The Real Reason The Red Sox Rebooted Their Roster

Adrian Gonzalez

Returning to Boston in June as the President of the Cubs, Brookline’s own Theo Epstein spoke with remarkable candor about the end of his tenure as the General Manager of the Red Sox. While proud of the club’s accomplishments over that period, his primary regret was giving in to the “Monster.” By which he meant the business, rather than baseball operations, side of the Boston Red Sox. The need to sell tickets, sell out games, and keep the ratings comfortably sky high. Then grow them.

“[If] I have one serious regret, I think that ['The Monster'] grew and grew and grew and then I didn’t do as good a job of [pushing back], clearly, in the later years,” he said. “[I] kind of gave in to [it].”

Two seasons removed from a World Series victory and coming off a sweep in the LDS, the Monster demanded that the Red Sox do something. That something turned out to be the 2009 five year, $82.5M contract to the winner of Game 1 in that series, 31 year old John Lackey, who held the Red Sox scoreless over seven and a third. One season and no playoff appearances later, the Monster landed us not only $142M Carl Crawford but $154M Adrian Gonzalez. Christmas had come early.

Back in 2005, Brian Cashman told George Steinbrenner that the Red Sox “had surpassed the Yankees with the strength of their organization…in their player development and evaluation.” Five years later, with the signings of Crawford, Gonzalez and Lackey, things had come full circle. The Red Sox had become the club that they had been built to beat. They had lost their way.

Which might still have been fine, as it was just John Henry’s money. Except that, a year after Crawford and Gonzalez inked their respective deals, it wasn’t. In November of 2011, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Player’s Association reached a new five year labor agreement. While the new collective bargaining had many implications for the Red Sox, from the amateur draft to international spending, the most important provision concerned the Luxury Tax.

Teams that surpass the luxury tax threshold of $178MM will be taxed 42% in 2012 and 50% in 2013.

If John Henry did not like the previous luxury tax system – and he did not, to the tune of $500,000 – it seemed safe to assume that the new CBA with its more onerous luxury tax provisions would have a substantial impact on the Red Sox payroll and operational structure moving forward. And while the head of the players union downplayed the notion that the new CBA would constrain Red Sox (or Yankee) payrolls as recently as March of this year, the Marco Scutaro trade two months before was proof enough that the times were changing. When the Red Sox trade their starting shortstop for a long relief candidate simply because the trading partner will pay a one year $6M commitment, it’s difficult to argue that it’s business as usual. As Keith Law said at the time, “You don’t dump a 3 win player making $6MM for no return.”

Unless, that is, a Monster bloated payroll was suddenly and unexpectedly about to be charged at nearly fifty cents on the dollar on the dollar over the threshold you’re already bumping up against. In that case, as Cherington demonstrated, you dump a 3 win player making $6M to whomever will pay the freight. And so we come to today’s trade. Enough has already been written on the historical nature of this deal, both in major league talent and in financial commitments. What’s left to dissect is what this means for the Red Sox today and tomorrow.

In the space of a few hours, the Red Sox somehow managed to not only shed approximately $250M of payroll obligations, they managed to acquire some potentially useful pieces in the process. In Law’s words, “The Red Sox got a pair of high-ceiling arms in exchange as well as two useful spare parts, which, considering how much salary they just cleared, is a very strong return.” When you consider that not only were these contracts essentially non-absorbable by any other club, but that arguments could be made that every player in the deal was in decline, the deal appears almost miraculous.

The only player the Red Sox were likely sad to be seeing go was Gonzalez. Apart from being a relative bargain next to contracts like that issued to Albert Pujols this offseason, Gonzalez had more or less rebounded from a poor September and difficult first half. But as Peter Gammons pointed out on Twitter, from 2008 through the All Star Game last season, Gonzalez was a .926 OPS performer who got on base nearly 40% of the time. Since, he’s an .845 OPS player getting on base less than 37% of the time. Still good, but less than excellent. Maybe that will change with a return to the National League: his first at bat in a Dodger uniform was a three run homer. But the fact is that under the new CBA, Gonzalez had become an expensive luxury.

