Commentary

Prospect Kelly to focus on pitching

Lots of chatter, little news at first day of winter meetings

Updated: December 8, 2009, 7:41 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

INDIANAPOLIS --The question came from behind the TV lights, so Red Sox manager Terry Francona couldn't see that his interrogator was wearing a tie festooned with the Sox logo.

"Terry, have you thought about moving Pedroia to short and playing Scutaro at second?" the questioner asked.

Even in a setting where the most improbable notion was given tweeted credibility -- Roy Halladay to the Tampa Bay Rays for B.J. Upton and Wade Davis? -- this one stopped Francona in his tracks.

"Who are you?" he asked incredulously.

Turns out the guy was a pressroom crasher, which evidently involves even less enterprise than getting your photo taken with Joe Biden at a White House state dinner. His pass identified him as the "fans' commissioner"; his question won him an invitation from MLB publicist Michael Teevan to leave the premises.

But even with the departure of baseball's version of the Salahis, the atmosphere inside the Indianapolis Marriott bred an endless permutation of potential roster restructuring, from the humblest penitents, such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, to the game's most bloated plutocrats, the New York Yankees.

Where did the Red Sox fit into all of this? Lots of chatter, little of substance, although general manager Theo Epstein did drop one piece of real news into his briefing with Boston media members Monday afternoon.

Casey Kelly, the 2008 top draft pick who has been cited as part of the price the Sox would have to pay the Blue Jays in a package for Halladay, is dropping the two-way game he played in his first pro season, pitching half the season, then playing shortstop for the remainder, in favor of pitching full time.

Kelly informed Epstein by phone a couple of days ago of his decision after a party of Sox officials led by the GM flew to Fort Myers, Fla., a week ago to meet with their athletically precocious 19-year-old phenom. The Sox's preference all along was that Kelly, who saw himself as an every-day player, would embrace pitching, but Epstein wanted him to make that call on his own.

On the face of it, the decision should not have been a tough one. As a pitcher, Kelly is one of the best prospects in the game, one who could show up on the big league team's radar, Epstein said, within the next year or two. By Epstein's calculations, the kid has four plus pitches -- two-seam and four-seam fastballs, a power curve and a changeup -- and might be adding a slider to that already formidable repertoire.

Then there is his makeup. "You get the feeling watching him," Epstein said, "that he almost looks like a big leaguer."

As a shortstop, the early returns suggested a kid hardly on the cusp of big league stardom: a cumulative .222 average in 40 minor league games, a .171 average in the Arizona Fall League. Too small a sample size to determine that Kelly wouldn't put it together eventually, but one leaving significantly more doubt than his pitching line.

There was no quid pro quo for Kelly's decision, Epstein said, but the young player will be invited to big league camp this spring, and Epstein acknowledged that he could pitch in the high minors in 2010, which suggests Kelly could open the season at Double-A Portland.

Epstein's stirring endorsement of Kelly's skills, meanwhile, underscored the improbability of Boston's including him in a package for Halladay, Adrian Gonzalez or Felix Hernandez, prizes sought by the Red Sox at the trading deadline this past summer and still on their wish list, although, of the three, only Halladay appears likely to be moved at this time.

Earlier in the day, the Red Sox announced the signing of reliever Scott Atchison, who spent the past two seasons in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers and should provide some bullpen depth. The Sox had signed Atchison, who will turn 34 in March, to a minor league contract before he went to Japan, but he had an out clause in his Boston deal, which he exercised when Hanshin offered considerably more yen.

Atchison's agent, Rich Thompson, said the pitcher was paid close to $3 million in his time in Japan and was offered another big payday to return, but opted for low money from the Red Sox --$420,000 in 2010, two club option years potentially worth $1.04 million more -- for the chance to pitch in Boston. Thompson, an Amherst man, contacted another Amherst man, Red Sox assistant GM Ben Cherington, to broker the deal.

