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The Adrian Gonzalez Conspiracy Theory

Adrian Gonzalez (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Boston baseball hasn’t convulsed with this much rampant speculation since the Red Sox tried to bring Alex Rodriguez to the Hub. From newspapers and television to water coolers and the Web, one name has the Nation dreaming Gheorghe Muresan big: Adrian Gonzalez.

Today, according to multiple reports, the price tag for the slugging Padre first baseman is no less than pitcher Clay Buchholz, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and a prospect or two.

Now that’s more like it.

Previous reports, featuring more unnamed sources than Woodward and Bernstein ever dreamed of, claimed two top prospects, Casey Kelly and Ryan Westmoreland, would get the deal done. Others reports said four of Boston’s top prospects were the asking price, and yesterday’s package du jour claimed Buchholz and either Westmoreland or Kelly would suffice.

It now appears those rumors were unsubstantiated drivel. After all, wouldn’t Gonzalez already be scheduled for a press conference at Yawkey Way if new San Diego GM (and old friend) Jed Hoyer only wanted Buchholz and a single-A prospect for the 27-year-old, gold glove, all-star?

Buchholz, Ellsbury, and two prospects. That package, after all the other packages we’ve been told would get the deal done, sounds the most realistic. Why? Because San Diego has the Gonzalez wrapped up for two more seasons at a grand total of $10.5 million; Gonzalez is a San Diego native and the heart of the franchise; and Hoyer knows the Sox inside and out and would never make his first deal as the Padres GM one that would appear to favor his former employers.

In other words, Hoyer can ask for everything and Theo Epstein’s gorilla suit for Gonzalez. And if the Red Sox want him that badly, that’s what they’ll have to pay.

The question now is, should the Sox pony up? My answer, as you’ll see below, is yes. But I also propose this is the deal the Red Sox have been working toward all off-season. Follow me, intrepid readers, as I take you on a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of the imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead: The Gonzalez Conspiracy Theory!

Buchholz and Ellsbury

Sox fans love Jacoby Ellsbury like Sloth from “Goonies” loved Rocky Road ice cream. Nick Cafardo does too, as evidenced by this quote from his most recent column:

“If Ellsbury is the hot name from the San Diego side, then Theo Epstein should just say no.”

That’s what I call objective reporting. Cafardo states his case thusly:

“Ellsbury is a special player who hit .301, stole 70 bases, and scored 94 runs last season, and one who plays a very good center field and is just 26 years old… and while his on-base percentage in 2009 was a pedestrian .355, it was .388 in September and October.”

Before I play armchair sports reporter and pick Cafardo apart, I’ll come clean: I love me some Ellsbury, too—what Sox fan doesn’t love a player capable of the rare and jaw-dropping feat of stealing home plate?

But one thing gets in the way of labeling Ellsbury as untouchable: the facts.

Fact 1: Ellsbury is a below-average leadoff hitter.

Cafardo points out Ellsbury’s overall OBP of .355, which was the exact average OBP of all AL leadoff hitters, but he neglects to recognize Jacoby’s OBP when he actually hit leadoff.

In 117 games atop the batting order (he played roughly 40 games bouncing around everywhere from second to ninth), Ellsbury’s OBP was .347. That’s not far from the AL average of .355, but when Jacoby actually led off an inning, the spot in the order the Red Sox depend on him to get on base and work the count, Ellsbury’s OBP was a meager .316.

Fact 2: Ellsbury is a below-average center fielder.

Sorry Nick, it’s true. Your eyes see the blazing speed that enables Ellsbury to track down line drives that appear out of reach to mere mortals, but the stats tell us Jacoby’s speed is making up for getting bad jumps on the ball—bad jumps that turn outs into base hits.

Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is a defensive stat that tracks every ball hit in MLB. Based on this data, and whether or not that ball turned into a hit or an out, statisticians create “zones” for each position on the diamond. It’s a complex stat, but it comes down to this: get to balls outside the zone, your score goes up; miss balls inside the zone or make an error, the score goes down.

