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Talking baseball in January

January 12, 2012

Baseball writer Brendan McGair takes an early look at Boston's offseason moves so far this winter.

By all accounts, January is the slowest month on the baseball calendar. It’s the month that follows the hustle and bustle of the player acquisition crunch and the month prior to spring training with the backdrop of warm, picturesque conditions in Florida and Arizona.
True, some notable names are still dangling on the open market, notably slugging first baseman Prince Fielder and oldies but still goodies Roy Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda, two righthanded pitchers who could potentially ply their trades for the Red Sox, providing the price is right. For the most part January in baseball circles is a quiet period for the front office, a time to reflect on the ball club that’s by and large been assembled while quietly making one or two low-risk moves with an eye toward building depth at the minor-league level.
With that as the backdrop, now seems as good a time as any to take stock of Ben Cherington’s first offseason as Boston’s general manager. For those lamenting that the BoSox did not make a “major splash” in free agency, let’s turn the page back to the winter of 2003, when a young executive named Theo Epstein assumed the title as the lead in the baseball operations department.
Knowing that the Sox already had a strong core of established stars in place that included Pedro Martinez, Normar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, Epstein opted to play things close to the vest and acquire players who may not have been household names, but would help form a more balanced team.
Remember when the acquisitions of David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Todd Walker and Kevin Millar barely created a ripple on the transaction wire? Those players, combined with the group already in place, helped launch arguably the most successful era in Boston baseball history, one capped with two World Series titles in 2004 and again in 2007.
We harken back to Epstein’s first offseason because it seems Cherington has taken a page out of his predecessor’s playbook. The team’s ignominious September 2011 collapse aside, the Red Sox outfit that Cherington now oversees is one flush with upper echelon players such as Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, etc.
From Cherington’s vantage point there was no need to throw money and years at the feet of lefty C.J. Wilson, even if one of Boston’s biggest needs was starting pitching. Tweaking the roster would serve just fine with signings such as backup catcher Kelly Shoppach in accord with the master plan the front office had in mind.
The additions of closer Andrew Bailey and setup man Mark Melancon has the potential of making Sox fans forget about Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard, assuming the fireball righty joins the starting rotation behind Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz.
“The comeback of Buchholz [from a back injury that KO’d him for most of 2011] will be huge,” noted a top minor league scout (who shall go unnamed here) before adding, “Time will tell with Bailey and Melancon on the back end.”
On the subject of Melancon, a onetime Yankee farmhand who spent the past two seasons pitching for a bottom-feeding Houston club, the scout threw up a caution flag. “The one thing you have to look at is the pitchers (or players) changing leagues. The American League is very tough to come into after spending most of your service time (in the NL).”
Providing one important variable, the addition of Nick Punto as a utility sort should provide an upgrade over the departed Jed Lowrie. Naturally the cause for concern has to do with Punto’s injury history.
“He’s got to be healthy,” the scout stated.
As far as offseasons go, this one has been a relatively quiet one for Cherington, one that’s eerily similar to when Epstein stepped into the big chair.
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The same scout was also asked to opine about Chris Iannetta’s move from the Rockies to the Angels via trade. From his perspective, the St. Raphael Academy alumnus stands to benefit immensely under the tutelage/guiding hand of Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia, an ex-big league catcher himself.
“I think it’s a very good move for Iannetta heading to LAA,” said the scout. “What Mike
Scioscia did for (Mike) Napoli, he’s really going to help this kid.”
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Calling all local baseball enthusiasts. The PawSox’ annual wintertime festival, i.e. the 35th annual Hot Stove party, takes place tonight inside the friendly walls of McCoy Stadium. The longstanding event, which serves as a chief reminder that Opening Day is not that far off, runs from 6-9 p.m. and is free to the public. Fans will also have the opportunity to purchase tickets for the upcoming season.
Joining manager Arnie Beyeler to sign autographs/pose for pictures are pitchers Brandon Duckworth and Alex Wilson along with catcher Luis Exposito. All three suited up for Pawtucket during the club’s division-winning 2011 season.
The “newbie” of the quartet is outfielder Alex Hassan, whose opportunity to start the season in Triple A grew tenfold with recent news that Ryan Kalish underwent shoulder surgery that could delay his 2012 debut until a month or two into the season.
A native of Milton, Mass. – also the hometown of reliever Rich Hill – Hassan spent all of last season in Double-A Portland where he was named to the Eastern League’s midseason all-star team. Lauded by Baseball America as the organization’s top hitter based on strike-zone discipline, Hassan ranked third in the Eastern League in on-base percentage, his .404 mark due in large part to the 76 walks he drew, good for fourth best.

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