Even so, it’s tough to imagine the Red Sox trading him absent the immense financial relief involved here. Not just because his combination of defense and offense is not easily replicable, but because they have no replacements looming, having traded away first base candidates like Anthony Rizzo, Lars Andersen and Miles Head in recent years, assuming that Gonzalez was the solution for the better part of the next decade. But as the bait in a bigger deal that allowed them to unload the contracts of both Beckett and Crawford, they bit the bullet as they had to and pulled the trigger on what is being called the biggest trade in the history of the sport.

For all that the City of Boston owes Beckett for his role in securing the 2007 title, as Chad Finn wrote, the time had come for Beckett to move on. Forget for a moment the baggage: the chicken and beer incident, the questionable conditioning and his disastrous public relations strategy. The bigger problem is that Beckett isn’t the pitcher he used to be. Here is his average fastball velocity from 2007 through this season: 94.4 (07), 94.0 (08), 94.0 (09), 93.6 (10), 93.0 (11), 91.4 (12). His K/9 this year is the worst of his career, and his WHIP is the second worst in that span. A move to the National League generally and Dodger Stadium specifically should benefit him, but the fact is that he’s unlikely to be worth close to the $30M he’s owed over the next two years. And ok, yes, the fanbase loathes him.

Crawford, meanwhile, has been star crossed since the day he got here. After the devastation of being dropped in the order after two games last season, he went on to put up a .255/.289/.405 line in year one of his seven year deal. In performance terms, he was worth less than a million dollars while being paid almost fifteen. Worse, his performance against left-handers declined for the third year in a row (.704, .696, .566 OPS) to the point that he was bordering on platoon player status. Which is not ideal when the player is still owed better than a hundred million dollars. And is coming off of surgeries to the wrist and elbow.

Add it up, and the Dodgers may have just paid $20 for a gallon of milk, as Dave Camerson says. If Adrian Gonzalez was the cost of subtracting these contracts, so be it. Frankly, this was a deal that Cherington likely had to make if the projected return was a bag of balls. In a single stroke, the Dodgers allowed the Red Sox to recalibrate their payroll to the realities of the new CBA.

But lest you think that this deal is going to be the Batman Begins of reboots, it’s necessary to point out that this deal creates real holes in the short term. If you believe in Morales as a starter, maybe that’s a wash – at least relative to this year’s version of Beckett. But Gonzalez – declining walks or no – is a major loss, and not one easily remedied via free agency or our system. Unless you count Lavarnway in the mix, there isn’t a first baseman amongst our Top 20 prospects. So you need someone at that position, as well as a middle of the order hitter. Assuming, that is, that you can sign Ortiz in the offseason and that he can approximate this year’s production at the age of 37 and coming off a major Achilles injury. If that doesn’t happen, you’re looking at replacing two major offensive cogs in a market light on them and an economic system that just led to the trade of the best you have due to cost. Outfielders under control for next year, meanwhile, are Ellsbury (a free agent after 2013), Kalish, Nava and Sweeney.

There’s a reason that people are saying the real winners of this trade are Ortiz and Ross.

All of that said, Buster Olney’s projection of “years” before the Red Sox compete again for a world title might be a tad pessimistic. For some fraction of the $250M saved, we should be able to find a couple of useful parts – the seller’s market notwithstanding. Particularly if the front office can get back to what Cherington discussed during the press conference today, identifying and acquiring affordable, undervalued talent. Talent like Adrian Beltre, Bill Mueller or David Ortiz. Though that’s admittedly vastly more difficult than it was when front offices were populated by the likes of Ed Wade.

Either way, it seems clear that as much as the Red Sox want to talk about this trade in the context of the club’s record – they’re smart enough to know that that is largely a function of the starting pitching. As Theo put it, “If multiple starting pitchers underperform at the same time, it’s always going to leave you in a stretch where it’s hard to play better than .500 baseball.” That, more than any other single factor is the problem. The solution, at least in the brave new world of the 2011 CBA, is finding a trading partner just desperate enough to give you the breathing room under the luxury tax to repopulate the starting rotation. Which, to his credit, is exactly what Cherington found in Ned Colletti.

