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Unlucky Lucchino? Murray Chass writes
2002-12-26 11:20
by Mike Carminati

Unlucky Lucchino?

Murray Chass writes in the NY Times that the Red Sox may come out ahead after losing the Jose Cotreras derby to the Yankees. His reasoning is that now that the Yankees have acquired another pitcher (and appear close to re-signing Roger Clemens), they will drop out of the running for the Bartolo Colon/Javier Vazquez derby with Montreal.

The Expos must cut payroll and now one of the bigger players, the Yankees, is out of the running. The Red Sox are the prime candidates apparently for offloading surplus Montreal salary.

The Expos, as Chass says, had counted on playing the two AL East teams against each other:

At the winter meetings in Nashville this month, Omar Minaya, the Expos' general manager, tried to get the Yankees and the Red Sox competing with each other for Colón, but they rejected his proposals.

Apparently, media darling Omar Minaya overplayed his hand not realizing that a) Contreras would soon be declared a free agent (after clearing some hurdles regarding his residency documents) and b) so many players would soon become free agents after not being tendored contracts by their teams. Minaya had his moment when the demand still outpaced the supply, and it was the winter meetings. He didn't make the moves he needed to make and now the Expos are scrambling to make the mandated payroll cuts.

But enough of that, the Red Sox will probably acquire Colon as Chass opines, and will have three twenty-game winners on their staff. Those three would be more dominant than any three pitchers that the Yankees could throw at a team. Besides Colon is \younger than Contreras and is an established major-league starter (By the way, Chass mistakenly states that Colon is only 27-he will be 30 in May). Casey Fossum, the starter for whom Colon will probably be swapped and whose spot he will take, started only 12 games last year and ended up 3-3 with a 3.65 ERA (and a 1.41 WHIP) as a starter.

However, the Yankees gave up nothing in getting Contreras. The Red Sox will probably have to give up Casey Fossum and Shea Hillenbrand to get Colon and take on Fernando Tatis' salary as well (one year at $6.25 M remains on his contract).

Fossum did start only 12 games last year, but he struck out over a man an inning (69 in 66-2/3 innings) and struck at over 3.6 men for each one he walked (69 to 19). He is only 24, and with the Josh Hancock to the Phillies, his loss doesn't bode well for the Red Sox' pitching future. The Red Sox would have no starters under 30 by the 2003 All-Star break should they acquire Colon (Martinez 31, Lowe 30, Colon 30, Wakefield 36, Burkett 38). They only have two other pitchers under 29 on the 40-man roster (Brandon Lyon and Andy Shibilo). With Burkett's $5.5 M of ineffectiveness, Boston's apparent lack of confidence Wakefield a starter, and no other viable options, the tail end of the Red Sox' rotation may be problematic in 2003 no matter what.

Colon finally put together the kind of season in 2002 that his former employer, the Indians, had been anticipating for years. His ERA was under 3.00 for the first time in his career. His strikeouts dropped severely though. He only struck out 5.75 men per nine innings, a huge drop from his career high of 10.15 in 2000. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has never been greater than 2.25 and his WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) has never been below 1.24, his career best in 2002. Compare those numbers to Boston's Pedro Martinez who has only had a WHIP over 1.20 once, has never has a K/9 IP under 8, and has only had one K/BB ratio under 2.5. Colon did rank 10th among all major-league starters in Baseball Prospectus' Support Neutral Wins Above Replacement-Level, but there are still a good number of negatives in his makeup. That said, he would still be the best number 3 starter in baseball.

The Red Sox are apparently unhappy with uneven third baseman Shea Hillenbrand. He does have only 38 walks in over 1100 at-bats. But in 2002 his on-base percentage was actually one point better than the adjusted league average and his OPS was 9% better than the adjusted average (43 doubles and 18 HRs help). His apparent replacement in the trade, Fernando Tatis, had a deplorable 2002 season (.303 OBP and .702 OPS, which was only 83% of the adjusted league average). He signed a $14 M, four-year contract after a monster 1999 season (34 HRs, 107 RBI, .298 BA, .957 OPS- 40% better than the adjusted league average). He has been largely injured and/or ineffectual since then. He is just one year older than Hillenbrand but seems to be on the decline while Hillenbrand may still be able to improve as he did in 2002.

If acquiring Colon were such a boon to the Sox, one would have to wonder why they were so vehemently pursuing Contreras. Chass cites a source who states that the Sox were prepared to pay him more than the Yankees' offer, but Contreras liked the Yankee situation better and chose them.

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