Friday, October 28, 2005

Freedom is just another word for nothin' left to lose

The reign officially and appropriately ends one night with the Changing of the Sox. And not 12 hours later, the Chicago's star slugger as well as two of the supporting players in Boston's Idiot Trilogy file for free agency.

So much for taking a moment to savor the season. The Hot Stove League waits for no one anymore.

Most years, we'd be cool with that. We always found the trades and transactions of the offseason to be nearly as compelling as the games themselves. I think it dates back to TATB's childhood, when he'd eagerly await getting his Topps Traded baseball card sets just for the sheer thrill of seeing the players in their new, unfamiliar uniforms.

(Woo, check this out! . . . Fisk as a White Sox! . . . And Winfield as a Yankee! . . . Whoa, and Hobson as an Angel! . . . Don't they look awesome!)

(You know, what say we skip the psychoanalysis of that little flashback, okay?)

This year, though, the anticipation is absent, mainly because the list of probable free agents contains a lot more question marks than exclamation points. While Johnny Damon, Paul Konerko, and Billy Wagner certainly are A-List talents, and A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan will be compensated as such - there just isn't a lot of star power here. There isn't a lot of anything, really. Depth-wise, the class falls somewhere between "mediocre" and "should be a playing for the St. Paul Saints." Even George Steinbrenner likely won't reach the limit on his Visa.

For the Red Sox, this could be problematic. Maybe we were too blinded by their 95 victories during the season, but only after they were whitewashed by the White Sox did we come to realize the truth: the Red Sox are a team in transition. Damon may not be back. Kevin Millar certainly won't be without a ticket or a NESN gig. Bill Mueller's contract is up, as is Mike Timlin's. They need a first basemen, a second baseman, an entirely new bullpen - and perhaps a center fielder and a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher as well. Geez, of all the years to have a lousy group of free agents.

Fortunately, though, it looks like their most important free agent is sticking around, and among all the aspects of his job that Theo Epstein does well, he is particularly adept at finding quality players at a Dollar Tree price. Mueller, Timlin, and some clutch cat who answers to Big Papi were part of Theo's first Filene's Basement free-agent class before the '03 season. Their immense contributions don't have to be rehashed here.

Obviously, there's not another David Ortiz out there - that's a once-in-fan's-lifetime gift from the sports gods - but there are some unsung, underappreciated or undervalued free agents who could help the Red Sox next season. It's just a matter of figuring out who they are. Here's our attempt:

Kyle Farnsworth, reliever, Braves: The Sox reportedly inquired about Farnsworth before he was dealt from Detroit to Atlanta at the trade deadline, and his outstanding performance for the Braves surely did nothing to cool their interest. While there are some questions about his character - he reportedly could give Livin' La Vida D-Lowe a run for his Budweiser off the field - he's one of the hardest throwers in the big leagues, and you, me and Dave Wallace know the Sox could use a few of those. He's be the ideal eighth-inning power setup guy they've been lacking, and he's capable of closing if Keith Foulke still is not. He's also the best open-field tackler in the big leagues, so maybe in his downtime he can give Monty Beisel some tips.

Bobby Howry, reliever, Indians: Not that I'm suggesting the Sox recycle this washout from their 2002-'03 ballclubs, but his success the past two years with Cleveland just goes to show yet again that assembling a bullpen is a total crapshoot. Last year's trash is this year's treasure, and if Howry (and to a similar extent, fellow ex-Sox-turned-Indian Scott Sauerbeck) isn't proof enough, consider that Todd Jones - he of the spinning curveball and other assorted junk during his ineffective time with the Sox -had a sub-2.00 ERA and 40 saves for the Marlins this season. Who will be this year's Jones, this year's Howry? Will it be Rick White? Scott Sullivan, maybe? Ricardo Rincon? About the only truly appealing sorta-under-the-radar reliever is San Francisco's Scott Eyre, the rare bullpen lefty who's in the big leagues because he's damn good pitcher; he's not some southpaw stiff whose repertoire consists solely of smoke and mirrors and who thanks his lucky stars at night that his dad tied his right hand behind his back as a kid. (No offense, Mike Myers.) B.J. Ryan should be atop the Sox' list of priorities, but if they don't get him, I hope they bag Eyre as a consolation prize.