As for the Sox become Dodgers, fare thee well guys. We hardly knew ye.

You Got to Know When to Hold 'em, Know When to Fold 'em

Coming off of last September, as well as a second consecutive year without October play, it’s easy to understand why the Red Sox front office has been reluctant to acknowledge the inevitable. Particularly given the addition of the second Wild Card slot, which provides the illusion of opportunity for foundering clubs.

But it’s time. Not because the probability of a Red Sox playoff appearance hit its season nadir last night, dipping to 7%. Or at least not strictly on that basis. It’s time because there may yet be an opportunity to salvage something from this trainwreck of a season, if we can finally acknowledge that it’s over.

Forget the why for a minute. Whether you blame the injuries – 25 players on the DL in 29 separate stints, Bobby Valentine, Ben Cherington, the starting pitchers or all of the above isn’t what’s important right now. What matters now is time; specifically, the 18 days between now and August 31st. With the playoffs now a virtual impossibility, it’s time to explore the options for converting some of our current assets into longer term value.

And no, that doesn’t mean the two players most responsible for our record. While the common man wants Beckett moved yesterday, for anything, the reality is that the combination of his contract, injury situation and performance make him immovable. Moving Lester at this point likewise would be the textbook definition of selling low, so he should not be going anywhere.

But otherwise, at this point in the season, the entire roster should be on waivers. And with the exceptions of Buchholz, Lester and Pedroia, all of whom have team friendly contracts and have had performance issues this year that might impact their value, Cherington should be on the phone selling anything not nailed down. Particularly assets that are not locked up for next year.

Assuming he clears waivers and throws one more reasonable game, for example, it’s certainly not out of the question that Cook could fetch something in return. This is why I was mildly upset to see the Yankees sign Derek Lowe. Given that ZIPS expects to Lowe to outperform Cook down the stretch (4.19 vs 4.64 FIP), my hope was that Cherington would sell high on Cook and replace him with Lowe for pennies on the dollar. Granted, selling high on arm like Cook likely means a B prospect at best, but given that Cook’s not under control for next season, that would be a more than acceptable return.

Maybe you’re the Braves, Bucs, Dodgers, Giants, or Reds and not thrilled about facing Gio Gonzalez in the playoffs. This is Cody Ross’ line against lefties this year: .319/.394/.758/1.152. Think he could help?

Perhaps your concern is getting lefties like Cano, Fielder or Hamilton out in tough spots? He may be arbitration eligible next year, bu here’s what lefties are doing against Andrew Miller: .130/.200/.182 (as predicted, please note).

Salty, meanwhile, is controlled by the club for next season, but if the club believes Baseball America that Lavarnway is a major league catcher, might the Rays be interested? Salty’s not much for contact and his on base skills aren’t strong (.229/.285/.478), but at least he does something well. The Rays backstops are the worst in the league at .202/.272/.278. And replacing Salty with Lavarnway – again, assuming you think he could catch – would be a first step towards addressing our roster’s on base deficiencies.

And so on. Because the waiver process is opaque, it’s impossible to know precisely who is openly tradeable and who is not. But it’s time to think less about this season and more about next, because the current roster has given us no other choice. One hopes that Cherington both understands this and has the operational freedom to pursue this necessary course of action. Because it’s time to fold ‘em.

The Case Against Bobby Valentine

Peter Abraham is correct about one thing: firing Bobby Valentine will not fix the Red Sox. Not because our mathematical chances of a playoff spot are down to 15%, but because he – like his predecessor – isn’t the primary reason his team has underperformed.

One popular narrative around this team, as it always is with clubs losing games, is that this year’s failure is simply a function of effort: they’re just not trying. A subset of Bobby Valentine’s critics argue that he’s not properly motivating the players. A second group subscribes to the chicken and beer theory: that this is a function of a lack of effort from players. And a third group believes that all of the above is true.

One thing everyone can agree on is that the players have, in fact, underperformed as a group. If we compare the offense to the numbers the ZIPS system projected for them, it’s clear that those we expect the most from offensively – with the very obvious exception of Ortiz – have been substantially worse than anticipated.