Atchison, who pitched parts of three seasons with the Mariners and Giants from 2004 to 2007, missed all of the 2006 season because of an elbow injury. He pitched well in Hanshin, posting a 1.70 ERA in 75 games last season. He has an option left, Epstein said, meaning he could spend time on the Pawtucket-to-Boston shuttle next season.

[+] EnlargeTerry Francona
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTerry Francona told reporters he's made a point of not lobbying free agent Jason Bay, though he hopes Bay returns to the Red Sox. "He's earned the right," Francona said.
Epstein, per his custom, did not itemize the teams or agents he met with Monday, although he did say that re-signing Jason Bay remains "one of our priorities" and that a meeting at some point with Bay's agent, Joe Urbon, was inevitable. Angels GM Tony Reagins admitted his team has interest in Bay, although Reagins' late-afternoon arrival here seemed to put a big hole in a report that Urbon had met with the Angels earlier in the day, unless it was with one of Reagins' emissaries.

The Angels' M.O. last year at this time with Mark Teixeira was to have owner Arte Moreno parachute in and make what essentially was a take-it-or-leave-it best offer. When Teixeira didn't bite, Moreno pulled out immediately, and there might be a carryover to this season. Moreno announced a month ago that the Angels had no interest in the other prized left fielder on the market, Matt Holliday, who, like Teixeira, is represented by Scott Boras.

A Bay acquaintance said here Monday that Bay told him he had great interest in Seattle, where his wife is from and where they reside in the offseason, just across the border from his native British Columbia. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik, who was already in the process of closing a deal for free-agent infielder Chone Figgins and was said to be pursuing pitcher John Lackey, said he had a conversation in passing with Urbon in the hotel lobby on Sunday.

Plans to meet again? "That's up to Joe," Zduriencik said.

Francona said he has deliberately steered away from lobbying Bay, saying recent conversations have had to do more with their fantasy football competition than where Bay intends to play next season. "He's earned the right," Francona said of Bay's sifting through teams.

"We have to be patient. But I'm confident we'll have a left fielder."

As expected, Bay declined the Boston Red Sox's arbitration offer on Monday, according to a team source. The move keeps Bay on the open market, and if he signs elsewhere, the Red Sox will get two draft picks, a first- or second-rounder from the team that signs him, and a sandwich pick between the first two rounds.

There were several other arbitration decisions made by the midnight deadline that could impact the Red Sox. Third baseman Adrian Beltre declined arbitration from Seattle, freeing the Mariners to more aggressively pursue Bay. Left-fielder Matt Holliday declined arbitration from St. Louis, no surprise there, but leaving him as an available alternative to Bay for the Red Sox.

Left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez turned down arbitration from the Braves, leaving him in play, though as a Type A free agent he would cost the Red Sox a draft pick. Meanwhile, Rafael Soriano, Gonzalez's Atlanta teammate, accepted arbitration, taking him off the market, although the Braves have made it known they would consider trading him.

A few other tidbits under the heading of lobby scuttlebutt:

  • A National League talent evaluator with strong ties to the Padres said that he doubted San Diego would move Gonzalez but that if the Padres did trade him, he could see Jed Hoyer dealing with the Red Sox because of his knowledge of the Sox system. Still, he imagined that before unloading Gonzalez, Hoyer would want to watch Padres first-base prospect Kyle Blanks, who hit 10 home runs in 54 games before a foot injury cut short his rookie season.
  • A Tigers source said that although Red Sox owner John W. Henry retains great fondness for Miguel Cabrera, signed by Florida when Henry still owned the Marlins, he didn't think the Sox had the major-league-ready position players the Tigers would need back in any deal for their slugging first baseman.
  • The Red Sox were monitoring Braves reliever Rafael Soriano to see whether he accepted salary arbitration by the midnight deadline. He did, taking him off the open market, though the Braves have made it known they would consider trading him. Any deal made before June 15 would require Soriano's consent.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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