Octavio Dotel, reliever, A's: One of the best arms in baseball. Unfortunately, Dotel's moneymaker currently has a scar on the elbow, courtesy of ligament replacement surgery that knocked him out most of this season and was originally expected to keep him out all of 2006. However, recent reports indicate he may be back in time for opening day, and pitchers who have the surgery bounce back with relative ease these days. Some even claim to have better stuff than before. Just ask Burnett's agent. Some big-market team with an extra few million or so in the piggy bank will take a flyer on Dotel. I hope it's the Red Sox, particularly if they miss out on Farnsworth. Dotel's had his hiccups as a closer, but as a setup guy, he could be what Matt Mantei '04 and Scott Williamson '03 were supposed to be: Lights. Out.

Kevin Millwood, starting pitcher, Indians or Paul Byrd, starting pitcher, Angels: I happen to believe Burnett - a hipster doofus version of Matt Clement - will be the Sox's No. 2 starter next season. John Henry has a soft spot for him since their days with the Marlins, and he'll be more than willing to meet Burnett's price for the sake of sentiment. But if Burnett does not end up here, you have to figure the Sox will sign another starter, with Bronson Arroyo and perhaps Clement being dangled as trade bait. Which brings us to Millwood, who was excellent all year for the Indians and is the closest thing to a No. 2 starter on the market - perhaps even including Burnett. I also wouldn't be shocked if the Sox pursued the Angels' Byrd, who acquitted himself well in the postseason and has been on the Sox' radar before. Plus, the Kelsey Grammer clone could also make a few bucks on the side selling autographed pictures to sucker tourists at the Bull and Finch Pub.

Olmedo Saenz, first base, L.A. Dodgers or Eduardo Perez, first base, Devil Rays: They Sox can do better than this, and likely will. (TATB is all for any trade that brings Adam Dunn to Boston without Manny leaving as a consequence.) But Saenz and Perez are veteran, underrated righthanded sticks - not to mention accomplished Sox killers- and even though they are both north of 30, I suspect they could flourish in a part-time role, say, if the Sox decided to bring back Helmet Olerud as the lefty half of a platoon. Now, I don't want this to happen. I'm just saying it wouldn't be as bad an option as some would portray it if it does. (And If it's lefty the Sox covet, Erubiel Durazo might be a good match for Fenway, though he makes Papi look like Keith Hernandez at first base.)

Nomar Garciaparra, shortstop/third base, Cubs: Nomar! Back in Boston! Brilliant! Or so I thought. When I bounced the idea off my wife, she said, "Nomar? Really? Isn't there anyone better?" Talk about taking the wind out my sails - I was as mopey as Nomar that night in New York when he had the best seat in the house to watch Pokey and Jetes alternate "Web Gems." Thanks, beautiful. All, right, I suppose I'm being slightly facetious with this idea - Nomar will never return to Boston as long as Larry Lucchino has a corner office. But on a couple of levels it's at an idea worth entertaining. First, his stock is at an all-time low. If you understood the fundamental premise of "Moneyball," it's that Billy Beane emphasizes bringing in players who are a good value, who have a trait or a talent that is underappreciated and thus underpriced. Nomar fits those criteria now - and here comes the inevitable "if" - if-if-if he can stay on the field. His reputation and career have been damaged by injuries; he's had more odd ailments in recent years than Tyrone Poole, and he looks so rickety at shortstop that Dusty Baker moved him to third base, shifting him in favor of the immortal Neifi Perez. Which brings us to the other part of the plan: If he came back to Boston, he would have to move to center field. Yes, seriously. No, I did not pick a bad day to stop sniffing glue. Think about it: Center field would be better for his health, it is not unprecedented for a shortstop (Robin Yount did it, and Captain Jetes ought to), and he could fill the void left by Damon. Is it unrealistic to think it might happen? Well, mean ol' Mrs. TATB apparently thinks so, and I imagine Nomar and Lucchino would, too. And frankly, I'm not even sure I'd want it to happen. While Nomar, who's 31 years old now, is still productive when in good health,, I had my fill of first-pitch popups the last time around. I guess by suggesting this, I'm just trying to making a larger point:

It's going to take some extremely creative thinking - and a little bit of luck, too - for the Red Sox to enter 2006 with a better team than the one that ended this past one so anticlimactically.