What’s Worse Than the 2015 Red Sox Season?

keep-calm-the-damned-sky-is-not-falling

If anything is certain in this bizarre Red Sox season, it’s that everyone has lost their fucking minds. Yes, this season has been one shot to the groin after another. First the pitching was terrible. Then that got better, as the numbers suggested it might. Which is when the offense, initially buoyed by an unsustainable spike in unearned runs, disappeared. Every night, the Red Sox seem to find new ways to lose. Starter goes 8 and gives up 2 runs? Our offense comes up empty against a rookie starter with unimpressive stuff. Offense puts an eight spot on the board? Pitching staff implodes and gives that away in an inning. When we get decent pitching and score a few runs? Well, the defense is happy to do its part to throw away games. And on and on and on and on and on.

I still watch and listen to the games more or less daily, so I get that things are miserable – I’m living it. But here’s the thing: this is baseball. There is a reason that cantpredictball is a Twitter account with over 28,000 followers, and that reason is that you can’t predict baseball. Or maybe you expected that the Rays, Royals and Astros would be atop their respective divisions?

For all that analysts like Curt Schilling are currently quick to remind everyone of their skepticism of this winter’s signings of Ramirez and Sandoval, I’m not aware of anyone who predicted that by June the Red Sox would be nine games under .500 and have the third worst record in the American League. And when I say anyone, I mean anyone. Not everyone picked the Red Sox to win the American League East like Fangraphs’ projections, but no one expected them to be this bad.

But they are. Which is bad because the math now says that our chances of making the playoffs are less than one in five. Back on April 5th they were better than sixty percent. So the Red Sox are losing – frequently – in brutal fashion, and every day we wake up less likely to make the playoffs than yesterday. Can’t get any worse, right?

Wrong. As if it’s not bad enough to watch the on the field product at the moment, off the field the average fan is now besieged by angry fans and media who have completely gone off the rails. It’s one thing for the jaded Peter Abrahams of the world to claim that the team is “immensely screwed” for the long term, but as noted by the essential Red Sox Stats, when the normally fair Ken Rosenthal starts arguing that it’s time to jettison your largest offseason signings less than three hundred at bats into their first season with the club you know people aren’t thinking clearly anymore.

So let’s try and do that for a second. Let’s look at the big picture questions and take them apart rationally.

Q: Should the Red Sox really try to trade Ramirez and Sandoval so soon?
A: First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: they’ve both been terribly disappointing. Below replacement level for forty or so million collectively, in fact. The question, however, isn’t whether they’ve been bad, but whether they can be expected to perform closer to expectations.

Let’s take Sandoval first because his case is easier. His stupidly overblown Instagram infraction notwithstanding – the third baseman has been acceptable offensively. When a right-hander is throwing, at least. The average major league third baseman this season has put up a .260/.317/.412 line. Sandoval’s a tick above average, then, with his .274/.326/.416 numbers. And that looks even better when you realize that last season’s third baseman, Will Middlebrooks, is at .230/.260/.397. His issues against left handers are concerning, but lifetime he’s hit left handed pitching adequately, so that seems like something that should regress to the mean.

The bigger problem is his defense. Since 2008, Sandoval has four seasons in positive UZR/150 territory and three in red, with his worst clocking in at -6.3 by that metric. This season he’s at -26.6. There are two ways to look at the data. One, he has, as of this season, not only lost the ability to play the position,he’s now among the worst in the league there. Two, he’s having early season jitters because of the contract, the city or both. I know which seems more likely to me.

Q: And what about Ramirez?
A: As for Ramirez, well, as I said, I’ve been watching the games. He is one of the worst defensive outfielders I have ever seen. I expected him to be better than this, and in fact I expect him to be better than this moving forward. But let’s assume he doesn’t get better, or not much better: can the Red Sox live with that? At least until Ortiz retires and you make him the DH?

