Thursday, December 20, 2007

Play for me Johan Santana

You're the Boston Red Sox. You have won the American League East, the American League pennant and the World Series Championship (the second time in four years). You have a bonafide stud pitcher in Josh Beckett, a potential stud in Daisuke Matsuzaka (both under 28-years-old) and two veterans who probably have something left in the tank in Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield. You also have a slew of prospects that have done well in their brief call-ups (Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz) plus a bunch of kids on the farm.

You want the best left handed pitcher of the last ten years but you don't need him as much as your chief rival to the south does. If you mortgage the farm and paid upwards of $20 million a year for the next five years, you can pretty much count on going to the playoffs every year for the next half a decade. Do you trade for him?

(The last two paragraphs employ a style that New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Cannon made famous. I didn't intentionally think about writing the first couple of sentences like this, but I guess I was influenced by Cannon's collection of columns bound into the book, “Nobody Asked Me, But ...” which I am currently reading. It's a decent read if you care about sports from the 50s and 60s and you should be able to get it at a used bookstore.)

Let's look at what we do know: despite a mediocre record last year (which doesn't really mean a hell of a lot) and the fact that he gave up way more home runs than he did during any point in his career, with the Red Sox, Johan Santana is a lock to win at least 18 games. You slot him as your number two guy after Beckett and the Sox staff gets longer. Daisuke, who I think is going to have a monster year this year, goes to three, Schilling goes to four and either Wakefield or Buchholz takes the fifth slot. Even with an injury, either Wakefield or Buchholz takes the injured pitcher's spot and the Sox don't miss a beat.

No one can match this rotation. Not the Yankees, who on their best days have three number two guys (Wang, Pettitte and Mussina) and a couple of kids (Kennedy, Hughes and maybe Chamberlain). But the wheels on Pettitte and Mussina could easily come off (as Schilling and Wakefield's could) and Wang proved during last year's post season that he's not an elite star. And how good are the rookies? They are pinning their hopes for two fifths of their rotation on kids. Is that a recipe for success? I don't know.

Now, let's look at what we don't know: is Santana coming down from his super star stratosphere? It would seem that the answer is no, as his peripherals were still solid last year. But what if he spits the bit in Boston? What if the number of players that the Sox give (and there are some reports that this could be a five-for-one swap) almost dry out the system making other in season trades impossible? Is the money that Santana will command worth it? Does the check he cashes eventually trickle down to Beckett, David Ortiz, etc.? Guys that were here, proved themselves in Boston and now want to be paid as much as the new guy?

Obviously, you can't worry about the latter question, but one thing you could concern yourself about is what I heard a few weeks ago on WEEI, a Twins beat writer from one of the Twin Cities (I can't remember who it was) expressed thoughts that Santana could be nicked up a bit, which is why he was hit harder last year than in previous years. He claims that Santana wasn't throwing the slider as much because his elbow was killing him. I have no doubts that the Sox will do their due diligence in checking over the medical records, but the injury concern will always be there for a guy who has thrown the amount of innings that Santana has.

I suppose that one has to look back at the last times that the Sox made a transaction such as this. In 2005 Boston sent Hanley Ramirez, Anibel Sanchez and two minor leaguers to the Florida Marlins for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. The rap on Beckett was that he'd eventually cost big money (the Fish were selling him on the cheap because they were afraid of Beckett's up coming arbitration case and the Sox had to take Lowell because he was making too much cash). Ramirez has turned into one of, if not the best, shortstops in the National League. Sanchez threw a no-hitter his rookie year and had solid numbers, but was hurt for most of last year and the other two kids haven't made the bigs yet.

Despite concerns about arms injuries (there was actually a rumor floating around that Beckett's agent told the righthander to go on an extended Texas hunting trip so that he could not be reached if the Sox called to inquire about it) and blister questions, Beckett has been as good as advertised. It took him a season to get settled (which is why I think Matsuzaka is going to be great in 2008) but he won 20 games and destroyed the Angels, Indians and Rockies during the 2007 post season.

In 1997, the Red Sox were desperate for a starter since the Steve Avery experiment failed miserably and Boston GM Dan Duquette sent highly regarded prospects Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. to the Montreal Expos for Pedro Martinez. This is a more apt comparison because people were questioning Pedro's body size (too small), acumen (“wild” headhunter who played before just family and friends at Olympic Stadium) and add in the fact that he wanted a big contract extension. How did it turn out for the Sox? Pedro was absolutely transcendent for most of his Boston career—the pitching numbers he threw up at the end of the century were among the best ever, perhaps all time if you take into account the era and home park he played in as well as the team behind him. He was a main cog in the 2004 championship. Pavano and Armas are both good pitchers, but they aren't Pedro.

What I'm saying is that the Red Sox were able to win two World Series Championships in direct result of trading youth for known greatness. In the long run, were these trades worth it? If you're the Sox, no matter how good Ramirez does or how well Pavano pitched, yes these trades were worth it because the bottom line for this franchise is winning. Were the Boston Red Sox a better team with Pedro Martinez and Josh Beckett? Yes. Would they have been able to win a World Series without either? It's hard to say, but probably not.

The beauty of having a lot young chips is cashing them in for a guy like Martinez or Beckett or Santana. You can't have everyone in your rotation or in your starting lineup. The trick is to keep the great ones and trade the good ones.

Do these history lessons make the trade a slam dunk? Of course not, but judging how this same scenario played out twice in the recent past plus the added caveat of keeping Santana away from the Yankees, one would have to think that the Red Sox should do whatever they can to import another star from Minnesota.

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