The Boston Red Sox were baseball's big gamblers this winter.
Now, they're cashing in with wins.
And more might be coming.
Having been beaten out by the rival New York Yankees for free-agent slugger Mark Teixeira in December, the Red Sox took a series of calculated risks on four players with checkered medical charts.
They signed pitchers John Smoltz, Brad Penny, and Takashi Saito and outfielder Rocco Baldelli to incentive-laden contracts with relatively low base salaries.
It cost the Sox about $13.5 million in guaranteed money - less than the $17 million the Phillies are paying Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins not to play for them this season - to sign Smoltz, Penny, Saito and Baldelli. The results, so far, have been good, and that's before Smoltz has even thrown a pitch.
Penny, who had a bad shoulder and a bad attitude with the Dodgers last season, is 6-2 with a 4.94 ERA in 71 innings over 13 starts. His performance has been roughly comparable to that of A.J. Burnett, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Yankees in the off-season. Burnett was 5-3 with a 4.46 ERA in 802/3 innings over his first 13 starts. He is making $16.5 million this season. Penny's base salary is $5 million.
Saito was an effective closer for the Dodgers before coming down with a tender elbow last season and not receiving a contract offer from the club. The Sox signed the 39-year-old righthander for $2.5 million, and he has been a major contributor on the best relief staff in the majors.
Baldelli, who suffers from a condition (mitochondrial disorder) that can sap his energy, became a free agent after Tampa Bay bought out his contract. The Phillies met with Baldelli and considered signing him but backed off because they were concerned about his medical condition. The Sox signed Baldelli for a base salary of $500,000, and he has been a solid extra outfielder.
Boston's biggest gamble - and possibly biggest payoff - was with Smoltz. The veteran righthander and former NL Cy Young winner made just five starts - and none after April 27 - for Atlanta last season and had shoulder surgery. The Braves tried to re-sign him with a base of $2.5 million. Boston offered a base of $5.5 million and Smoltz left the city where he had been a pitching icon.
Smoltz has completed his rehab. He is scheduled to start for the Red Sox on Thursday at Washington.
If Smoltz can get back to anything close to top form - and at age 42 with an arm that's felt the pinch of a scalpel five times, that's a big if - he will give the Red Sox' already deep staff another weapon. He is one of the greatest post-season pitchers ever, having posted a 15-4 record and a 2.65 ERA in 40 games, and you know that's appealing to the Red Sox, who always plan on playing in October.
An effective Smoltz would also allow the Red Sox to use some of their depth in a trade, possibly for the shortstop they have been looking for. Their best chip might be Penny. The pitching-needy Phillies have an interest, and the two sides have talked about a deal that could involve infield prospect Jason Donald, who is recovering from what team officials have called minor knee surgery to repair a cartilage problem.
Signings such as Penny, Saito, Baldelli, and Smoltz are smart, but they are not for every team. Boston is a high-revenue club that can afford to take these chances. Hit on them and you look good. Miss on them and - oh, well, what's a few million bucks when you've had 500 straight sellouts?
So far, the Red Sox' gambles are looking good.
A flawed system
Major League Baseball's policy against performance-enhancing drugs is an evolving system. It took intervention from Congress to get the stubborn players' association to agree to a 50-game suspension for a first positive test.
The next step that MLB and the union must take if they are as serious as they say about eradicating the drugs from the game is take that 50-game suspension and make it a one-year suspension. The current policy has gotten a lot of players' attention, but not all of them. Witness Manny Ramirez.
The shamed Dodgers slugger is eligible for reinstatement on July 3. By MLB rule, he is allowed to play in 10 minor-league games before the suspension ends. He is expected to begin that assignment Tuesday night so he can be game-ready by July 3.
Phillies reliever J.C. Romero benefited from the same rule as his suspension for testing positive for a banned performance enhancer neared an end earlier this month. As a pitcher, he was allowed to pitch in the minors 16 days before his suspension ended.
Does anyone see a flaw here? Doesn't 50-game suspension mean so long, adios, hit the road for 50 games? Players who have tested positive for performance enhancers should not be allowed to play in any team-affiliated games while they are suspended. It should be their personal responsibility to stay in shape and get game-ready during the suspension.
The union wanted the minor-league assignment for obvious reasons: Without it, a 50-game suspension could essentially be a 60-game suspension as a player worked himself back into game shape after the penalty ended.
To this we say: So what? A suspension should be a suspension, and if you're not game-ready when it ends, too bad. When the Basic Agreement expires after the 2011 season, MLB and the union have to get rid of this provision. Fifty games should mean 50 games.
Stats and stuff
The Phillies lead the NL East by 3 games over the Mets. They reached that place in the standings despite having a 13-20 record at home.
Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com reports that only one team in a non-strike season has ever had a losing record at home and won its league or division - and it didn't happen that long ago.
The Atlanta Braves won the NL East by two games over the Phillies in 2001. The Braves went 88-74 overall and were 40-41 at home. Moral of the statistic: The Phils need to get it going at home if they're going to win a third straight division title.
The Phillies did not have a first-round pick in this month's draft, but analyst Jim Callis, Baseball America's executive editor, said he believed the team could make up for that if it can lure one or two players out of college commitments. Those players include seventh-round pick Brody Colvin, a pitcher who has signed with LSU, and 14th-rounder Jake Stewart, an outfielder who has signed with Stanford.
Colvin is a hard-throwing righthander. Stewart is a polished player who has been called one of the best high school athletes ever to come out of Colorado. Both players could have gone higher in the draft if it weren't for college commitments. It will take significant dollars to get them to bypass college.
The Phils forfeited their first-round selection for signing free agent Raul Ibanez.
"A Colvin or a Stewart would be like getting a first-round pick back," Callis said. "It would be like signing a free agent and not giving up anything - the best of both worlds."
Callis is high on second-rounder Kyrell Hudson, an athletic, project-like outfielder who has a chance to play football and baseball at Oregon State; eighth-rounder Jonathan Singleton, a power-hitting first baseman headed to Long Beach State; and 16th-rounder Andrew Susuc, an Oregon State signee who might be the best defensive catcher in the draft.
Had the Phils not signed Ibanez, they would have had the 27th overall pick in this year's draft. Last year, the 27th pick received a $1.29 million signing bonus. If the Phils are serious about finding the next wave of Jimmy Rollinses, Chase Utleys, Ryan Howards, and Cole Hamelses, they need to take that money and use it to get some of these "tough signs" into red pinstripes.
The Phils' top pick was switch-hitting outfielder Kelly Dugan, from Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He has already signed. Interestingly, BA didn't have him ranked among its top 200 prospects. Dugan made a late push as the draft approached and impressed Phils officials in private workouts.
"I think we were a little light on Dugan," Callis said. "The Phillies like big, strong, athletic types with good bats, and they got one with Dugan."