To answer that question, let’s look at some numbers. From the start of the season through May 4th, Hanley Ramirez was rocking a .283/.340/.609 line with 10 home runs. To put that into context, if he’d kept up that pace, a .949 OPS would place him 8th in the league, just behind Mike Trout (.962) and Giancarlo Stanton (.951). On May 4th, however, he hit a wall. Again, literally. Since he took on Fenway Park and lost, he’s hit .260/.301/.377. Correlation doesn’t prove causation of course, and you can’t assume he’d keep up his original pace. But let’s assume he was somewhere in the .900 OPS range and the club was in contention for first place. Would the fever pitch for paying a lot of money for him to play somewhere, anywhere else be so high? Seems doubtful.

Shorter version of the above: trading either player right now would be idiotic. First, you’d be trading them at an absolute nadir in their value, which is bad, and you’d be dealing from a position of desperation, which is worse. Second, there are reasonable chances for improvement in both cases, in which case they’re both assets. And in Sandoval’s case in particular, you don’t have a viable alternative (no, Brock Holt is not a full time third baseman). The smart play here is to be patient, hope for rebounds for both players, either because it helps your team, because it boosts their trade value, or both. It’s also worth noting that Rosenthal has essentially no suggestions for who, if anybody, would take either player.

Q: Are the Red Sox really “immensely screwed” for the long term?
A: I’m not even sure where to start with this one. Let’s assume, conservatively, that you think the Red Sox winter trades/signings of Miley, Porcello, Ramirez and Sandoval are total losses at this point – that none of the above will be better than what they are right now. Collectively they’ll make $67 million dollars next year. If we were the Rays, then, we would indeed be existentially doomed. Per Cot’s Contracts, however, we entered this year with a payroll of $184 million. Next year’s obligations? $112 million. Even after accounting for the potential Ortiz option and raises via arbitration, the Red Sox are not the Bruins, with many needs but no room under the projected budget ceiling. Does anyone want to be spending money on replacement level players? Obviously not. But the Red Sox do have the ability to recover from financial mistakes.

Second, those crying that sky is falling usually fail to acknowledge that the Red Sox minor league system is relatively deep, even after the recent promotions – both planned and otherwise. Obviously the introduction of new players is not without risks as the club learned first with Jackie Bradley Jr followed by Xander Bogaerts and most recently with Mookie Betts. But most clubs would kill to have a collection of young, borderline-major league ready talent like Betts, Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez and Eduardo Rodriguez, with Brian Johnson, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes and Pat Light waiting in the wings. Several of those players will fail, of course. But the Red Sox will very likely have several major league roster spots filled by young players, some of whom have All-Star potential, that will be making pennies on the dollar for the next three to six years.

Even if, however, you’re the type of fan or writer that is convinced that the Red Sox are uniquely unable to integrate young players, there are assets up and down the roster that can be converted into proven major leaguers. Further down the system, for example, any of Rafael Devers, Manuel Margot, Yoan Moncada or even potentially Michael Kopech could be the centerpiece in a major acquisition at some point.

At worst, then, the Red Sox may have some dead money on the roster for a few years. Existentially doomed, they are not.

Q: Should the Red Sox fire Ben Cherington, John Farrell or both?
A: For me, it’s no. And if you’re going to do it, there’s essentially no upside to doing it in season.

Of the two, the manager is easier because his role is theoretically more limited. Unlike football, the manager’s on the field tactical impact is relatively minimal over the course of a season. There are big picture concerns – is a given manager likely to Joe Torre-his favorite reliever into the ground, for example – but generally speaking baseball games are won by baseball players, not baseball managers. Which means that a manager’s primary contribution is outside the lines. How they manage to keep 25 very different competitive personalities from killing each other over the course of a season, for example. And in Boston, working with the media is a significant part of the job.

Asinine brushfires like the Sandoval-Instagram incident or Miley’s comically inappropriate blowup or no, Farrell seems to be managing both the clubhouse and the media about as well as can be expected given the circumstances. He’s no Tito – dismissing him was the worst move of this ownership’s tenure, in my opinion, other than replacing him with Valentine – but he seems to understand both stick and carrot.

The obvious caveat to the above is that we don’t really know what’s going on in the clubhouse. During the Valentine era we all try and pretend didn’t happen, for example, the local beat writers were eventually revealed as hopelessly compromised when the national writers came in and to a person diagnosed ours as “toxic.” So maybe it’s that bad right now and we just don’t know, in which case Farrell has to go. But I’d bet not.