Ellsbury’s UZR (according to the formula used by FanGraphs) in 2009 was a dismal negative 18.6. That means Ellsbury’s defensive play allowed opposing teams to score 18 more runs than the average center fielder in MLB prevented.

As a timely comparison, new Red Sox outfielder Mike Cameron posted a UZR of plus 10 playing center field for the Brewers in 2009. (And now you know why the Sox didn’t introduce Cameron to the Nation as the team’s new left fielder—more on this later.)

Jacoby Ellsbury is talented, young, and possibly the most exciting player to ever don a Red Sox uniform. Is he untouchable? No.

Consider: Young, top-notch pitching is coveted by every club, making Buchholz key to any package in a Gonzalez deal. But Ellsbury is truly the perfect fit for San Diego. He’s an exciting young player with movie star good looks that could easily step in as the face of a rebuilding National League franchise. His speed and ability to hit the ball in the gap would be even more valuable in cavernous Petco Field.

Consider: Even if the Sox don’t deal Ellsbury, he likely won’t bat leadoff or play center in 2010. Marco Scutaro posted a .379 OBP in 2009, .361 when he led off an inning, and looks like a far better fit. If the Red Sox have a better leadoff option and a better defensive option in center field with Mike Cameron, isn’t Ellsbury at the very top of the list of players to be traded for Gonzalez?

Consider: Jason McLeod, the former Red Sox director of amateur scouting who joined Hoyer in San Diego, drafted Ellsbury. And because Ellsbury isn’t eligible for free agency until 2014, the Padres won’t have to worry about losing him in the near future.

The bottom line: Buchholz, Ellsbury and one or two prospects is a hefty asking price for Gonzalez. Should the Sox pay it?

Yes.

If…

Meet Ryan Westmoreland

When it comes to Red Sox prospects, numbers 1 and 1A are Casey Kelly, a projected top of the rotation starter, and outfielder Ryan Westmoreland.

Westmoreland, a Rhode Island native, is just 19 years old, but he’s already being compared to superstar Grady Sizemore. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, Westmoreland passed up a full-ride to Vanderbilt to sign with the Sox.

The hometown hero entered his first season as a pro after surgery to repair a torn labrum, lowering expectations significantly. That made the Portsmouth High School product’s 2009 performance even more impressive: he reached base safely in his first 25 games, and in 223 at bats with the Lowell Spinners, he hit for a .296 average, .401 OBP, 7 HR, and swiped 19 bases.

If the Red Sox are considering moving Ellsbury, it’s because they know Westmoreland, a potential five-tool star and starting 2012 center fielder/leadoff hitter, is in their system. (That two-year Cameron signing looks even more telling, no?) And if the Sox can make the deal for Gonzalez without giving up Casey or Westmoreland, I think Theo should pull the trigger.

And now, after more buildup than we’ve seen for the movie “Avatar”…

The Gonzalez Conspiracy Theory

Step back and consider all of the pieces, and it appears this may have been Theo’s erudite master plan all along. At the recent GM Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, Epstein was widely quoted as saying the Red Sox are in a “bridge period.”

The immediate, gloomy reaction was that the Sox weren’t going to do much this off-season and were, in effect, in rebuilding mode. Few recognized, “We’re kind of in a bridge period,” was Theo’s first sentence in this full statement:

“We still think that if we push some of the right buttons, we can be competitive at the very highest levels for the next two years. We don’t want to compromise too much of the future for that competitiveness during the bridge period, but we don’t want to sacrifice our competitiveness during the bridge just for the future. So we’re just trying to balance both those issues. It can be done. It’s hard. It’s sensitive. You expose yourself in certain areas. There are always vulnerabilities that come about. But if you get lucky, it can be done.”

Allow me to transform that statement to suit my own needs: “If we can make all the right moves and sign all the right players, we’ll be able to make a deal for Gonzalez. It’s a long shot, but we just might be able to pull it off.”

