The Red Sox used a position of surplus to achieve greater flexibility in their pitching staff, trading centerfielder Coco Crisp to the Royals for reliever Ramon Ramirez. Crisp, who was part of a four-man outfield rotation with the Sox, will now fulfill his desire to be an everyday centerfielder, while Boston gets a pitcher who was one of the best setup men in the American League in 2008 as well as increased financial flexibility.
“Fortunately we were able to come up with a deal that I think is going to help both teams,” said Royals G.M. Dayton Moore.
Crisp was, at times, a valuable contributor to the Sox. After breaking his finger just one week into his Red Sox career, the outfielder never fulfilled the lofty expectations that accompanied his dynamic arrival in Boston (Crisp was quite possibly the most impressive member of the team in spring training in 2006).
Due to surgery following the 2006 season, he was not able to follow a normal strength program entering 2007, and his performance suffered as a result. His strengths as a hitter, particularly his pull approach on fastballs as both a right- and left-handed hitter, were somewhat neutralized by Fenway Park thanks to the Green Monster in left and the deep fences in right.
Still, he was an exceptional defensive player in 2007, while his offense picked up this year.
Crisp hit .283 average with a .344 OBP and .407 slugging mark this year, largely on the strength of a very strong second half (.315/.392/.403). He then hit .417 with a .517 OBP in the playoffs to punctuate his finishing kick.
That performance, coupled with a changing market, created more demand for Crisp than existed following the 2007 season. Last winter, the free-agent market was saturated with centerfielders, including Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones and Aaron Rowand, among several others. This year, the only free agent with recent experience as a starting centerfielder is Mark Kotsay, who spent October playing first base for the Red Sox.
Though Sox G.M. Theo Epstein said that interest in Crisp “was not as widespread as I expected,” the 29-year-old became a subject of inquiry at the G.M. meetings, and the Sox were in trade talks with the Royals and one other team about Crisp.
Though Crisp entered the year having expressed a clear desire to be an everyday player somewhere, his situation in an outfield timeshare in Boston worked out surprisingly well in 2008. Thanks to long stints on the sidelines by J.D. Drew and David Ortiz, he ended up with 409 plate appearances this year. All the same, Crisp’s agent made clear that the outfielder was eager for a full-time job, rather than a repeat of the 2008 arrangement.
“Careers are fleeting. A player wants to be able to contribute as long as he can, as well as he can, and he wants to do that by being on the field,” Steve Comte, Crisp’s agent, said earlier this month. “We’re going to let (Sox G.M. Theo Epstein) do his job. Covelli has been extremely patient. I can’t say it’s been the easiest of rides. I think the Red Sox and certainly Theo know how we feel…We’re confident he’s going to do the right thing not only for the interests of the Boston Red Sox but also for Coco.”
That forecast came to fruition today. The Royals acquired Crisp–a Gold Glove-caliber centerfielder in 2007–to chase balls in their vast centerfield expanse. They plan to feature either Crisp or David DeJesus as their leadoff hitter.
“He’s somebody who has a lot of experience. He’s been a part of championship teams. The ability to play centerfield and have success at the top of the lineup was big for us,” said Royals G.M. Dayton Moore. “Centerfield is a very important position, even moreso in our ballpark. It’s a huge ballpark. There’s not a lot of homeruns hit here…We felt Coco Crisp was the best player available to us in centerfield.”
The right-handed Ramirez, meanwhile, bolsters the the back-end of the Red Sox bullpen. He features a fastball that typically registers in the low-90s but that touches as high as 95 as well as a slider, but it is his changeup–which acts like a split-finger fastball–that generates ample swings and misses.
Ramirez spent much of the year pitching in the eighth inning for the Royals. He went 3-2 with a 2.64 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 71.2 innings this year while holding opposing hitters to a miniscule .222 average.
Ramirez was even more devastating against right-handed hitters, whom he held to a .153 average (lowest in the A.L. and third lowest in the majors among pitchers with at least 50 games). Only the Cubs’ Carlos Marmol (.103) and Philadelphia’s Brad Lidge (.105) ranked higher. In his career he has held righties to a .198 average with an OPS of .586.
He has a 2.14 ERA with 97 strikeouts and 44 walks in 105.0 career innings outside of Coors Field. In 2008, Ramirez was one of just three A.L. relievers with at least 70 strikeouts, 70 appearances and an ERA under 3.00, joined by Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez and Chicago’s Matt Thornton.
“We believe we’ve acquired a young, controllable reliever that can really help our bullpen,” said Red Sox G.M. Theo Epstein. “He’s very quietly had a tremendous amount of success in the major leagues…We were looking for that kind of upgrade and depth.”
“You need to give up something to get something,” said Moore, who acquired Ramirez from the Rockies this spring in exchange for former Sox prospect Jorge De La Rosa. “Our people even felt he might be able to close at some point in time in his career. He’s a good pitcher…He’s a pitcher who stays on the attack with his fastball. (He has a) very good changeup. He commands the down-and-away strike very well with power.”
The move opens centerfield for Jacoby Ellsbury, who finished third in Rookie of the Year balloting after hitting .280 with a .336 OBP and .394 slugging mark. Though Crisp had better numbers in each category, the Sox are confident that Ellsbury–who played spectacular outfield defense and led the American League with 50 steals–will continue to improve.
“Expectations were probably unreasonably high for him given the numbers he put up in a very small sample in the 2007 postseason,” said Epstein. “One thing we like about young players, especially young players who work hard like Jacoby does, is they get better. They get better with opportunities.
“He’ll certainly have a chance to play next year, and to continue to improve his offensive game. Obviously, his defense and baserunning are already championship caliber. As he grows into his swing and continues to figure it out from an offensive standpoint, I think we’re going to really see a dynamic player.”
There are ancillary benefits to the addition of another bullpen arm, particularly one who is not yet arbitration eligible. Ramirez will allow the Sox greater flexibility either in the potential usage of Justin Masterson in 2009 or in using some of their pitching depth in a trade this offseason.
“He does give us the flexibility to start Masterson if that’s ultimately what we feel is in the best interests of the club,” said Epstein. “Both Masterson and Ramirez dominate right-handed hitters. In that way, Ramirez could potentially replace Masterson in the ‘pen.
“(But) it’s not easy to find a controllable reliever with a good track record and plus stuff,” Epstein continued. “Whether we keep Masterson in the ‘pen or not, we feel like adding Ramon can only make us better.”
The Sox must now find a right-handed hitting fourth outfielder who is capable of playing centerfield. But that task, the team felt, would prove more manageable than an effort to find a potentially dominant bullpen arm.
“With the emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury (as a starting centerfielder),” said Epstein, “we felt like we would be able to find a complementary outfielder on the market easier than we would be find a valuable member of the bullpen. That’s why we made this trade.”
Crisp has one more year remaining (at $5.75 million) of a three-year, $15.5 million deal that includes an $8 million option for the 2010 season. Ramirez, who has pitched parts of the past three seasons for the Rockies and Royals, is not yet arbitration eligible, and remains under team control for the next four years.