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Red Sox Friday Notes: A bench with bling

03.19.10 at 12:17 pm ET
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BRADENTON, Fla. — Payroll disparity comes front and center in the Red Sox exhibition contest against the Pirates.

As of late-January, MLB.com reported that the Pirates were projecting to have a season-opening payroll of $36 million. As such, some major league sources anticipated that the team would come under some scrutiny (much as the Marlins did this winter, when they issued a joint press release with Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association to say that they were committed to spending money on players) to show that they are investing the money that they are receiving through revenue sharing into players, rather than plowing it into debt service.

Pirates CEO Frank Coonelly adamantly disputed that characterization.

“We are, have been and will continue to be transparent with both the commissioner’s office and the players union in respect to how we utilize our resources,” Coonelly told reporters. “I’m confident the Pittsburgh Pirates have acted consistently within the framework of the collective bargaining agreement our plan to build a winning team here.”

That said, the Pirates are all but certain to feature the lowest payroll in the majors this year. The cost of their major league roster can be put in sharp relief when one contrasts it with a quartet of Red Sox reserves who will see playing time today.

In Bradenton against the Pirates today, the Sox will feature Bill Hall at shortstop, Jeremy Hermida is playing left and Jason Varitek is catching. Meanwhile, Mike Lowell is back in Fort Myers to DH in a minor-league game, with an eye towards getting roughly a handful of at-bats.

Right now, those are the four primary reserves who will open the season for the Sox. In its own right, there is something remarkable about such an assembly of talent comprising a bench. Lowell is a four-time All-Star, and Varitek has been in the showcase event three times. Hall certainly would have been a worthy addition to the N.L. team in 2006, when he hit 35 homers and had an .899 OPS, while Hermida seemed like he was on an All-Star trajectory when he had an .870 OPS as a 23-year-old in 2007.

Of course, each of those players has struggled in different ways in more recent seasons. Nonetheless, each is paid a salary commensurate with a major league regular, rather than a bench role. To wit: Lowell is getting paid $12 million in 2010, Hall will receive $8.4 million (though $7.65 million of that will be paid by the Mariners), Hermida will receive $3.345 million and Varitek is due to earn $3 million.

By themselves, those four players — again, all of whom will be reserves unless there is an injury to a Red Sox regular — are scheduled to make $26.745 million in 2010, or roughly $10 million less than the Pirates will pay for their entire big league roster. (Again, it is worth noting that the Sox’ financial obligation is less than that, standing at $19.095 million.) Either Hall or Lowell would have the largest salary on the Pirates; Hermida’s number would rank fifth on the Pirates, while Varitek would rank seventh.

While spring training games are typically a poor measure of two teams, one can learn something about the shape and structure of two teams. And today in Bradenton, the very different operating structures of the Pirates and Red Sox are on display, albeit in an exhibition game.

– Most of the attention about Bill Hall this spring has been on his defense, as his value to the Sox draws largely from his ability to play numerous positions. But his offense may be an even bigger question mark, given that his .201/.258/.338/.596 line in 2009 represented the third straight year of decline in all four of those statistics. This spring, Hall says he is feeling better at the plate, despite a .143/.280/.143/.423 line in 25 plate appearances. Francona believes that he still has offensive potential, and envisions carving out regular playing time for him.

“Tough year for him last year,” said Francona. “If you throw something over the place and he gets his arms extended, he’s a strong kid. There are going to be some left-handed pitchers he’s going to give us an advantage against, days where we want to give [J.D. Drew] a rest or want to give somebody a rest. There will be a lot of ways to use him.”

“I don’€™t think he has to be [a bench player] for his career. I don’€™t think any of us think that. It’s just, by circumstances, that’€™s how we got him and that’€™s how he can really help us. I think he understands that. I wouldn’€™t want him to write off being an everyday player.”

– Lowell is still slated to play third base for the first time this spring on Sunday.

Daisuke Matsuzaka was in Boston on Thursday, when his wife delivered a baby girl (6 lbs., 10 oz.). Matsuzaka flew back to Fort Myers on Friday morning, and was scheduled to throw a bullpen session in the early afternoon. Barring a setback, he would then pitch a minor league game on Sunday or Monday, with his next outing a major league spring training game later next week.

Junichi Tazawa is scheduled to pitch today, after getting hit around a bit by the Rays in his last outing. One evaluator at that contest said that Tazawa looked like he was leaving his pitches up in the zone, making him vulnerable to getting hit hard.

That outing notwithstanding, Francona said that the pitcher remains highly regarded by the Sox, and is viewed as being in competition for a big league role, though the manager also acknowledged that continuing his development as a starter (presumably in the minors) might be more valuable than having him pitch in a bullpen.

“He can do different things. he can relieve, he can start, he holds runners,” said Francona. “He’€™s another guy who has come a long way in a year. … Now he’€™s a guy that should not only be in a fight maybe to make our team, but someone we really think highly of.

‘€œHe can be useful as a reliever. He throws strikes, he holds runners,” added Francona. “You don’€™t want to write off a guy being a starter. Depending on what our needs are, he could always be a reliever. Having guys that have the ability to throw maybe 180-200 innings is pretty important.’€

– The timetable for Jed Lowrie to play this spring is unclear as a result with his diagnosis with mononucleosis.

“I don’t know how that’s going to work out with Jed physically,” said Francona.

The Red Sox will thus be scrambling to field teams for back-to-back days of split squad games on Sunday and Monday, with middle infielders in short supply given that Gil Velazquez will, according to Francona, “miss some significant time” due to his left thumb injury that has him in a cast. Outfielder Darnell McDonald is also sidelined by an oblique strain.

Jeremy Farrell was brought over from the Pirates’ minor league camp to play in front of his father, Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, today.

– Red Sox pitcher Richie Lentz discussed his decision to retire with Sea Dogs broadcaster Mike Antonellis. He said that he would have needed surgery to remove bone spurs in his shoulder, and the 25-year-old suggested that he did not want to put himself through such an ordeal.

“My shoulder was killing me towards the end of the [Arizona] Fall League, and after my last outing I knew something was seriously wrong. Bottom line,” said Lentz. “I would need to have surgery to remove bone spurs from my shoulder, and i just don’t have enough love left for the game to go down that road at this point in my career. I’m thankful for what the game has given me, but very excited to begin the next chapter in my life!”

Lentz’ decision to retire caught Sox officials by surprise. He had a power repertoire (albeit with command issues) that suggested some potential as a big league reliever.

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