Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Is LaRoche answer to Sox’s struggles?Posted by Evan Brunell
On the Sox's end of things, LaRoche gives the team a lefty bat with a history of success against right-handed pitchers, particularly in the second half. On the year, LaRoche is hitting .257/.360/.472 against right-handers for a .833 OPS. This jives nicely with his career .847 OPS against right-handers.
Also, LaRoche has first- and second-half splits like you wouldn't believe: a .773 OPS in the first half followed up by a .901 OPS in the second. Given the Sox needed hitting against right-handed pitching and it's the second half, LaRoche had to be considered one of the best bats on the market for the Sox to acquire.
Before the trade, I compiled a list of bats the Sox could go after and was less than kind to LaRoche in the process. However, since the Sox would use him exclusively against right-handers and the package they gave up (more on them in a moment) is dicey, I like this trade from Boston's perspective.
Fangraphs is less kind to the trade, viewing LaRoche as a backup at best on a contending team. I don't see it. LaRoche ranks 17th in first-baseman OPS against right-handers (out of 29 possibles with a minimum 150 plate appearances, ahead of names such as James Loney, Jorge Cantu, Paul Konerko and Nick Johnson). Last year, he ranked 15th, sandwiched in between Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera. "A reserve on any team really trying to win"? I don't see it.
Obviously, LaRoche needs to platoon and be held out against lefty pitchers, but how is this a problem? The Sox won a World Series with Trot Nixon as a righties-only right fielder.
The Sox have a ton of different ways they could go with the trade:
- Install LaRoche as the starting first-baseman against righties, moving Youkilis over to third and disabling Mike Lowell until he proves he really can run.
- Put LaRoche and Lowell in a constant platoon against right-handers, with LaRoche receiving the bulk of the at-bats. Mark Kotsay would likely lose his job here.
- LaRoche would receive the majority of the at-bats against righties because Lowell would be able to man third against lefties while LaRoche rides the pine.
Right now, the Red Sox are essentially in a Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell/Mark Kotsay platoon. LaRoche is an appreciable upgrade from Kotsay, and the platoon handedness switches as to alleviate some of the pressure facing Lowell on defense and baserunning. It is possible the Sox opt to disable Mike Lowell to make room for LaRoche on the 25-man roster (Diaz was on the 40, so no move needs to be made there) but it's more likely the Sox delay any decision by disabling Kotsay, who has been battling a calf injury.
Defensively, LaRoche is average to below-average. This may have normally been a concern with fielding whizzes Youkilis and Lowell in the fold, but Lowell's balky hip has given him a terrible -15.7 UZR/150 at third (just a year ago, he finished at 15.6) so LaRoche's defense might actually prove an upgrade while he is on the field.
On the Pirates' end, they shed some much-needed salary for a player that was unlikely to return to Pittsburgh, anyways. It also opens up playing time for Steve Pearce, who they may hand the first-base job to. Pearce is hitting .287/.375/.505 on the year in Triple-A and performed poorly in a 12 at-bat cup of coffee earlier this year. Pearce didn't endear himself to long-term success by saying after his demotion that he needed to play every day to contribute. Well, maybe he'll get his chance, but he still profiles as a career tweener -- and one that apparently can't hit if he doesn't play every day.
Diaz, 22, is a fielder with tremendous range and is considered one of the best fielding prospects in the game. He lacks focus on routine plays, as he's made 18 errors so far on the year. (Some of these errors are due to him botching balls he shouldn't have even come close to getting to, though.) He has absolutely no bat, as his .253/.309/.310 line in Double-A suggests. However, he's got the glove to at the very least bounce around the majors in what could constitute a Nick Green-type career (prior to Green's "breakthrough" this year). Diaz could end up being the Pirates' shortstop for the next few years, but won't be anything past that unless he can shore up his fielding on routine plays. If he does that, he has the chance to be an eerily-similar version of Jack Wilson.
Strickland, 20, was drafted in 2007 and posted a 3.35 ERA in Single-A Greenville. Nothing he does overwhelms you, and he's likely to move to the bullpen. He's far too off to be anything but a possible arm at the moment.
For these two players, which the Red Sox won't miss (they are very deep in defensive shortstops in the system), the club has drastically upgraded their offense. With a team OPS of .768 against right-handers (behind the Yankees, Rays, Phillies, Angels, Orioles, Rockies and Rangers), they needed the upgrade, especially given the team is working on a four-game losing streak in which they have totalled eight runs. Think that's bad? The Boston Globe notes the Sox have hit .194 since the All-Star Break. That's bad.
LaRoche presents them with the upgrade needed to move forward with more confidence in their offense.
Evan Brunell is currently editor of Fire Brand of the American League, a Red Sox blog he began in 2003. He also scores games at Fenway Park for MLB. He was the co-founder and president of MVN, an independent sports media web site.