten both J.D. Drew and Lackey to agree to some form of protection, which hasn’t come to play in the case of Drew’s contract. But if Beckett wants to stay with the Red Sox, and the Sox require some protections, Beckett might be forced into accepting it. As for whether the Sox will let him walk, again that’s hard to know. I do think that the Sox will stand firm in their desire to have the clauses inserted into the contract. Given that they have signed Lackey, there is less of a necessity to sign Beckett. They will have many of their starting pitchers (Matsuzaka, Lackey, Lester, Buchholz) under contract and/or control for at least two more years. That gives the Sox a bit more leverage, since their need for Beckett isn’t quite as great as it was before they nabbed Lackey.
Ken from Oakland, Calif. asks: Thanks for all your wonderful coverage and tweets from the Fort. With the news that Manny Ramirez (remember him?) acknowledges the inevitable and plans to make this his last season in LA, what AL team in need of a DH does your crystal ball tell you he’ll end up with next season? And while you’re prognosticating, what kind of reception should we expect from fans when he visits Fenway in June?
Answer: Thanks! I do remember that Manny Ramirez guy. I think it’s going to be hard for him to find a job next season, given how few teams are going to be willing to put up with his shenanigans. The only teams that would be interested are American League clubs in need of a designated hitter. (And though the Sox might just be one of those clubs next season, I’m going to go out on a limb and say he won’t be in Boston in 2011.) If he does come back next year, it will be for significantly less money, and he might simply decide to retire. It’s unclear whether he’ll be willing to take such a drastic pay cut. So, though I wish I had a crystal ball, I’m not sure that I can make a determination on who might sign Ramirez. Your other question, though, I think I have a better grasp on. I think that Ramirez will really hear it from fans when he makes his return in June. Fans seemed to be fed up with his act when the Sox traded him, and I think they’ll show him. He certainly did give fans a lot to love on the field when he was with the Red Sox, but that only goes so far. This, of course, is just my opinion, so feel free to let me know (through e-mail or the mailbag) if you think that I’m wrong on this count. I’d love to hear what you think.

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