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.

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