It’s worth noting, however, that relative to the league averages at each position, our offense looks less poor.

We’ve fallen off in the last few weeks, in part because of the absence of Ortiz, but there’s a reason we’re still in the top 10 in runs scored. The offense has not, in general, been the problem.

As with last September, our difficulties stem from systemic problems with our starting rotation. In categories where you want lower values – think low versus high ERAs – our differential versus ZIPS expectations for our starters are alarming.

In categories where higher metrics are favored – think strikeouts per nine innings – we fare equally poorly.

Nor, as we are offensively, are we performing better relative to the league. In areas where you want your pitchers to have lower values, we’re skewed to the wrong side of the chart.

And in areas where we want higher, we’re middling to negative, with the exception of Doubront’s excellent strikeout rate.

The numbers confirm the eyes: our record is no accident. As Bill Parcells might say, we are what our record says we are. As the difference between the ZIPS projections and our actual peformance points out, however, we are most certainly not who we thought we were.

For the casual fan, as typified by talk show callers, the predictable reaction is to look for someone to blame. Fire the manager, as John Tomase suggests. Trade the underperforming players for anything, a bag of balls if that’s what it takes.

The challenge with this narrative is twofold. First, it tends to accrue blame to the wrong person: the manager. I may be no fan of Valentine, but I cannot build the case that he is directly responsible for the horrific charts above.

Second, and more problematically, it leads to “solutions” like Bobby Valentine himself. The problem with the Red Sox last September, it is argued in many quarters, was Francona. So the obvious solution was to hire his polar opposite, even if the players had been promised that wouldn’t occur. Forget the fact that it was a failure of starting pitching that doomed the Red Sox last season – and that those same starting pitchers had led the team to a 20-6 record a month prior – the problem was commonly accepted to be culture. Enter Bobby Valentine, charged with changing that culture.

It is now August, and we’ve seen how well that’s worked out.

Valentine defenders will argue that Bobby Valentine was not empowered to manage. But as Buster Olney asks, what does that mean exactly?

What would have to change to make that happen? A total makeover of a team with one of the highest payrolls in baseball, including the jettisoning of some of the best-paid players? The firing of coaches? The dismissal of some members of the medical staff? A complete restructuring of the chain of command?…

Terry Francona dealt with a lot of the same parameters as Valentine: A team of temperamental veterans, a sometimes dysfunctional ownership, a progressive front office, an intrusive media. He lasted nine seasons, and the Red Sox won a couple of championships.

Managers manage, no matter what they have. No organization places its priorities on a tee for the manager.

For Peter Abraham, the answer is yes: a total makeover of a team with one of the highest payrolls in basell is necessary.

The Red Sox need to significantly change their roster, not their manager.

Which may be so. But that points to the difficulty with Abraham’s defense of Valentine: it’s a straw man. It implies that the Red Sox need necessarily choose one of changing the roster and changing the manager. It also implies that blame here is a binary, yes or no proposition.

It seems clear, however, that Bobby Valentine can be both not to blame for our performance to date and not the right manager for this club, this city and these players. The evidence on that front has, in fact, been accumulating since spring training. Forgetting some of the questionable in game decisions, which are unavoidable for managers, Valentine has distinguished neither himself nor the club with his conduct.

  • In Spring Training, Valentine told the media that Ryan Sweeney didn’t know his own swing, Felix Doubront didn’t have a killer out pitch and that Mark Melancon “backed up the bases well” after a rough outing.

  • Also in Spring Training, Valentine said of Jose Iglesias: “I think [Iglesias] can hit and hit on the major league level.” Iglesias season line at Pawtucket is .247/.294/.280.

  • In February, he publicly claimed that Derek Jeter had ‘never practiced’ the famous flip play. A day later, he was compelled to publicly recant and apologize.

  • Late in February, Terry Francona was asked in his role as an ESPN analyst to comment on the Red Sox ban of alcohol from the clubhouse. His reply was, “I think it’s a PR move.” Valentine’s response to Francona:
    “Remember, you’re getting paid over there [at ESPN] for saying stuff. You’re getting paid over here for doing stuff. I’ve done both.”