Now then, the conspiracy theory: Jed Hoyer became the Padres new GM on October 23. Before he left Boston, Hoyer told Epstein exactly what it would take to acquire Adrian Gonzalez: Buchholz, Ellsbury, and two prospects.

Epstein has been working hard to make that deal a reality since early November.

The evidence: Epstein was among the very first general managers to express interest in Lackey at the Chicago GM meetings the week of November 9. At the time, the Sox already had their five-man starting rotation inked for 2010, but had noticeable holes at shortstop and left field. Why be among the first to line up for Lackey when you already have a very good starting rotation and desperately needed two position players?

Because Epstein knew the Red Sox rotation would have a gaping hole without Buchholz.

The Cameron and Scutaro signings also speak volumes. Cameron has been playing gold glove center field for over 10 years, and Scutaro will perfectly slide into the Red Sox leadoff spot—a combination also known as Jacoby Ellsbury’s job. Why sign Cameron in particular, a center fielder by trade, when the need was left field and losing Bay would mean the Sox would be lose far more run production than Cameron provides?

Because Epstein knew Ellsbury would be dealt, and a big bat would be coming to town.

Perhaps the most telling move in the Gonzalez Conspiracy Theory (trademark pending) is the Mike Lowell trade. Why would the Sox create another hole in their infield and swallow a reported $9 million of Lowell’s $12 million salary in return for 23-year-old Texas minor league catcher Max Ramirez?

Because Epstein knew Kevin Youkillis could move to third to make room for new Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

A bit more on Max Ramirez: the only catcher on San Diego’s current 40-man roster is Nick Hundley, who played his first season in the bigs last year. Ramirez is younger, and boasts far superior minor league batting stats. Is Ramirez one of the prospects San Diego requires for Gonzalez?

There you have it, Theo Epstein’s impersonation of the Smoking Man from “The X-Files.” We’ll know if it’s more than just a far-fetched theory soon: Mike Lowell, what appears to be the final piece required to complete this Gonzo puzzle, is scheduled to undergo a physical with Texas this week.

About Sharkey

I was 11 years old when the ball scooted through Buckner's wickets, a moment that is laser-etched in my mind: In my living room, on the floor in front of the TV, ready to burst as the Sox needed just one more out, one more strike, to become World Series champs. Mets players sat with slumped shoulders and dejected looks in the dugout. Even the scoreboard operator recognized the game, and the series, was over, posting on the jumbotron: Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Series Champions. "They did it!" I said, unable to contain myself. "The Sox won it all!" My father, sitting behind me on the couch with a furrowed brow, knew better. "It's not over yet." And so it was. Having watched the Sox, Celts, and Pats for the past three decades, I truly feel like I've seen it all. I hope to bring that type of perspective as I write about the three teams I love.

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Discussion

11 comments for “The Adrian Gonzalez Conspiracy Theory”

  1. I don’t have the time to do a full rebuttal of this post, but I think you’re massively, massively underestimating Jacoby Ellsbury, and falling in love with power over defense as many people often do (hence the undervaluing of defense in the free agent market). Here are a couple posts from the AGon thread on SOSH from posters Eric Van and Prometheus Wakefield respectively:

    “Jacoby Ellsbury 2008 defense plus Jacoby Ellsbury May 31 and afterward offense equals

    the best centerfielder in baseball.

    That’s his upside, and it’s not Ryan Westmoreland type upside, it’s upside you have every reason to believe he can reach, perhaps as soon as this year, because he has already done it. Just not simultaneously.

    He’s 80% or 85% or 90% as good as Adrian Gonzalez. You don’t trade four years of 85% for two years of 100%. Insane.”