As for Cherington, addressing his situation in full would require a post of its own, and maybe we’ll get there. But in general, two last place finishes going on three notwithstanding, it’s not clear that he’s the problem. He has made mistakes, certainly, and should probably not be allowed to trade for relievers anymore, but overall he’s navigated the complicated environment that is Boston as well as can be expected. Consider the problems facing him.

  • First, he has a rabid fanbase with very high expectations; the Astros’ strategy is simply not an option for the Red Sox general manager.
  • Second, ownership has seemingly prohibited him from doing some of the things the media wants him to do: sign an ace, for example – we’ll come back to that.
  • Third, he has to somehow ascertain remotely whether incoming players will be able to handle Boston, like Napoli or Victorino in 2013, or whether they’ll implode á la Crawford or Renteria. I believe the operative phrase there is good luck with that.
  • Lastly, he’s not great with the media and not much of a self promoter, so he’s not likely to find allies from the fourth estate. They run around asking Cherington to pay a 35 and 36 year old outfielder with a history of drug problems $30 million a year; instead he goes out and signs Koji, Napoli and Victorino with that money. When you win a World Series with that approach, reporters can’t say much. When you don’t, as with the non-signing of Lester, you leave yourself open to criticism. The more rational members of the media get this, and on detailed reviews of the track record build the case that Cherington’s not the problem. But there just aren’t that many rational members of the media. Alex Speier and Chad Finn from the Globe. Brian MacPherson and Tim Britton from the ProJo. Peter Gammons, always. There are a few others, but it’s a short list.

Q: Do the Red Sox need an ace?
A: I went on record prior to the season as saying no, and this trainwreck of a season has not altered that position. Would it be nice to have an ace-caliber starter? Of course. Would the season look much different if we had one? It’s hard to make that case. Unless we’re talking about someone like Ruth, who can hit a bit as well.

Q: So you don’t think they should have signed Lester, then?
A: If they had him here for the insulting $70 million they offered him last season, of course. Or if they could have gotten him on something closer to Porcello money, even, yes you want him on your staff. But consider that twice in his last four starts he’s given up at least five runs, and that his strikeout rate is down this year while his walk and home run rates are up. And that he’ll play next season as a 32 year old. Do I want that pitcher? Yes. Do I want to be on the hook to pay him over $150 million? No I do not.

One other interesting tidbit. Everyone talks about how the Red Sox need an ace, and how the club should have matched or outbid the cubs for Lester. Understandable, because he is sporting a 3.80 ERA and 3.57 FIP, good for almost a win and a half (1.4) by Fangraphs’ WAR. But how does that compare to Buchholz, who the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo is still trying to run out of town, all these years later? The pitcher every media member wants gone has a nearly equivalent ERA at 3.87 and is substantially besting his former rotation mate with a 2.81 FIP. This makes him worth better than two wins (2.1) by Fangraphs’ metric. In a league where there are no pitchers hitting.

Q: So the Red Sox shouldn’t trade Buchholz, then, as Cafardo recommends?
A: With the necessary caveat that everyone is available if the price is right, the idea is dumb enough it’s not even worth discussing.

Q: What about Rusney Castillo? Is he a $70-plus million dollar bust?
A: The media’s treatment of Castillo has been hilarious, when you think about it. First, they killed Cherington daily for having a “millionaire” playing the outfield in Pawtucket to see what they had, if anything, in Victorino. Now, Cherington’s taking fire for giving all that money to a player that everyone is convinced can’t play because he’s 28 and has a .551 OPS. You want to point out to writers like Silverman that the player has had less than 80 at bats this season, but, really, what’s the point? The it’s-way-too-early-to-make-judgements narrative isn’t going to generate the controversy the media lives off of. Anger sells. Patience, not so much.

