The Red Sox are trying to tie up Jon Lester to a 5-year, $30M contract which would be the the richest contract ever given to a player with his service time status. Jon wouldn't have to even match his 2008 line of 16-6, 3.21, 1.27 to more than justify that money, but his signing begs the question what the Red Sox are looking to buy here.
Our first response is always to chart our plot points from past statistics to try to predict a player's future course and speed. In Lester's case however we have to take the iceberg into account. Lester's bout with cancer is well-documented but doesn't tell the whole story.
Although he returned to pitch in 2007, posting a 4.57 ERA, with a 1.46 WHIP for the Sox in 63 IP, what the stats don't tell you is that while he was back in 2007, he really wasn't. The physical changes in Jon heading into 2008 were dramatic and significant and I talked last spring about the increased muscle in his hips and thighs adding life to his fastball and making him look like much more of a power pitcher. Last season saw a a 2.1 mph jump in his fastball velocity average (and that average saw in an increase every month last season, which is remarkable given his 210 IP just one year off of cancer treatment), 3.4 mph in his cutter, and 3.8 in his curve.
You might think that would show up in his K rate but that rate actually dropped in 2008 to 6.5/9 from 7.1 in 2007. Where you see the change is in his GB ratio which more than doubled from 0.73, to 1.49, and the reduction in his walks from 4.4/9 to 2.8. Jon was not only throwing better, he had more confidence and was nibbling less as evidenced by the fact he increased his first-pitch-strike percentage from 49.5% in 2007 to 58.1% in 2008. That makes a huge difference, do not underestimate the first-pitch strike. When the first pitch is a strike (including balls put in play) batters produce a slash line of .261/.296/.411 ... When the first pitch is a ball that line jumps to .280/385/.459.
The bottom line here is that the Red Sox know, despite the lack of deep-rooted statistical history to back it up, that they have a top of the rotation starter in Jon. This is also where statistical analysis shows it's limits. Sometimes you need to lay eyes on the player. In Jon's case the physical difference between 2007 and 2008 was significant and a huge piece of the puzzle. That's not to say he repeats his 2008 3.21 ERA this season. Jon benefited from a very favorable 77.4% strand percentage last year. If you normalize that (to a neutral 70%) you may see something closer to 4.00 this season. Still, the point is that he's capable of approaching a 3.50 ERA or better. And with a stronger bullpen behind him, as well as the counsel of John Smoltz (an aspect of the signing of Smoltz that cannot be overlooked), it is not unreasonable at all to expect Jon to approach 16 wins again.
Terry Francona brushed off questions about who will start the season at shortstop for the Red Sox, but as we reported here a couple of weeks ago, Julio Lugo will assume the position when the Red Sox break camp. Theo Epstein and Francona, with the help of Jed Lowrie, have managed to get Lugo in contract-year mode this season despite his being in the middle of his $36M deal. Lugo came into camp cut and a little bulked up (not suspiciously so) and he has played well in the field and at the plate. Jed Lowery has played well too, and shown some encouraging signs both in controlling the strike zone and working counts as well as his recovery from wrist issues last year that sapped some bat speed.
The Sox have been working out Lowrie at third base to prep him for his utility role and as insurance for Mike Lowell who saw his first spring action yesterday (1- for -3 with a double). Lugo has played SS exclusively, mostly because it is the only position he is realistically able to play. Francona's deflections of the question at this point is just an effort to keep Lugo in competition mode ... the fact is that Lugo will get a full shot at the everyday job. Lugo hasn't been an offensive force in his two seasons in Boston but his indicators haven't slipped much from 2006 when he hit .278 with 12 HRs (curiously only driving in 37 runs), and 24 SBs.
Should he simply repeat his 8 HRs, 73 Rbi and 33 SBs from 2007 Lugo would be a pretty decent fantasy property for the position, even if he hits .237 as he did that year (with the head wind of a .265 BHIP%). The big number that jumps out at you is GB ratio which jumped to 2.6 last year from 1.26 in 2007 and 1.53 career. That has to rebound this year and if he can couple that with a little more favorable BHIP% he may head back towards .265 or .270. But how much of a factor is that really?
If he plays enough he can steal 25+ bases and at the price he will likely be available for in your draft, that's going to be enough of a return, even before you look at 6-8 HRs and 50-70 RBI. Lugo will get the nod to start the year and if he can play well enough to earn 400+ ABs, he could be a more valuable fantasy property than we anticipated a month ago. He also should be available at a pretty good price, especially if your draft is right around the corner.
The news appears to be good surrounding Chipper Jones and his strained oblique. Team USA considers him day-to-day and while he is definitely out for today's game, Chipper feels he will be available for action this weekend. The fact that he could play hurt for Team USA shouldn't be a comfort to the Braves or their fans, but for now at least, the injury doesn't appear to be a threat to week #1 of the regular season.
We saw a strong outing by Derek Lowe yesterday as he fanned 6 in 4 innings of work without a hit. Derek got every other out on the ground in this appearance. This is a great situation for Lowe who has tremendous stuff and talent but needs to be mentally herded. The Braves are the perfect team for Derek at this point in his career and he could very well find another half gear this season in Atlanta.
