2006 is over, and good riddance. Regardless of where you choose to point your finger, the story remains the same
There is only one real story in Red Sox Nation right now, and that pertains, again, to the future of Manny Ramirez. Nearly all the offseason speculation could be said to hang on the outcome of a Manny trade, or non-trade. I am personally ambivalent about trading him, because it is very hard to duplicate the production of a 1.000+ OPS hitter, but of course it's not too hard to gain back some runs by putting someone in left field who has a clue.
Let's assume that Manny is serious this time, that Tito has had enough, and that the Sox have to make a trade. Next, we have to look at the dependencies around this deal. What are the keys to keeping the team competitive without one of it's most imperative offensive components?
The first goal will be to ensure Big Papi has some protection in the lineup. They will not be able to replace Manny with equal production from a single player, but they cannot detract from Papi's production. Adding two more good bats should accomplish this. I've discussed in this space before the fact the Sox production from the five-hole in 2006 was the worst in baseball - for the season they were the only team to have a sub-.700 OPS in the five spot. That is simply incredible, and in my opinion the strongest contributor to their abysmal performance with RISP (.748). They need a solid #4 with longball power and good strikezone judgement, and a number five who either crushes mistakes or has enough gap power to drive guys in regularly (at minimum). These things may not necessarily be achieved with the Manny trade itself, but the trade can't happen without these things also happening, unless they are tanking for 2007.
The second goal will be providing a similar degree of value to the club as Manny now provides. Manny is a lot of hit, no D, no speed corner outfielder who nonetheless has the second highest WPA on the team behind Ortiz, and is rated as having the 14th-highest VORP for positional players in all of baseball (just for fun, Hanley Ramirez was #22). Manny also has some negative "intangibles" that bring his value down, and of course his age and health need to be factored in. Nevertheless, getting value on the dollar is tough, even bearing in mind that the old adage "a penny saved is a penny earned" applies here due to his cost.
Given these two things, how does the FO manage the trade potentiality? First, off they look at the overall needs of the team. As I mentioned above they need a #4 and #5 hitter, but even more desperately they need pitching - at least one starter and a reliever or two. They need defense up the middle - Crisp is not a CF and AGon is on the market. These needs exist independent of the Manny trade, but the trade would need to address at least some of them.
The pitching situation doesn't sort itself out easily. So far they've got Schilling, Beckett, Wake, Paps, Snyder, and (gulp) Tavarez. We can assume they need one more. If the Sox were even to pursue Matsuzake, they would almost certainly be outbid by the MFYs, who can throw all the cash in the world at Seibu for the negotiating rights, and then it's a done deal. That leaves them either in a bidding war for Zito, or closing early on a Padilla or Wolf. My vote would be for Padilla, who put together some strong starts last year in Texas' bandbox. I like Zito a lot, but the price is going to get crazy. With regard to the Manny trade, it's been supposed that Anaheim would do Santana-plus for Manny, but that doesn't feel right to me. I don't think they need him enough.
Of course, the FO could trade the entire farm for Dontrelle Willis and watch all the players traded away excel for Florida, who then wins the Series in 2007. I suppose that's the most likely outcome. To be honest, pitching is too much of a premium in the AL for me to see Manny bringing back enough to make the deal work, unless the arm is not close to big-league ready. That doesn't seem to fit here, so I'm thinking the deal is for a positional player(s).
If the FO decides Wily Mo Pena, Super Genius is ready to hit fifth full-time, that creates one less issue to deal with. The fact that the SG does not hit lefties well is a problem though, because spare bat Eric Hinske also does not hit lefties well, which is presumably why he is a spare bat. Ideally the Sox move Lowell and pick up a true corner infielder with some power, who slots into one of these spots. Aramis Ramirez is the free agent solution, although one would have to assume he moves into the clean-up spot. I had another idea for the Manny trade though.
In spite of reports that the firing of Buck Showalter may have put to rest the Rangers' interest in trading for Manny, the best trade I see out there for the Sox is trading Manny and a so-so arm for Michael Young and a high-ceiling prospy, and sending Texas $6-7 million a year over the next two years. If they pick up Young's option for 2008 they would still be getting him at fair market value, and he brings a lot back in return. Replacing Gonzalez's bat with Young's means you can fill in the rest of the offensive gaps more easily, because Young is such an upgrade. His defense may not be as stellar: defensive ratings have him just below Gonzalez in UZR (.863 to .836) but having better RF (4.86 to 4.36) in 2006, and he had more errors. But sewing him up at short gives the team a solid option for a number of years at a prime position.
Texas has youngster Joaquin Arias ready to go: he has played well at AAA and is often cited as one of the most athletic players in the Ranger organization. He's a gifted, Hanley-type player who's just starting to put the ability and the experience together. Manny would destroy Arlington Stadium, just destroy it, and a Teixeira, Manny, Blalock line-up is pretty fearsome. Young has made it clear he wants to win (read, fix this mess or trade me), and while the Sox probably didn't impress him that much this year they would have every opportunity to do so next year provided they do things right in the offseason. He appears to be the type of player who would relish the passion in Boston.
In my opinion this deal leaves the Sox with the most flexibility in the near term, assuming that nobody knocks their socks off with MLB-ready talent (which I am assuming). They can afford to be over the luxury tax threshold under the current CBA, and a lot of money comes off the books after next season in Schilling. They can sign a couple of the free agent names if they need to. If they ponied up for Zito and a second-tier bat, or Ramirez and Padilla in addition to Young, and grabbed a decent reliever off the heap, it would be okay by me.
Next week: my latest crazy scheme.