    “Let’s forget about the future and think about just next year. Using some fangraphs projections:

    Ellsbury LF: +11.8 offense, +21.8 defense
    Beltre 3B: +7.2 offense, +14.8 defense
    Youkilis 1B: +37 offense, +4.5 defense

    That’s 97.1 runs of value. After the trade, we have:

    Hermida LF: +1 offense, -7.7 defense
    Youkilis 3B: +37 offense, -1.6 defense
    Gonzalez 1B: +38.9 offense, +2.1 defense

    Equals 69.7 runs of value. And that’s before we consider trading Buchholz, and before we consider the fact that between Ellsbury and Buchholz we have another nine cost-controlled seasons for probable high quality players. OK, admittedly Hermida might outplay those projections, or we could get a real left fielder with the money we aren’t spending on Beltre. Still, this trade does not necessarily make us better even for next season, which is the minimum you’d expect from a trade of a young cost controlled player for a current star.

    If Ellsbury plus Buchholz is where the Padres are starting, then we aren’t close to being close and there’s no reason to continue the conversation other than leverage in Beltre negotiations.”

    Posted by Charlie Spellman | December 17, 2009, 5:28 pm
  2. I like the theory, but I think the player comparison is incomplete. The job of the lead off man is not only to get on base, but to then get across home plate. You therefore have to look not only at hitting or OBP, but also base running ability, which you pretty much glossed over.

    Posted by Alan | December 17, 2009, 5:46 pm
  3. I guarantee that the Red Sox will not win the World Series next year (much less the AL East) with that offense. While their run prevention should be much improved, their bats are significantly weaker.

    It’s clear that Theo & co. want a power hitter (they tossed $170 million at Mark Teixeira last offseason). They also have absolutely no power in the minor leagues unless Lars Andersen can live up to some of his hype. Also, there’s not much power on the free agent market, and the Sox are losing their best power hitter from 2009 in Bay.

    The Sox have a lot of pitchers and outfielders coming up in the next few years, and are weak at the corner infield positions. So, based on their current situation, Gonzalez is more valuable to the Sox than Buchholz and Ellsbury (especially after the Lackey signing).

    Ellsbury is a special player, but I think a speedy outfielder with the potential to be a good leadoff hitter (he’s not there yet) is easier to find than a 40-HR potential, Gold Glove first baseman that’s just 27 years old. If the Sox can extend Gonzo five years beyond his current two-year deal, then I’d definitely go for it. The Sox would have Gonzo for seven years until he’s 34, which is basically all of his prime years. In that time, Westmoreland should be ready to come up, along with Kalish and anyone else the Sox dig up from their system.

    I’m with Sharkey on this one, but maybe the Sox can wait until midseason to see how Ellsbury/Buchholz play before dealing for Gonzalez. By then, however, it may be too late…

    Posted by KC | December 17, 2009, 8:54 pm
  4. I agree that the Red Sox are setting themselves up to get AGon, but how do you know what the real asking price from the Padres is? With all the reports out there we don’t know what to believe. Today there were quotes from the Padres’ owner that there were no offers on the table or no talks going on about Adrian Gonzalez.I don’t know what to believe.

    That being said, it wouldn’t make sense for the Padres to trade away the face of their franchise and not get either Casey Kelly or Ryan Westmoreland in return. Buchholz is definitely the key, but does Jacoby Ellsbury really fit on the Padres? He will be arbitration eligible next year and his agent is Scott Boras so you can expect some money to be flowing his way. Also, if everything you say about him is true, he is more of a role player rather than a guy you build a team around and the chances the Padres are contenders by 2013 are very slim. Ellsbury will be 30 years old by then so why not ask for prospects that will just be coming into their own at that time?

    If the Red Sox keep Ellsbury they could stick him in LF and would have the best defensive OF in baseball. The Red Sox could trade Hermida ($3M) for a corner infielder if they felt the need to, but going into the season with Kotchman at 1B wouldn’t cripple this team.

    SS Scutaro
    2B Pedroia
    3B Youkilis
    C Martinez
    DH Ortiz
    RF Drew
    CF Cameron
    1B Kotchman
    LF Ellsbury

    …not too shabby.

