Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Friday, May 20, 2011
Theo Epstein adds relief help at any cost


By "any cost," I mean that Theo Epstein's a general manager who's willing to add talent not only on the high end, but also by keeping an eye on who's available and might be able to break through with a change of scenery. The most recent example of Epstein's bargain hunting was when he traded a player to be named (or the always handy Stacks O’Cash) to the Rockies for live-armed lefty Franklin Morales on Thursday. It’s the latest in a long list of low-end, low-risk acquisitions with upside that the Red Sox GM allows on his roster, active as well as 40-man, year after year.

Morales
The Red Sox acquired lefty Franklin Morales on Thursday.
Keep in mind, it wasn’t so very long ago that Morales was a top commodity as prospects go. Before the 2008 season, the Venezuelan southpaw was rated by Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein among the top 15 prospects and by Baseball America among the top 10 prospects in baseball -- not just the Rockies’ system, but the entire game. Then he struggled with control issues and shoulder woes and there was a good amount of uncertainty about his best role: Rotation regular? Closer? Set-up man? All this was going on while having to pitch in unforgiving places like Coors Field or Colorado Springs, and all before 25th birthday. And for all that, he’s still a young left-hander throwing mid-90s heat.

Morales becomes just the latest variation on that left-handed theme for the Red Sox, however. Given a chance to pick up former top lefty prospects such as former Tiger Andrew Miller or former Cub Rich Hill, Epstein gets grabby. After re-signing as a minor-league free agent, Hill seems midway through transforming himself into a situational side-armer, although the temptation to keep his wicked overhand curve is there. Miller is being left alone in the PawSox rotation, and as wild as he’s been (with 28 walks in 35.1 IP), he’s enjoying his best success in years. Morales and Hill are a lot more intriguing as pen lefties go than recycling Dennys Reyes or enduring disappointment from Hideki Okajima.

Epstein hasn't been shy about going after low-cost right-handed talent either. Spending money on Bobby Jenks or Dan Wheeler is part of the playbook, sure, but so was salvaging journeyman Matt Albers after he didn’t break through with the Astros or Orioles, and helping him switch from a curve to a slider as his main alternative to heat that touches the mid-90s. Sometimes the Sox miss, of course -- Scott Atchison didn’t turn into something special after they imported him back from Japan, and after getting David Aardsma in a little throwaway deal with the White Sox in 2008, they recycled him in an equally low-stakes exchange with the Mariners. Just the same, Aardsma cooks with gas, and that was worth checking out.

What might seem surprising about this is that it’s the big-money Red Sox doing these sort of ticky-tack transactions. But whether they’re tossing nine figures at free agents or a PTBNL to the Rockies, it’s all about giving the Red Sox a chance to help themselves, and they do. Some of this is a matter of exploiting the fact that the Red Sox are a desirable team to be associated with -- Miller and Hill weren’t going to sign minor-league deals with just any organization. But a big part of it is also the willingness of Epstein and his confederates to take a chance on talent, and promptly reap the benefits or discard the liabilities. Not every team sweats who their 24th or 25th man is this much, but they'd be better off if they did.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.