Q: The farm system was talked about above very positively, but some believe our minor league talent is questionable, with Nick Cafardo quoting a scout as saying “Not as much there as you would think.” Should we be worried about the vaunted Red Sox farm system?
A: For a few Red Sox prospects, it hasn’t been a great year. Garin Cecchini, once viewed as a third base prospect with questionable defense who would at least hit for average and control the strike zone has done neither of those things with a .204 batting average and .278 OBP. He’s not hitting for any power, either, with a slugging percentage of .316. Henry Owens, meanwhile, who ranked ahead of current Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez on many prospect lists coming into the season has simply not performed. He hasn’t imploded to the degree that Cecchini has, as he’s still basically impossible to hit with a batting average against of .191, but his walk rate has soared and strikeout rate is down 10%. When a pitcher who’s never had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of less than 16% suddenly is in the low single digits, well, let’s just say he’s not on a fast track to the majors.

But looking beyond subpar performances like those, the future of the Red Sox system seems bright. Besides the graduated prospects currently maturing at the major league level and potentially helpful if not star caliber pieces at Pawtucket, the lower levels of the Red Sox system have a number of very interesting names – many referred to above.

Asked about the NL scout’s opinion about the Red Sox system, in fact, ESPN Prospect Analyst Keith Law said “he’d be wrong about that.”

Q: So if things aren’t all bad, why does it seem like they are?
A: Because when you’re not winning, at least in a town that cares about its team, this is what happens. Negative results breed negative sentiment which breeds negative stories which breed negative sentiment in a vicious cycle.

Q: But overall you’re positive on the Red Sox prospects?
A: Not for this season. I’m with the math; I think they miss the playoffs. They’re much better than they’ve played, but they’ve dug themselves too big a hole, in all probability. It’s very unlikely that a Wild Card will come out of the AL East, so they have to win the division. And while you never know how things will play out – injuries could hit any of the clubs, and none of them are exactly world beaters – even optimistic fans would have to acknowledge that the team is a long shot at this point.

But if we zoom out a bit and take a deep breath, I’m fine with where the Red Sox are at the moment. They have very talented positional prospects in Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley Jr and Swihart, they have young starters either with the club already (Rodriguez) or on the cusp (Johnson, Owens) and they even have a few of the highly coveted, hard throwing bullpen arms that the team has lacked in recent years on the way (Barnes/Light). After a precipitous dip last year, Pedroia’s power appears to be back. Buchholz has had his ups and downs, but is outproducing many so-called aces this season. Hell, even Allan Craig is hitting at Pawtucket – and his money is officially off the competitive balance books because he cleared outright waivers.

If you think then that each of Miley, Porcello, Ramirez and Sandoval are better than they’ve shown, and that some benefit of the doubt must be extended because of the new city/big contract factor, the roster looks that much better.

And even if they’re not, the club should have money available next year to improve. How much? Probably something close to what Houston’s paying their entire roster in 2015. Which is why we appear to be pretty far from “immensely screwed” looking beyond this year.

Trading Deadline 2014, Or What the Hell Just Happened?

Jon Lester

In a season of unexpected twists and turns, most of which ended up being blind alleys where the Sox got hit in the head with a pipe, last week’s trading deadline was easily the strangest. With almost a third of the roster exiting over a period of weeks, culminating in Thursday’s bloodletting, there’s a lot for Red Sox fans to process. As Chad Finn notes, the prevailing opinion isn’t as much anger or despair as confusion. Part of that is because the moves by themselves were so unanticipated, but it’s also because they suggest that they were just the beginning. To recap what just happened and reflect upon what might happen next, let’s ask and answer a few questions.

Q: The first and most obvious question is: literally, what the hell just happened?
A: Setting aside the DFA of Pierzynski, which was not particularly surprising, the Red Sox made the following moves:

  • (July 26) Jake Peavy traded to the San Francisco Giants for Edwin Escobar (Giants #2 pitching prospect) and Heath Hembree
  • Felix Doubront traded to the Chicago Cubs for a PTBNL
  • Stephen Drew traded to the New York Yankees for Kelly Johnson
  • Andrew Miller traded to the Baltimore Orioles for Eduardo Rodriguez (Orioles’ #3 pitching prospect)
  • John Lackey traded to the St Louis Cardinals for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly
  • Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes traded to the Oakland A’s for Yoenis Cespedes and the A’s competitive balance draft pick

Q: All of which means what?
A: Most obviously, that the Red Sox have officially thrown in the towel on the 2014 season – as they should have. The math says it isn’t technically impossible – yet – but also that it’s practically impossible. Which means that correct course of action was to use this year as a means to reload for future years.

