Melancon deal doesn't solve Sox problems

Melancon deal doesn't solve Sox problems
December 15, 2011, 5:07 pm

Wednesday represented a flurry of activity for the Red Sox, who traded two players for reliever Mark Melancon and signed free agent utilityinfielder Nick Punto.

But when it was over, the Red Sox hadn't made much progress toward solving their most obvious needs -- the back end of their starting rotation and a closer.

They merely gave themselves more options from which to choose, which is a polite way of saying that they succeeded in making things, for the time being at least, more complicated.

Melancon is unlikely to start 2012 as the team's closer. If he does, it should be read as an indcitment of the front office.

All of which isn't to suggest that Melancon is without value. He's young (26), apparently healthy (following Tommy John surgery earlier in his career) and controllable (he doesn't reach free agency until after the 2016 season).

And Melancon provides a quality arm, someone who can help in the seventh or eighth innings. Entrusting Melancon with the ninth inning, however, is another matter altogether.

For now, there's little evidence that Melancon can handle closing in the American League East. He converted just 80 percent of his save opportunties in the N.L. Central in 2011.

It's worth noting that against opponents from the A.L. East -- the Astros happened to play the division in interleague play last season -- Melancon allowed A.L. East batter to hit .351 with a 1.061 OPS.

True, it's a relatively small sample size (seven games). But it suggests that the Melancon may need more experience -- or another quality pitch -- before he can handle the toughest outs in the toughest lineups.

Just because Melancon isn't yet equipped to close doesn't mean the deal wasn't worthwhile.

Kyle Weiland profiles as a back-end starter and the Red Sox have plenty of candidates for that slot, including Alfredo Aceves, Felix Doubront and Andrew Miller. It was all but certain that Weiland was going to start the season at Triple A.

If he develops into much more than depth starter in the big leagues, most scouts will be surprised.

For the Sox, moving Jed Lowrie was the bigger gamble. Lowrie had value around the game, thanks to his versatility and affordability. At the very least, he can be a useful, flexible part of a big league roster, capable of playing all four infield positions and providing some pop at the plate -- at least from the right side.

But Lowrie was given chance after chance to establish himself as something more with the Red Sox, and outside of three terrific months -- July and August in 2010 and mid-April through mid-May of 2011 -- never truly made his case as an everyday player.

Only once in four seasons did he play more than half a season, his career stalled by a series of injuries and infirmities -- everything from a lingering wrist injury to mononucleosis to a shoulder issue.

Perhaps, with a fresh start and an opportunity to play every day, Lowrie will make good on his potential. But the Red Sox essentially replace Lowrie within hours of his departure with the signing of Nick Punto, a veteran utility piece who, like Lowrie, is a switch-hitter.

Roughly translated, then, the Sox got an older, more experienced version of Lowrie Wednesday and traded a potential back-end starter for a late-inning reliever with upside.

In the strictest sense, that represents a small step forward in terms of roster-building for 2012.

What it doesn't represent, for now at least, is any clearer sense of who's going to be getting the toughest outs. It gives the Sox more options without precluding further moves, some of which will surely be coming.

Or else.