  • In March, he told reporters that he wasn’t a “believer in the windup, period.” His pitching coach was quoted later as saying, “He wasn’t a pitcher,” added McClure, “so I don’t know if he’d understand that.”

  • Later in March, Curt Schilling said of Valentine:

    “I thought that the manager that managed the Mets that I was not a big fan of was now going to be a different manager, and I don’t think there’s anything different at all,’’ Schilling said. “And I don’t think that that is going to be conducive to doing well here. There’s a lot of things I think that are happening not just from his perspective, but when you talk to these guys – and I’m still talking to some of these guys – I don’t think this is going well. And I think it’s going bad quicker than I expected it to.”

  • In April, Valentine wrote his left-handed roster onto the lineup card, only to reminded by his catcher a few hours later that the pitcher the Red Sox were facing was right-handed.

  • On April 14th, he told a local Boston TV station that Kevin Youkilis was not “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason.” On June 24th, Youkilis was traded with cash to the White Sox for a marginal return, with one failed prospect and a utility player who was later designated for assignment. Two weeks later, after dropping the first two games of a series to the New York Yankees with Youkilis replacement Middlebrooks sidelined by a bad hamstring, Peter Gammons tweeted the following:

    “Bobby Valentine simnply wanted Kevin Youklis gone. Sometimes you get what you want, but you get Mauro Gomez.”

  • In June, Valentine disclosed to reporters that he asked Clay Buchholz, a start removed from a 125 pitch game, to pitch a day ahead of schedule and that the pitcher declined.

  • Later in June, ESPN’s Buster Olney characterized the Red Sox clubhouse as “toxic.” He has since stood by those remarks.

  • In July, questioned about the inconsistent schedule of Crawford’s play, Valentine said “Actually, I did a manager ‘no-no’ thing, you know. I went against what I was told to do. Never to be done again.”

  • Later in July, Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan predicted that Bobby Valentine’s tenure with the Red Sox would end in a mushroom cloud.

  • Later still in July, Valentine popped up behind Dan Shaughnessy, who was preparing to be interviewed on TV, and yelled: ““It’s not true. I’m not trying to get fired, folks! It’s not true. It’s not true. It was all made up by him [Shaughnessy]. It’s not true.”

  • On August 1st, Bobby Valentine relayed, unsolicited, an anecdote claiming that after Will Middlebrooks had a two error inning [he's never had a two error inning], his comment to the player had been “nice inning,” and that someone in the dugout had relayed this to ownership who later spoke to him on the matter. A day later, he said it was the “most stupid thing I ever said…on a radio program.”

If this is the list of incidents that we know about, it’s difficult to imagine what life is like behind the scenes. What impact it has had or has not had on the performance of the players is impossible to quantify, and thus it would be inappropriate to assign blame to Valentine for the club’s lack of performance this season.

But if he isn’t the problem, it seems at least as clear that he is not part of the solution. Peter Abraham would have us credit Valentine with the success of “guys like Mike Aviles, Andrew Miller, Daniel Nava, Vicente Padilla, Scott Atchison, Kelly Shoppach, Marlon Byrd, Scott Podsednik and Pedro Ciriaco.” But it is difficult to see how we can credit him for the success of some players while absolving him of responsibility for the failure of others.

And as for Abraham’s characterization of Valentine being pilloried for “contrived nonsense,” context seems important. If one or more of the above issues is considered in a vacuum, that might be accurate. In their aggregate, however, they appear to represent a pattern. The most charitable interpretation of which is that Bobby Valentine is, at best, a poor communicator.

And if one believes as Cherington purports to that winning and losing is more on the players than the manager, it stands to reason that the best manager is the one that gets the most out of his players. Which presumably requires excellent communication skills. Skills that Valentine quite obviously lacks. Add in the distractions that Valentine seems fundamentally unable to avoid, and his net value to the club seems to be negative.

Which is why he should be replaced, for his sake as much as ours. According to John Henry, however, we shouldn’t hold our breath.