The interesting thing, however, is that unlike traditional deadline trades, the centerpieces weren’t prospects. Every year the rumored trades are not the actual trades, but it’s usually because the names are wrong. This year, not only were the names wrong the entire type of player was different.

The Red Sox did acquire prospects in the Miller/Peavy deals, it’s true, but their most valuable assets in Lackey and Lester respectively were not used for the likes of the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson or the Pirates’ Josh Bell, but rather for current major league players. The $64,000 question is why.

Q: Is it because the Red Sox are playing for 2015?
A: That’s the most common narrative at this point, and there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that’s the case. Clearly the Red Sox aren’t going to commit to a full tear down and rebuild, nor should they with the roster of young, controllable talent they have assembled. And virtually every statement from Cherington, Farrell, Hazen or anyone else associated with the team has focused on the importance of 2015.

That being said, the Red Sox are both intelligent and intensely focused on value. It seems unlikely that if a a Top 30 or 40 MLB prospect was made available to them – with the six years of control attached to it – in return for Lackey or Lester the Red Sox would prefer wild cards like the deeply slumping Craig or the big time power but limited on base skills of a Cespedes. Maybe this year with all of the associated growing pains of Bogaerts, Bradley and so on has left them a little gun shy about prospects, but that seems improbable.

Which implies that the Red Sox simply were not offered that type of elite talent. Faced with a list of sub-Addison Russel type prospects who would be years away from helping in a best case scenario, the front office changed their tactics to focus on major league players, in particular what they believe to be a scarce market resource: offense.

Q: Why is offense down?
A: There are many potential explanations, and probably all of them play some role. From better drug testing to defensive shifts to an explosion of high velocity arms, offenses around the league are depressed. Not as much as in Boston, obviously, but there is no question that pitching is currently ascendant.

More problematically for the Red Sox, potential solutions aren’t exactly plentiful on the free agent market. There are decent hitters available, but nearly all come with question marks. Victor Martinez and Hanley Ramirez are old, Melky Cabrera comes with PED questions and so on. There are no true superstar hitters available.

There is, however, a lot of pitching.

Q: What kinds of pitching?
A: All kinds. Excellent starters in Lester, Scherzer and Shields. Pitchers with a few more question marks in De La Rosa, Kuroda, Masterson and McCarthy. Others with options like Anderson, Burnett, Chen (both Bruce and Wei-Yen), Cueto, Gallardo, Happ, Haren and Morrow. And so on.

Q: So the Red Sox appear to be betting that it will be easier to remedy their pitching than their hitting via free agency?
A: Or trade. Apart from Bogaerts and potentially Betts, the Red Sox lack elite talent. Owens is good, but not in the class of the Oriole’s Gausman and pitching prospects go. Swihart and Devers, meanwhile, are potentially elite but not widely regarded as being in that class yet.

All of that being said, in the wake of this week’s trades the system is now absurdly deep. Whether the Red Sox are able to package some of that quantity and return elite talent via trades remains open to question, but that’s certainly an avenue they’ll have to proceed.

Q: Why?
A: First because there are almost too many candidates. Consider the starting pitching candidates: De La Rosa, Escobar, Johnson, Owens, Ranaudo, Rodriguez, Webster, Workman and Wright. For the sake of argument, say two thirds of those fail: the Sox are still left with three potential starters.

That kind of depth is an asset, of course, but it also presents substantial roster construction challenges, as the Red Sox were reminded this year.

Q: What do you mean?
A: One of the inviolable rules of player development is that it is non-linear. Some players succeed immediately only to stumble later, others struggle for years before putting it all together. The best example of this currently playing is Mike Trout; the widely accepted best player in the game pancaked when first hitting the majors.

