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Red Sox might be willing to pay a drafty price for Scott Downs

12.07.10 at 2:55 am ET
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Red Sox love their draft picks. The foundation of the club’s success in recent years has been largely driven by its young talent base, and so if possible, the team would no doubt prefer to avoid sacrificing picks for free agents. And, the prevailing wisdom goes, that would prove especially true of relievers — a volatile commodity for whom the team is reluctant to invest multi-year deals, let alone picks.

So does that rule the Sox out of the three Type A free agent relievers who would cost them a draft pick?

Rafael Soriano isn’t going to end up with the Sox. The closer, who led the American League in saves last year, will be looking for a closer deal at closer years and dollars. The Sox have a closer. There’s no fit.

Grant Balfour, another Type A free agent reliever, would also cost the club with whom he signs a draft pick, assuming he leaves the Rays. His decision to turn down Tampa Bay’s offer of salary arbitration meant that any team signing him would need to pay doubly — giving up dollars and a top draft pick — in order to sign him. While the hard-throwing right-hander’s numbers in the AL East the past three years (2.98 ERA, 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.8 walks per nine) are excellent, the Sox, according to a source familiar with the team’s thinking, aren’t interested enough to give up a pick to sign him to the multi-year deal he seeks.

But, according to that source, there is a reliever for whom parting with a pick would not represent a deal breaker. While the Sox wouldn’t give one up for Balfour, they might do so in order to sign free-agent left-hander Scott Downs.

Downs has been dominant year-in, year-out as a left-handed pitcher in the American League East. The 34-year-old (he turns 35 in March) has evolved from a left-handed specialist into a full-inning option with terrific effectiveness.

Like Balfour, his strikeouts dipped in 2010 to their lowest level (7.0 per nine innings) since 2004, but he offset that with the lowest walks per nine innings (2.1) of his career.

Between the ages of 31-34, Downs has actually turned in a four-year run that ranks among the most productive ever by a reliever at that age. Only 12 relievers since 1901 to have had an ERA of 2.50 or less with at least 200 innings pitched from ages 31-34, with Downs joining Joe Nathan, Billy Wagner, Mariano Rivera, Tom Henke, Joe Beggs, Joe Hoerner, Jim Brewer, Dave Smith, Ramon Hernandez, Moe Drabowsky and Ron Perranoski.

Downs represents the top left-handed option on the market. While that does not necessarily mean the Sox will sign him, it is clear that they will explore whether they can work out a sensible deal for a longtime AL East rival whom they tried hard to acquire at the trade deadline (only to back off when the Blue Jays made clear that it would take either Casey Kelly or Jose Iglesias to deal him).

Additionally, according to multiple industry sources, the team has continued to show ongoing interest in Matt Guerrier, a Type A free agent who was not offered arbitration by the Twins, and as a result, would not require a signing club to give up a draft pick.

In six full big league seasons, Guerrier has had an ERA of 3.40 or better in five of them. (Indeed, in 2008, though he finished the year with a 5.19 ERA, he actually carried a 3.49 ERA into August before a terrible two-month stretch (10.61 ERA) inflated his year-long total.) Even though he doesn’€™t produce a ton of strikeouts (5.3 per nine innings in 2010) or elicit an outrageous amount of groundballs (his groundball and groundout-to-flyout ratio are both only slightly better than major league average), he’€™s simply been effective. He’€™s been a typical Twins reliever: a strike thrower (1.9 walks per nine innings in 2010) who keeps the ball in the park.

Sox GM Theo Epstein said on Monday that his team was likely to acquire multiple bullpen arms through either free agency or the trade market. The Sox will be attached to the names not just of Downs and Guerrier but also several other relievers (the Herald reported that the Sox have checked in on lefties Brian Fuentes and Ron Mahay, for instance). For most of the last month, the Sox and other teams have been waiting to create distance between any deals they sign with relievers and the three-year, $16.5 million deal that Joaquin Benoit signed with the Tigers at the GM meetings, a pact that immediately set the bar for other free agent relievers.

“Sometimes when there’€™s a contract that exceeds expectations early, it can embolden players and agents within that subset of players who have a similar resume,” said Epstein. “Time will tell whether they get attached to that contract or it’€™s an outlier contract.”

Time will tell, too, whether the Sox — who will likely be getting two extra first-round picks and three sandwich-round picks as a result of departing free agents Victor Martinez, Adrian Beltre and Felipe Lopez — will give up a pick for a reliever, something that they haven’t done since 2004, when they signed Keith Foulke.

Read More: grant balfour, Hot Stove, matt guerrier, Scott Downs
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