OpinionJanuary 30, 2007

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Sox Should Say “No Thanks” to Helton

By Jeremy Leveille

By now, most of you have probably heard about the trade rumors swirling around the possibility of first baseman Todd Helton being traded from Colorado to Boston. The most recent proposal involves the Red Sox getting Helton and the Rockies getting right-handed reliever Julian Tavarez, third baseman Mike Lowell, and a pitching prospect, who would be either Manny Delcarmen or Craig Hansen. If this were to happen, it would be a great deal for Colorado, and also would be one of Boston General Manager Theo Epstein’s worst. For Boston fans, they should be breathing a sigh of relief that trade talks have ended without a deal. As shown below, Boston would have been giving up too much to acquire a player whose future performance will likely not justify the cost of the deal.

Any deal involving Helton would have had to include either 1B/3B Kevin Youkilis or Lowell going to Colorado. That’s because if Helton comes and neither is moved, there would be a logjam at the corner infield positions. Obviously, Epstein isn’t going to trade Youkilis because he is the exact type of player that Epstein loves – one that is patient at the plate, has a good on base percentage and is relatively inexpensive (approx. $350,000). That’s why Lowell is the one whose name is being floated around. The Sox should not do the deal if it were Helton for Lowell straight up, let alone adding the team’s best second half pitcher in 2006, and a top prospect, too.

First let’s examine Helton, and what kind of success he might have in Boston. In 2006, Helton hit:

AVG: .302
HR: 15
RBI: 81
OPS: .880

If he came to Boston, it is hard to tell if those numbers would go up or down. His numbers have been on a steady decline in recent years, and he will turn 34 in August so his abilities are not getting better. Fenway should be a great place for him to play, with the Green Monster for his opposite field hits, and the short porch in right, at least right down the line. Then again, he already was hitting in a great hitter’s park, at least before the humidor arrived. You also have the fact that he was playing in the National League last season, the same league he’s been in his whole career. If he comes to Boston, it is unknown how well he will adjust to all of the new pitchers he will face. Finally, you have the pressure factor in Boston. Many have come to Boston after playing in less pressure-filled environments and have not been up to the task – just ask Edgar Renteria or Byung Hyun Kim. Even though he would be hitting in a better lineup in Boston, which would help his chances, the negatives outweigh the positives here.

Second, let’s delve into whether Lowell’s his numbers from 2006 are likely to go up or down. Last season, he went for:

AVG: .284
HR: 20
RBI: 80
OPS: .814

I think it’s safe to say that Lowell’s numbers are likely to remain about the same in 2007, with the possibility of a little fluxuation one way or the other. Consider the fact that he, too, is getting up in age, and will be turning 33 in February. However, he is not as old as Helton, nor have his numbers been on such a steady decline in recent years. While 2005 was a down year for Lowell, in 2006 he actually enjoyed quite a rebound, as Lowell saw his stats go up considerably across the board. This improvement occurred despite the fact it was his first year in the American league, after many in the NL. You have to think that he will be more accustomed to the AL’s pitchers this time around. Furthermore, after years in Florida where there was little pressure to perform, Lowell was able to come to Boston last year and handle the pressure seamlessly, so that isn’t a concern with him either.

Not only is there no guarantee that the Sox offense would be better with this trade, but the same can be said about the defense. That is because while Helton has been one of the NL’s top defensive first baseman over the years, Boston’s infield defense in 2006 was arguably the best in baseball, with Youkilis, Lowell, SS Alex Gonzalez, and 2B Mark Loretta all having gold glove caliber seasons. With both Gonzalez and Loretta gone, you would hate to see the rest of the great infield go, too. If Helton came to the Red Sox, Youkilis would have to switch from 1B across the diamond to 3B, meaning each infield position would be manned by someone different than last year. Thus, the defense would seem to have nowhere to go but down with Helton added to the mix.

Finally, many trades come down to not necessarily what looks better on the field, but the contract situation of those players involved in the deal. Helton still has six more years left on his contract (including the team option year), which is paying him over $16 million per year. Lowell’s deal on the other hand, pays him $9 million for 2007, after which he is a free agent. To compensate for the financial difference, either the Rockies will help pay a lot of Helton’s salary, or Boston will deal RHP Matt Clement to Colorado. Either way, the Sox won’t be in as much debt as a result of the trade, and it sure would be nice for them to be able to trade Clement, who stands to make almost $10 million this season despite being a pitcher who is unlikely to have any impact on the team due to his injury problems. However, the fact remains that if the deal is done, regardless of how much of Helton’s contract Boston is paying, they are still going to have this guy on their hands for up to the next six years. And given how his career has been on such a decline, he’ll probably only be playing at the level of a starting first baseman for two of those six years. That’s four years you’re being forced to keep a guy who’s a backup first baseman, and you had to give up a top pitching prospect in order to do it. Ouch.

Ultimately, the offense is not the problem with Boston. What they should be focusing on more than anything is the pitching staff and the farm system. If they do this trade, they are rolling the dice that they’re upgrading the offense while sacrificing a veteran pitcher who had a good second half of 2006, as well as one of the team’s top pitching prospects. It just doesn’t make sense. If the Sox need anyone off the Rockies, it would be closer Brian Fuentes. Of course, Colorado would never give up possibly the only good pitcher on the staff, who is getting paid just $2 million per year… Or would they? Apparently not, if the reports of trade talks ending today are accurate. In light of Helton’s declining performance: Give thanks Sox fans!


Jeremy is a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire and is majoring in both Communication and Sport Studies. He is also a part of WUNH, the school's student radio station. You can catch up with Jeremy in the forums here at the Cafe where he posts under the name of SilentReader.
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