What this means for the Red Sox is that they’re probably not going to want to trust too high a percentage of their rotation or lineup to rookies. Youth will be an important, indispensable part of the Red Sox strategy now and moving forward, but you’re not likely to see them roll out a lineup of six rookies with four in the rotation next year.

Far more likely is that some of these assets are converted to talent with a more predictable major league performance track record.

Q: Such as?
Q: That’s the question, and it’s far too early to say. But let’s say that you offered a team a “Pick 5” such as the club reportedly did with Seattle once upon a time:

  1. Cechinni
  2. Webster
  3. Marrero
  4. Vazquez
  5. Johnson
  6. Rodriguez
  7. Escobar
  8. Barnes
  9. De La Rosa
  10. Middlebrooks

A lower payroll team could miss on two of the five and still solve three roster spots with eighteen combined years of control attached. That’s a return everyone would have to at least think about.

Q: So how should Cherington be graded on his deadline moves?
A: It’s hard to assign anything but an incomplete. It was strange, for example, for a pitcher of Lester’s caliber – even granting the fact that he’s a rental, especially for a lower budget club like the A’s – moved for a player who A) doesn’t get on base particularly well and B) is only under contract for one more year.

But we don’t know what was available. And we certainly don’t know how Cherington plans to use the potential minor league surplus in the offseason.

At the very least, however, Cherington gets points for doing something.

Q: Meaning what?
A: Imagine being a Philadelphia fan, were Amaro Jr essentially stood pat with a club that is worse than the 2014 Red Sox, has far less prospect depth and two pitchers making north of $20M a year – one of whom may now be out for the season with an elbow injury.

While it was nice to see the brief bounce the Red Sox received coming out of the All Star break, the subsequent five game losing streak at least made the front office’s job simpler. Instead of sitting on the fence until the last minute, they were able to shift into sell mode with a week to spare. Cherington needed to take advantage of what will hopefully be a rare opportunity to sell, and he did.

How he fared is a subject we’ll likely be debating for years.

Q: What’s next?
Q: The rest of the season, obviously, will serve as an audition of sorts for Betts, Bradley, Middlebrooks, Webster et al. Bogaerts, his horrific midseason slump notwithstanding, isn’t going anywhere. But pretty much everyone else could be. Two months of at bats, particularly given that one of them will include September call ups, won’t make for a definitive evaluation, but it will at least give the major league coaching staff the chance to make their own assessments of players up close.

Entering the offseason, then, the Red Sox need to figure out what to do with their logjam of outfielders. Nava, Cespedes, Bradley, Betts, Victorino and Craig can’t all play at once. Who goes? Who stays?

The most important task, however, is figuring out the rotation. Given that it’s extremely unlikely that the Red Sox are going to roll out Clay Buchholz and four pitchers with an average of a year of service time per, where are the additional starters going to come from? Free agency? Trade? The return of Lester?

Q: Isn’t it “fanciful” that Lester returns to the Red Sox?
A: He probably doesn’t end up here, no. If they were going to retain him, wouldn’t they have already? Didn’t John Henry pretty explicitly say that the Red Sox weren’t signing big money deals for players over thirty? And when was the last time a player traded resigned with the team that traded him – apart from Cliff Lee, that is? Probably, yes, and I can’t remember.

But how many players would say, as they’re about to be traded away to another team, that they wouldn’t resign wherever they landed because their first preference would be to come back? Maybe it’s all just a clever public relations effort on the part of Lester’s agent, but the pitcher doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’s going to read from a PR flack’s script. Which means that what he’s said before the season, during the season and after being traded might actually be true: he might really want to come back.

Which brings us to John Henry’s statement. Everyone seems to be assuming that if the Red Sox were unwilling to give him a hundred plus million dollars before the season, they’d be unwilling to do so after. In other words, they have a rule and that rule is never broken. What if, however, it’s more of a guideline than a rule. And what if one of the reasons they wanted to wait was to see if Lester got hurt or underperformed, or whether one of their minor league arms like De La Rosa or Webster took a big step forward? If that’s the case, then the variables in their equation have changed as Lester’s pitched brilliantly while the would be replacements have underwhelmed. And what if “The Monster” gets involved, as Lester’s PR importance and popularity increase his perceived value? And what if ownership looks at it not as Lester but Lester + Cespedes?

