Sox take gamble by dealing Nomar

The Red Sox believe they're a better defensive team without Nomar Garciaparra. But are they a better team?

Originally Published: August 2, 2004
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

Some 12 hours after The Trade, the reverberations were still being felt throughout New England. Newspapers, TV and radio stations ran polls to gauge fans' opinion of the swap -- reaction was basically split -- and there was a certain "where-were-you-when-you-heard-the-news" element to the aftermath.

The complicated, four-team trade which sent Nomar Garciaparra packing Saturday is arguably the biggest gamble of Red Sox GM Theo Epstein's career. If the Red Sox fail to qualify for the postseason and Garciaparra shines for the Cubs, Epstein and Red Sox ownership will never hear the end of it.

Nomar Garciaparra
Getty ImagesNomar Garciaparra made six errors in 37 games for the Red Sox this season.

But in the minds of the Sox front office, it was a deal that had to be made.

"We might have gotten to the World Series," said Epstein. "But in my mind, we weren't going to win the World Series with this defense. What we've done is lose a great player. But what we've also done is made our club a more functional club."

How have the Red Sox changed since dealing off arguably the most popular player in recent club history? Let us count the ways.

Defense
Epstein labeled the team's defense "a flaw which potentially could have turned into a fatal flaw."

The Red Sox lead the majors in unearned runs allowed. Heck, Derek Lowe himself has allowed more unearned runs than two other teams.

Epstein worried that the club's defensive deficiencies would particularly be exposed in the postseason, when games are typically more low-scoring and the margin for error -- quite literally -- is smaller.

There will be times over the final two months when the Sox will field an infield with three Gold Glove winners: Orlando Cabrera at shortstop, Doug Mientkiewicz at first base and Pokey Reese at second base.

The Sox couldn't find any starting pitchers that interested them -- they nearly swapped Lowe for Brad Penny before the Dodgers interceded Friday -- so they did the next best thing: bolstered the defense to help the pitchers they already have.

At the start of the season, the Red Sox thought they would at least be adequate in the field. But that was before Garciaparra (heel), Trot Nixon (quad) and Bill Mueller (knee) all missed significant time and returned at less than 100 percent mobility.

We might have gotten to the World Series. But in my mind, we weren't going to win the World Series with this defense. What we've done is lose a great player. But what we've also done is made our club a more functional club.
Theo Epstein, Red Sox GM

"We had completely unacceptable defense, for a number of reasons, including injuries," Epstein said. "Why, if we were leading the league in runs scored and ERA, did we play .500 ball for three months?"

Today, with the trades giving them a makeover in the infield and Gabe Kapler in right field over the hobbled Nixon, the Sox are one of the best defensive teams in the AL.

Team Chemistry
In the immediate aftermath of the deal, Garciaparra's now-former teammates said all the right things. Pedro Martinez, whose command of his second language is second only to his command of his pitches, saluted Garciaparra as a "superstar and gentleman." Tim Wakefield, the only Sox player with longer continuous service to the club than Garciaparra, embraced the shortstop. Manny Ramirez wished him well.

But Garciaparra was never one to get close to his teammates. A loner by nature, he had grown even more detatched in recent weeks. It wasn't unusual to see Garciaparra staring blankly into his locker, removed from the socialization of teammates around him.

Off the field, Garciaparra was never one to hang out with many teammates. When Lou Merloni didn't return to the Sox this season, Garciaparra lost the one good friend he had on the team.

But in recent weeks, Garciaparra's lingering bitterness over last winter's aborted mega-deal -- which would have brought in Alex Rodriguez and shipped out Ramirez and Garciaparra -- seemed to intensify. And when Garciaparra signaled to the training staff that he would be requiring additional rest for his heel and perhaps a future stint on the DL, alarms went off in the front office.

Lineup
The Red Sox will need to find someone to hit fifth and give the batting order some depth, the kind it had last year when the club scored 961 runs.

Kevin Millar, who in the last few weeks has wielded the kind of hot bat he displayed in the first half of last season, would be the perfect choice. Except, with the arrival of Mientkiewicz, Millar's playing time will be reduced. The Sox can't afford to play Millar much in right at Fenway, where his poor outfield skills would be magnified.

Jason Varitek
Varitek

Kevin Millar
Millar

Jason Varitek is another possibility, though he can be the very definition of streaky. Finally, Cabrera could be a possibility. Though he's struggled much of this season in Montreal, he has the ability to produce runs -- twice, he compiled seasons with 80 or more RBI.

For the next two weeks or so, however, the Sox lineup won't be at full strength as first David Ortiz, then Varitek serve out suspensions. Eventually, however, they'll have to find someone to protect Ramirez in the lineup.

The Future
With Garciaparra gone, the Sox still have four significant free agents unsigned: Martinez, Varitek, Lowe and now Cabrera.

They had long ago given up on retaining Garciaparra.

"We would have talked," Epstein said, "but based on everything we knew from previous negotiations, we certainly didn't think we were going to be able to sign him."

Lowe is in the same category. The Sox offered him $27 million over three years, which the pitcher dismissed out of hand.

Martinez and Varitek will be tough signs, but both have shown a desire to stay in Boston. Meanwhile, the Sox will be evaluating Cabrera with an eye toward offering him an extension.

"There are only going to be three or so championship-caliber shortstops on the free agent market," said Epstein, "and a couple might not want to come to Boston. Being able to get one of them early, and let him get to know the organization and the city and evaluate him over the next few months is an advantage. He helps us now, and he has a chance to help us down the road."

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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