    I mentioned in an earlier column that there is no direct correlation between Red Sox success and home runs or even runs scored and home runs, but there is a direct correlation between success and defense. It’s a theory that has been proven in every sport and it’s that good defense and timely offense wins championships and it’s no different here. It’s why the Patriots lost in their “perfect” 2007 season, but won 3 of 4 from 2001-2004 and it’s why the Celtics won in 2008.

    In conclusion, this is not a do or die situation and the Red Sox are not obligated to trade for a big bat to make this offseason successful. They have already added 3 very crucial pieces for the upcoming season and have made this team better in the process.

    Posted by George | December 18, 2009, 2:34 am
  5. George, many good points. The only one I dispute is the defense. While I think it’s extremely important, it’s not the only thing. That lineup is just not potent enough to win the AL East.

    and…

    The Red Sox had their best defensive season in team history in 2006 (just 66 errors!!!)…and coincidentally missed the playoffs with an 86-76 record.

    Their worst defensive season this decade (118 errors, .981 fielding %) was in 2004 when they won the whole thing. I know their D dramatically improved down the stretch…but the number is still telling.

    They won titles in 2004 and 2007 with incredibly potent offenses (Thanks to Manny and Ortiz), deep pitching staffs (Pedro, Schilling, Lowe in 2004…and Beckett, Schilling, Lester in 2007), and good defense. Balance in all three phases is important.

    Posted by KC | December 18, 2009, 5:34 am
  6. I was basing my defensive argument on Baseball Prospectus’ defensive efficiency stat. I’m not quite sure how they get to the number but it takes into account overall defense, not just errors, and in 2007 and 2008 they were far better than they were in 2005, 2006, and 2009.

    I just don’t agree with the whole notion that you need to hit HRs to score in baseball. The point is just to score more than your opponent and if you have great defense and great pitching (which the Sox have) then your offense doesn’t need to be as good as the Yankees to win. Plus, the Red Sox have five guys capable of hitting 25+ home runs if healthy.

    I would love to see an article about how valuable Ellsbury’s 70 steals were to the Red Sox total offense as opposed to Bay’s 36 HRs. Not totally sure how it would translate, but I bet you it’s pretty damn close to equal if not in Ellsbury’s favor. So I just don’t buy that this team is desperate for Adrian. Would I love to get him? Yes, but trade away Buchholz, Ellsbury and two prospects for him…might want to reconsider.

    Posted by George | December 18, 2009, 10:04 am
  7. Good points all!

    Charlie: I haven’t read SOSH since 2003, but even back then Eric Van was writing some amazing analytical posts. He makes a good point about Ellsbury’s potential value, but even if he were to achieve his full potential next season, he’ll do it in LF, diminishing his overall value.
    The Fangraphs projections are interesting, but Beltre’s offense at a 7.2 is a pipe dream. His lifetime stats are nearly identical to Hermida, and Beltre’s complete aberration 2004 season already pumps ups his otherwise mediocre seasonal averages. The Gonzalez/Youkillis projections are far too close. In Fenway, Gonzalez would have an OPS well above 1.000. And where is the Lackey/Buchholz value correlation? That’s a huge part of that overall comparison.

    Alan: You’re absolutely right. Jacoby’s 70 steals is a huge part of his value that simply wasn’t addressed in this post. However, just thinking out loud, how could Ellsbury have 70 steals atop that lineup and not score over 100 runs?

    KC: You make a great point about the Sox needs, now and into the future. Lars Anderson was a complete bust in AA last year. Without him, they have no one even remotely close to the bigs to fill their corner infield holes. They know this, and that’s why they are pursuing Gonzalez so hard.

    George: I have no clue what the asking price is. This piece is pure speculation. However, if you’re in Hoyer’s position how could it be any less? I also wrote this piece thinking: Hoyer and Epstein are friends and colleagues, and they even worked together last year trying to get Gonzalez. When Hoyer got the SD job, how could Theo not say: Just tell us exactly what it would take?
    Pitching and defense is critical to success, but without a strong offense, particularly in the AL East, a team doesn’t stand a chance. It’s all about balance.

