The Red Sox agreed to terms with Adrian Beltre to play third base in a move that clearly has defense in mind. Much like OBP in the past (see – Moneyball), statistic-oriented GMs have come to the conclusion that defense is the skill that is undervalued in the market.
Beltre hasn’t been much of a hitter since he left the Dodgers, but his home/road splits definitely show that Safeco Field sapped much of his offensive output. Obviously, Fenway is a great place for right-handed hitters, so there is reason to believe Beltre will improve at the plate. Working against Beltre, however, is his steadily declining OPS (.802, .784, .683) both home and away. You can blame some of that on injury – Beltre had shoulder problems last season – but it still should be a concern for the Red Sox.
The terms of Beltre’s contract are 1 year at $9 million with a player option for $5 million with a $1 million buyout. In all likelihood, the Red Sox will be paying Beltre $10 million for a year of service, which for a team like the Red Sox isn’t that much risk for one year of a third baseman.
The real gamble for the Red Sox is that they’ve placed a lot of their faith in the value of defense for the 2010 season. The signings of Mike Cameron, and to a lesser extent, Marco Scutaro, both were based on defense (and the Red Sox today announced that Cameron will indeed play center field, where his value will be maximized). I certainly do not doubt the value of defense and I regularly use UZR when evaluating players. However, UZR and other defensive statistics, at this point, are not quite as evolved statistics as offensive numbers and it seems odd that a team with the Red Sox’s resources would attempt to roll the dice on a perceived market inefficiency. Such practices make sense for teams like the A’s, operating under a limited budget, but perhaps not for the Red Sox, coming off a 95-win season with a fan-base that always expects to win. Plus the Red Sox in 2009 were second to only Beltre’s old team, the Mariners, in run prevention, so it will be interesting to see how much they stand to gain by sacrificing offense for defense.
Is this an example of Epstein being ahead of the curve or is he over-thinking the situation? Either way, it won’t cost the Red Sox much in long-term financial flexibility, but between Mike Lowell and Beltre the Red Sox currently have $22 million invested in third basemen and are probably at their spending limit for 2010.