What if, what if, what if. That many in a row tells you everything you need to know about how likely it is that Lester returns. But the tea leaves say the chances aren’t zero, either, which in and of itself is remarkable.

Even if Lester were to miraculously return, however, Cherington has to replace Lackey as well. Which is why, even if the club is right and the pitching market is robust, he’ll have his work cut out for him.

In the meantime, I’ll sit back and see how he reassembles the pieces he’s acquired. Should be fun to watch.

How I Would Not Rebuild the Red Sox in 2013

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When Ben Cherington pulled the trigger on the deal sending Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to the Dodgers, it was in effect a commitment to at least a partial teardown and rebuilding effort. As has been much discussed, it left the club a substantial amount of available payroll in a market short on attractive free agent options.

Many, myself included, have offered Cherington recommendations for re-allocating that capital, with the options ranging from tactical to strategic to absurd. Given the seller’s market in free agency, it’s logical that many general managers turn to trade as a more efficient means of obtaining talent. Certainly this is the approach that Alex Anthopoulos took in Toronto, where in a trade with Miami he obtained a frontline starter, backend starter and starting shortstop at a bearable cost both in terms of talent traded and salaries assumed.

And it is to the trade market that co-founder of Baseball Prospectus Christina Kahrl would have the Red Sox turn in 2013 to restock their roster. Specifically, her major recommendation is the following:

Trade to get Alfonso Soriano’s next two seasons and the last year that Matt Garza is under club control, sending Chicago a package of Kalish, Saltalamacchia and minor-league prospects Alex Wilson and Matt Barnes.

On a superficial level, this trade makes some sense. Barnes is at least a year, more likely two, from impacting the roster. The addition of Ross makes Saltalamacchia redundant. Wilson has potential but is far from a dominant prospect, and Kalish’s star has fallen in the wake of shoulder and neck issues, respectively. In return for these assets, the Red Sox would address their left field vacancy for two years and their mid-rotation starter need for one.

This is, however, a poor deal for the Red Sox. To begin with, it’s built on the following assumptions:

  1. That Soriano is closer to the 4 win player he was last year than the 1.5 win player he was the year before or the zero win player he was two years before that.
  2. That Matt Garza is healthy (he was just given leave to begin preparing for spring training a week ago) and closer to the 5 win player he was two seasons ago than the 1.4 wins he averaged the years before and after.
  3. That the Red Sox are a borderline playoff team next season.

Initial projections see Soriano putting up a .770 OPS for the Cubs next year (or, about forty points shy of Cody Ross’ production last season), with Garza throwing around 150 innings with a sub 4.0 ERA – all in the NL Central. Adjusting for the AL East, both numbers would unquestionably represent well above replacement player value, but well shy of elite or even All Star levels of performance.

If we assume for the sake of argument that Garza and Soriano both skew towards the higher end of their projections, however, the last assumption is the real problem for this proposed transaction. Whatever one thinks of the potential of Barnes, Kalish or Wilson, the fact is that each has a chance to be a contributor to a major league club. And more importantly, each represents multiple years of low cost service time in those roles.

Player and prospect value, of course, is contextual. The marginal value of wins added increases the closer the roster as a whole is the playoffs, which is important in considering Kahrl’s trade proposal. The immediate impact of the transaction would be a net upgrade of a few wins in 2013, but the value would drop – potentially precipitously, depending on Soriano’s readjustment to the AL East – thereafter, as Garza is a free agent after the upcoming season.

To make this deal, therefore, Cherington would have to be convinced that the sacrifice of the years of potential service time from the prospects would be offset by the benefit to the club next season alone. Which, given the other holes on the roster, would seem to be a difficult case to make. In discussing his offseason plans, Cherington has been careful to emphasize the need to build for the present without jeopardizing the future; Kahrl’s proposal may satisfy the former, but certainly not the latter.

