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How dumb are the Red Sox now?

Some cosmetic changes to the Red Sox were a given, considering the ugliness of their collapse to end the 2011 season, and I actually have very little problem with the specifics of today’s transactions.  The signing of Nick Punto to a 2-year, $3.5 million deal hinges on the 34-year-old infielder keeping his defensive value (Fangraphs’ UZR has him as a reliable glove man season to season) and, ideally, his ability to take more walks than such a “scrappy” player would be expected to have.

Beyond that, it seems pretty clear that Marco Scutaro is the Red Sox’ starting shortstop, and Punto’s lack of power is mitigated in a utility/defensive role. The Sox’ prior move, dealing IF Jed Lowrie and RHP Kyle Weiland to Houston for reliever Mark Melancon, is similarly nuanced and mitigated – not exactly words of high praise for a once shrewd front office, but also not the kneejerk disaster my gut saw.

Lowrie, despite some stunning displays of offensive prowess when he would find a groove, is of very questionable value to the Red Sox – he has shown no ability to remain healthy, cannot hit right-handed pitching, and has been increasingly exposed as a defensive catastrophe at shortstop.  For most teams, a move to second base would be feasible, but Dustin Pedroia is one of the few things definitely good about the Red Sox. Could Lowrie help a physically taxed Kevin Youkilis at third, then? Not likely, given his offensive question marks and the dubious proposition of having a notoriously injury-prone player as your insurance for a guy coming back from season-ending surgery.  I don’t see Weiland as a huge loss, so the only real issue is a 2-for-1 trade of cost-controlled assets when the one coming back is hardly a sure thing himself.

Melancon’s stock was up after posting a 2.78 ERA and 3.14 xFIP in Houston last year, but his peripherals raise some concerns – namely, his declining strikeouts from 2010, and the fact that his ability to make up for that was derived from a ground-balling style that may not pan out so well in the AL East. He’s not a flamethrower, but if he can pair a 93-mph fastball with some deception on his change-up and curve, I could see him settling in as a strong setup option.  Considering that he has two more seasons before reaching arbitration, while Lowrie’s salary will start going up in 2012, I think “okay shortstop is more valuable than a good reliever” logic is tempered by cost considerations as well as the team’s areas of need.

All of that said, I can’t help but view today’s moves as worrisome portents, at least considering their context in a dramatic offseason. I ended up willing to give Bobby Valentine the benefit of the doubt – maybe he’ll be a company man and avoid bunts, intentional walks, and other in-game overmanaging even while irking fans with his ego – but taking such a controversial direction with their manager signals that the Red Sox may be shifting their team philosophy in significant (and, in my mind, detrimental) ways; the decision to try Daniel Bard as a starter adds to that concern, given his limited repertoire and his horrible failure as a starter in the minors.

Now, on top of a questionable manager and a bad bullpen-to-rotation move, Red Sox fans are confronted with a supposedly frugal team giving a two-year contract to a defense-minded utilityman in his mid-30s after dealing away two young players for a reliever with declining strikeouts in the NL Central and Tommy John surgery in his past (2006, so the surgery is rationale to toss out his minor league strikeout rates rather than call into question his present health).

Odds are, Lowrie’s arbitration numbers would have made him more costly than Punto, and if the team is really high on Melancon as a setup man or convinced Weiland truly has no shot to make it even as a reliever, the moves make sense given the presence of Marco Scutaro as the starting shortstop and the team’s dire need for bullpen arms.  On the other hand, it’s easy to see Valentine and others liking Punto’s “gritty” (read: outs-making) play and being blinded by Melancon’s 20 saves last season with the intention of having him close.  If the latter is indeed the case, it bodes very poorly for the team and today could end up being the start of a complete dismantling of everything Theo Epstein built.  But Bard could still move back to closing, and Punto may be a defensive replacement and insurance policy while the team shops Jose Iglesias to clubs who haven’t noticed that he makes Punto look like Hanley Ramirez at the plate.

The Red Sox’ next moves should help cast some light on which motives underlie today’s moves – if the free agent relief market has really sunk, maybe Ryan Madson won’t be an expensive, long-term commitment at closer, and Melancon suddenly looks like nice depth; if Yu Darvish requires anything close to a Daisuke Matsuzaka posting fee, Joe Saunders could be a thoroughly mediocre way to insure 200 innings of someone who isn’t Andrew Miller or Alfredo Aceves, or even the ability to move Bard back to relief.  Add to that the potential to trade Aviles – or even spin Melancon off for a more proven reliever – and there’s still a lot to be decided about just what direction Ben Cherington is taking the Red Sox.  At the very least, today’s moves have allayed some concerns that a belt-tightening club was ready to do absolutely nothing despite gaping holes in the pitching staff.

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