In a decision that would lend further credence to the possibility of Manny Ramírez being traded, the Sox are likely to offer salary arbitration to free agent outfielder Trot Nixon by tomorrow's deadline, according to a source with ties to the team.
Although Nixon has fielded feelers from other teams, he has maintained that his first choice was to prolong his career in Boston, one that began when he was drafted in the first round in 1993. If the Sox offer arbitration tomorrow -- and one club source cautioned it wasn't definite -- and Nixon accepts by the Dec. 7 deadline, that would make him the equivalent of a signed player for 2007, and probably place him squarely in the team's plans.
Nixon was paid $6.5 million last season and could expect to win a raise in arbitration, which would place him at a salary level unusually high for a spare outfielder. That points to the strong possibility the Sox have other plans for Nixon. A possible scenario: Nixon will share time with Wily Mo Peña in a newly realigned outfield that manager Terry Francona could play in a variety of permutations: the soon-to-be-added J.D. Drew could play right field or center, if Francona chooses to move Coco Crisp to left, which is what Cleveland did in 2005, or Crisp could remain in center with Drew and Nixon/Peña flanking him.
Those scenarios presume a trade of Ramírez, with the San Diego Padres still looming as the No. 1 landing spot for the righthanded slugger. Ace righthander Jake Peavy, who is a five-year big-league veteran even though he doesn't turn 26 until May 31, is the prize the Sox are seeking in return.
Why would the Padres part with Peavy, who led the National League in ERA in 2004 (2.27), led the NL in strikeouts in 2005 (216), was second in whiffs last season with 215, and has a contract that in today's inflated market is a steal: He's due to be paid $4.75 million next season and $6 million in 2008, with the team holding an option of $8 million in 2009 (the option has escalators that could make it worth $11 million)?
In the end, maybe they won't. But there is this to consider: Twelve of the National League's 16 teams scored more runs than the Padres last season, and 11 of the 16 hit more home runs. And in just their third year in Petco Park, the Padres' attendance is off almost a half-million. The Padres have incentive to make a big, bold move, and both CEO Sandy Alderson and general manager Kevin Towers have demonstrated a keen interest in Ramírez.
The Padres' starters ranked No. 1 in the league last season with a 4.10 ERA, but 6-foot-10-inch righthander Chris Young blossomed as a potential staff ace, Clay Hensley was solid in his second full season, and rookie Mike Thompson showed promise. The Padres have already lost free agent Woody Williams, the 40-year-old righthander signing with Houston, but the Padres have shown interest in signing Greg Maddux, and could fill out their rotation with money the Sox almost certainly would have to include as part of the deal.
By adding Peavy, the Sox instantly would have one of baseball's most formidable rotations, Peavy joining Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, converted closer Jonathan Papelbon, and Tim Wakefield. That doesn't factor in the prized Japanese righthander, Daisuke Matsuzaka, for whom the Sox are engaged in difficult negotiations with agent Scott Boras. Even there, Peavy could be of additional benefit to the Sox, increasing their leverage with Boras.
At the moment, Boras is reportedly seeking a contract that would pay Matsuzaka in the neighborhood of $12 million a year for six years. Tacked on to the $51.1 million the Sox posted to Matsuzaka's Japanese team, the Seibu Lions, that would make him essentially a $20 million-a-year pitcher for six years, setting a standard for big league pitchers in a long-term deal. The Sox would be willing to accept a long-term deal -- all the better to amortize their initial $51.1 million investment -- but for considerably less.
Could the Sox offense survive the loss of Ramírez and his Hall of Fame credentials? The Sox have long maintained they could not find a single player who could compensate for losing Ramírez -- with the possible exception of Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada -- but GM Theo Epstein is trying to reconstruct the lineup with Drew and possibly free agent shortstop Julio Lugo. And for what it's worth, a study in the 2007 Hardball Times Baseball Annual, which is widely respected for its statistical analysis, projects Peña as the player under 26 most likely to have a breakout year in 2007.
Nixon, whose last three seasons in Boston have been plagued by injuries, expected to be playing in a different uniform next season, his final games in Fenway Park charged with emotion. But in a subordinate role, and a return to health at age 33 (his age on April 11), the Sox evidently feel he still has something to contribute. And with the kind of rotation Francona might have at his disposal, the Sox are betting they could endure the loss of Ramírez's bat. Epstein would still have time to add additional offense, as well.
Yesterday, Schilling called WEEI and passionately defended the impending acquisition of Drew, saying the player is being unfairly maligned as passive. Healthy, Schilling said, he is one of the top players in the game and contrary to expectations, will thrive in Boston. His call, Schilling said, was prompted by his fears that the atmosphere would be poisoned for Drew even before he arrives. Schilling said he'd hate to see Drew get booed if he went hitless on Opening Day. In his first season with the Dodgers, 2005, Drew went without a hit in his first 25 at-bats.
Schilling also said that Ramírez has told him he wants to be traded. In the meantime, Epstein took a step toward bolstering his bullpen, introducing a veteran lefthanded reliever from Japan, Hideki Okajima, yesterday afternoon.
"You can call me 'Okaji,' " Okajima said at the press conference in Fenway Park called to introduce the 30-year-old pitcher to a city with which he is barely acquainted.
Okajima last season served as setup man for the Nippon Ham Fighters, posting a 2-2 record with a career-best 2.14 ERA in 55 appearances for the Japan Series champions, who were managed by a Westerner, Trey Hillman.
In his previous 11 seasons, Okajima pitched for the Yomiuri Giants, a team that inspired him to go by "Okaji" instead of Hideki because of the longtime presence of home run king Hideki Matsui, now a New York Yankee.
Okajima, who was an unrestricted free agent, came at a considerably lower price than what Matsuzaka may cost: The Sox signed him to a two-year deal that will pay him $1.25 million in each of the next two seasons, with the club holding a $1.75 million option for 2009. Okajima's package is considerably more modest than that commanded by other middle relievers this winter: Justin Speier received a four-year, $18 million deal from the Angels, and lefty Jamie Walker was given a three-year, $12 million deal by the Orioles.
Okajima said he has met Matsuzaka, but that's about as far as their relationship goes. Epstein, who relied on the judgment of international scouting director Craig Shipley and Pacific Rim scout Jon Deeble to go after Okajima, said his best pitch is an overhand curveball.
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.