Joe Mauer is scheduled to undergo and MRI on his back today in Fort Myers as the Twins try to find the answer to the persistent back pain that has plagued their catcher since the surgery to remove and obstruction in his kidney three months ago. Ron Gardenhire reiterated yesterday that Joe is not near game condition at this point and while logic says that fact alone should put the start of the season in doubt, the Twins want to see the MRI before they comment.
Dustin McGowan didn't suffer another one of those non-setbacks we've been hearing so little about this spring ... Ok I think I over did on the the negatives in that sentence ... or not ... I'm not sure. The point is that for the time being the Blue Jays are going to back off the throttle on Dustin's return from shoulder surgery. Team officials say this is not a setback, they are just slowing his return. This is going to push back his return target from May to ... well ... ? Dustin may prove to be an above average play this season but you should consider anything useful you get out of him before Independence Day to be gravy.
Duaner Sanchez was released by the Mets on Tuesday, ending a decline for the reliever that started when he was involved in taxicab accident that separated his shoulder in July of 2006. It was just Monday that pitching coach Dan Warthen said he considered Sanchez "part of the team". Sanchez averaged 93.2 mph on his fastball in 2006 and 87.8 on his slider, and that velocity never returned after the accident. Last season after reporting heavy to camp his fastball averaged 89.8 while his slider average 84.8. Sanchez should end up on another roster, but his previous success should be considered null and void until he shows something.
According to Joe Torre, Manny Ramirez will make his 2009 spring training debut on Thursday, probably at DH but possibly in LF. Torre says he'll look to get Manny 50 ABs or so before the Dodgers break camp. Thursday will also mark the return of Russell Martin from Team Canada.
Pedro Martinez spent Monday trying to lure back an old girlfriend while trying to give the impression that's the last thing he was doing. And he tried the age-old method of dropping hints with a mutual friend, namely the media. Pedro shilled for an offer from the Mets by giving the media the newsflash that he's available and saying the Mets should call ... you know ... if their interested ...
They're not ...
Pedro is reportedly looking for a John Smoltz-type of deal that with net him about $10 with reasonable incentives ... He's in denial. Pedro looked better against the Netherlands and showed a little stuff during the WBC. It should also be noted that he also bounced back nicely on two days rest last night to blank the Netherlands over 3 IP with two Ks, but hey ... it was the Netherlands. The big thing is that Pedro was up into the 90s with his fastball and his arm slot is much better than it was last season. It appears he could be effective with the stuff he showed in the WBC, but I am sure potential MLB suitors would like to see him throw against more capable hitters.
Still, any team that could risk $10M on Peety isn't going to, and it's hard to find a fit for him at this point. Pedro's best chance comes when the rubber band snaps on Jason Schmidt's arm. Boston businessman and Dodger owner Frank McCourt is obsessed with all things post-Red Sox and Pedro would make a nice addition to the museum. He also has the money and a willingness to bid against himself. Sounds like a marriage to me. For now Pedro's value is in limbo, but at best, which may be Chavez Ravine and 20 starts, he's an average, starter option ...at best.
Brad Penny's first bullpen outing since complaining of a tired shoulder last week was widely considered a success. Pitching coach John Farrell estimated that Penny worked at "90-95%" capacity limiting himself to fastball/curve over 25 or so pitches. He's scheduled to work two innings in a simulated game on Friday and if all goes well, the Sox may consider a exhibition appearance in the middle of next week. When asked if Penny will make his first regular season start, Farrell said there was a ways to go before that could be determined, but he wouldn't rule it out.
Jerry Owens' slow start this spring seems to have weakened his hold on both the leadoff slot and the centerfield job. Ozzie Guillen's problem is that a viable alternative has yet to present itself. The manager tried second baseman Gordon Beckham at leadoff but he doesn't appear to be a good long-term fit for the batting slot. Dewayne Wise appears to be the competition for CF. But Guillen's declaration of Owens being in a "big fight" for his jobs seems to be more of a motivational tool than anything else. Owens should start the year as the White Sox' centerfielder and lead off hitter and should provide some SBs and very little else.
Chase Utley (hip) appears to be close to seeing his first game action of the spring according to the Philadelphia Daily News. GM Ruben Amaro says that Utley has not yet been cleared for sliding but he has taken BP and infield. Barring setbacks, Utely could see some PT next week.
Ben Sheets is rehabbing his surgically repaired elbow in Arlington Texas with TMI Sports Medicine. The potential significance there is that TMI is owned by Texas Rangers team doctor Keith Meister. The Rangers and Sheets agreed on a two-year deal but that was pulled off the table when it was determined that the pitcher would need surgery. The Rangers say they are not involved in Sheets choice for a rehab center but it should all come together nicely when Sheets is ready to return to the mound. He could be ready for the second half of the season after February surgery, but any team that signs him before June 1st will owe the Brewers a draft pick. Don't look for contract news on on Ben before then. All other considerations aside, a move to the AL will not help Ben's fantasy value, especially if Arlington is the landing site.
My fellow Joba Chamberlain owners can breath a little easier this morning. Don't worry ... he can actually get someone out. He actually got 9 Reds out last night with mid-nineties stuff and without a walk. Whew.