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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!
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.
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.
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?
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”…
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.