    KC: Ditto on balance.

    George: It’s not about HR, it’s about having a balanced lineup. The Sox need a big run producer to anchor this lineup now and into the future. In particular, they need a run producer that plays corner infield… and if he does so with a gold glove you have Adrian Gonzalez.

    Posted by Sharkey | December 18, 2009, 11:13 am
  8. The thing you’re missing with looking at unadjusted seasonal averages with Beltre is just how badly Safeco kills a guy like that. Petco hurts AGon too, but don’t dismiss Beltre’s power potential switching from a cavernous park like Safeco to Fenway and the Wall.

    Posted by Charlie Spellman | December 18, 2009, 12:27 pm
  9. Charlie:

    I’m a bit jaded about Beltre, so my analysis of him as a player is admittedly a bit opinion heavy.

    Having said that, Beltre posted his 48 HR superstar year in Chavez Ravine/Dodger Stadium, notoriously a pitcher’s ballpark. That’s one of the reasons the Mariners signed him to such a big contract: they thought he would still produce big numbers in Safeco.

    Take out Beltre’s aberration year stats (and even his worst year to be fair) his career averages in 10 seasons drop to: .265 AVG, .320 OBP, 20 HR, .436 SLG.

    If anything, you can further lower those power numbers considering they were largely put together during the peak of the steroid era. The power potential you describe (.436 slugging?) is nowhere to be found.

    It’s based on this data, and the fact Beltre wants to be paid in the $13 million range, that I completely dismiss him as an option to play 3B for the Sox.

    Also, Beltre’s home/away splits last year (admittedly cherry picked): 4 HR at Safeco, 4 HR on the road in 51 and 54 games, respectively. Yuck.

    Posted by Sharkey | December 18, 2009, 1:27 pm
  10. I love the conspiracy theory, because honestly it’s less conspiracy and more the reality of what can happen in The Boys Club that is Major League Baseball. There was no bad blood with Hoyer/McLeod and Epstein, so there’s one reason that helps this. And prior to Hoyer leaving for San Diego, he was working with Theo to bring Gonzo here at the last Mid-Season deadline. So yes he definitely knew that his old friend would be hitting him up again for Gonzo once he got his new gig. For those who play fantasy sports, think about it, who do you make trades with most? Strangers/people you don’t know as well or your friends? About 95% of time you make your deals with friends. Clearly, this is a business so it’s a bit more serious than fantasy but I still believe the same idea can hold true.

    I’m not sure I totally agree with Sharkey undervaluing Jacoby as much as he did, but I do agree with KC by looking at this deal in terms of what we NEED now. The Sox offense is not rooted in manufacturing runs, sorry, that ain’t our game and you saw how that worked out for us this past season. Jacoby had his 70 steals and it really didn’t make a difference besides impressing us with his speed. I really like the kid, but he will be better suited in the NL and the canyon that is Petco Park. Now should he be traded, I have no doubt he will feast on mediocre pitching the NL West and NL have to offer and make Sox fans who don’t get it moan and groan that Theo blew it, but they don’t understand how superior the AL and AL East is over the NL and the NL West. And they also won’t understand the change of scenery from the friendly and small confines of Fenway Park vs. the vast expanses (and gaps) Petco Park has to offer should greatly elevate Ellsbury’s hypothetical stats.

    Like KC said, without a big bat and not having Bay, there is no way that lineup could net us a World Series. I don’t think we could win the division either.

    Oh and I hate Beltre, but I suppose he’s better than a hobbling Lowell.

    Great work guys! Good stuff.

    Posted by Dev | December 18, 2009, 2:22 pm
  11. Movie star good looks?????? You need glasses, and if youre wearing them, check the script. My butt looks better on a good day…….so, he’s UGLIER than you think, but he’s a better player than you think, so I guess its evem.

    Posted by nck | January 5, 2010, 7:38 pm

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