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Lackey to Boston: Sox Bridge to Title Town?

“We’re kind of in a bridge period.”—Red Sox GM Theo Epstein

The Winter Meetings are to baseball fans what Christmas is to children. So when wunderkind Theo Epstein uttered those fateful words at this year’s installment in Indianapolis, Red Sox fans felt like they’d been unjustly penciled in on the Naughty list.

Coupled with the announcement the resident rich kids on the block—the Yankees—are getting a shiny new bike in All-Star Curtis Granderson, the overall effect was much like finding a lump of coal in your red stocking.

But while every major media outlet jumped on Theo’s quote, making “bridge” the most unpopular word in Boston baseball since “Buckner,” little was made of Epstein’s full, thoughtful statement:

“We still think if we push some of the right buttons we can be competitive at the very highest level for the next two years… 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.

According to multiple reports, the Red Sox may be about to push one of those “right” buttons by signing the top free agent starting pitcher on the market, John Lackey. The deal, estimated at five years, $85 million, is expected to be officially announced soon.

We’ve already addressed why the Red Sox should sign Lackey, the eerily similar statistical twin to Josh Beckett, but it’s important to note the Lackey deal may be the first step in what could be one of the biggest deals in Red Sox history: a trade for Padres All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

The Boston Globe reported on Monday the Red Sox have balked at trading a package of pitcher Clay Buchholz and one of the Sox two top prospects, Casey Kelly or Ryan Westmoreland. But with Lackey in the fold, Boston would have one of baseball’s most formidable starting rotations, making Buchholz expendable.

How could Theo possibly turn down dealing Buchholz and a single-A prospect for 28-year-old Gonzalez now? If the Sox add Lackey and Gonzalez, that bridge Epstein described could very well lead to Title Town.

Why Theo Should Pull the Trigger

Even before Lackey flew to Boston for a physical, I was in favor of trading Buchholz and Kelly or Westmoreland for Gonzalez. I was actually shocked to discover that two-player package was all Jed Hoyer wanted, and even more stunned to discover the Sox reportedly rejected the deal.

There is no doubt Kelly and Westmoreland are great prospects. Casey Kelly, 20, went 7-5 last year with a ridiculous 5:1 K to BB ratio in 80 plus innings pitched at single-A Greenville and Salem. Ryan Westmoreland, 19, hit .296 with a .401 OBP, .484 slugging, and 19 steals. Scouts compare the speedy, powerful outfielder to (gulp) Grady Sizemore.

But allow me to remind you of two other can’t miss prospects: Lars Anderson and Michael Bowden.

Going into the 2009 season, Anderson ranked 17th overall on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. Bowden, second only to Anderson among Red Sox prospects, looked ready to overcome Clay Buchholz as Boston’s top pitching prospect. Before the 2009 season, Anderson and Bowden were considered as untouchable as Kelly and Westmoreland.

Then Anderson went on to hit .233 with 9 HR and a .328 OBP in… wait for it… AA. Not to be outdone, Bowden posted a 9.56 ERA in short time with the big club, and his peculiar short-armed delivery left people wondering what all the hype was about.

Tangent: Scouts are drooling over Kelly, calling him a potential top of the rotation big leaguer. Two concerns: Kelly’s fastball tops out in the low 90s and he’s never faced a AA hitter.

The lesson? Prospects are just that—prospects. No matter how highly touted, the next Big
Thing could easily end up the next Delmon Young.

With Lackey, Epstein is pushing one of those hard to find buttons he mentioned. Now it’s time to push the button that would bring Gonzalez to Boston.

Ranting and Raving

With Lackey, Gonzalez, and Scutaro, Epstein would get my award for GM of the year before the season even started. The moves would give Boston one of the top rotations in baseball, a far more potent offense, and a defense that would make the Red Sox 2009 infield look positively inept.

But Theo would just as quickly find his way to the bottom of my list if he signed Adrian “Aberration” Beltre.

Do not sign Adrian Beltre, Boston. For the love of all things holy, do not sign this man.

Beltre is a great defensive third baseman, but the man is simply not a good hitter. He had one great season in LA, (during a contract year at the peak of the steroid era), and now Scott Boras wants him to continue to be paid as if he’s that caliber player. He is not.

Imagine you’re the Mariners in 2005. You’re getting a 25-year-old who just hit 48 HR with 121 RBI, a .334 average, and .388 OBP (hitting in pitcher friendly Dodger Stadium, no less). Seattle fans must have been overjoyed—they thought they were getting a superstar that hadn’t even hit his prime yet.

Here is how 26-year-old Beltre rewarded his new team in his first season in Seattle: 19 HR, 87 RBI, .255 AVG, .303 OBP. Just for fun, here are the career averages for recently departed shortstop Alex Gonzalez: 15 HR, .247 AVG, .294 OBP. Beltre’s subsequent years with the Mariners have been much the same—firmly establishing Beltre as a mediocre hitter at best.

The Red Sox already passed on one defensive wonder with no stick. Here’s to hoping they do it again.

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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