The Red Sox would also be selling low on Kalish, whose minor league line (.279/.366/.429) is competitive with Josh Reddick’s (.278/.332/.500). It could be argued as well that the Red Sox would be undervaluing Jarrod Saltalamacchia. His .742 OPS in spite of the 25 home runs underscores just how problematic his on base skills are, but in a league in which the average major league backstop put up a .718, Salty’s a two win player. Or roughly twice as valuable as Garza was last year in an injury marred campaign.

Ultimately, prospects are assets, to be used to better the club – whether that’s playing for them or bringing assets in who will. But in general, when multiple years of service time are being traded, it’s important to get either an elite performer or multiple years of service in return. This deal would accomplish neither goal. Exceptions to this approach can, and arguably should, be made when the existing roster is championship caliber, and the marginal value of a few added wins is great. But having gutted the roster in August, such is not the case for the Red Sox.

Hopefully, Cherington – in spite of being from Amherst – will recognize this and avoid it or similar transactions this offseason.

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.

Barnes for Garza?

Matt Garza - Chicago NL - 2011 Home

When it comes to Garza, it’s tough to envision a scenario in which Epstein doesn’t instantly request pitching prospect Matt Barnes…A deal sending Barnes, Brentz and maybe Workman to the Cubs would seem reasonable to acquire Garza.

via Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox both have the pieces to make a trade – MLB – ESPN.

I’d be more than happy to replace, say, Matsuzaka for Matt Garza for the stretch run. And Epstein would be foolish not to ask for Barnes as a centerpiece in a deal for the pitcher, who comes with legitimate AL East credentials and will therefore be in high demand. But this would be the definition of a bad deal for Boston.

First, there’s the club’s record. The AL East may very well be winnable, but entering play tonight we’re a game under .500. Garza’s good, but not good enough to singlehandedly guarantee a trip deep into the postseason (the current Yankees roster has put up a collective .893 OPS against him) – which is the return you should expect for an asset of Barnes’ caliber.

Second, there’s the years of control. Garza’s eligible for free agency after next season, so trading Barnes would mean trading six potential years of control for less than two seasons of Garza. Unless you want to sign him to a big contract in the interim, but the guess here is that we’re going to see less of those in the years ahead. Because big free agent contracts to pitchers are generally bad ideas, and because we have recent first hand experience of that.

Third, there’s the roster. Matsuzaka’s gone after this year. Lackey will theoretically be back next year, but what level he’ll be pitching at is unclear. Beckett is up two seasons from now, as is Lester – assuming the lefty doesn’t finish first or second in the Cy Young voting in the interim, in which case he’s eligible after 2013. Buchholz is the only pitcher currently on the roster that we control beyond 2014. Adding a pitcher who’s done after next year would almost certainly help us over the balance of this season, but it actively damages our long term outlook by removing a potential replacement or replacements for one of the multiple slots in the rotation we’re going to have to fill, and soon.

No harm in Theo asking, then, but if Cherington even entertains the notion it’ll confirm everything that’s been said about the intelligence of Amherst grads.

Unrelated: If the writer really believes this:

The rotation isn’t the main reason the team is currently 32-33, 7.5 games out of first place and four games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the second wild-card spot, but it certainly isn’t a team strength.

I’d be interested in what he believes is more responsible. Who else is there? The bullpen’s been one of the best in baseball over the last month and we’ve scored the fourth most runs in baseball. It seemed (and seems) obvious to me that the rotation is to blame, which makes the above qualifier odd, particularly in a piece recommending an upgrade to the starting rotation.

Don't Believe the Hype: The Scutaro Deal is Mystifying

Error

In his analysis of the Scutaro trade, Gordon Edes asks “Would you trade Marco Scutaro straight up for Roy Oswalt?” This is at best an oversimplification of the deal mechanics, one that casts the Red Sox and GM Ben Cherington in a more favorable light. In reality, Edes – like other defenders of this transaction – is attempting to link two transactions which should be considered independent of one another. Even should the trade of Scutaro net Oswalt, this is still a poor deal.

The problem isn’t the trade of Scutaro, per se. True, this compromises our lineup, our defense or both, with neither Aviles nor Punto realistic starting shortstop candidates – and Aviles, at least, is already ticketed for time in right field – and Iglesias far from ready [1]. But realistically, as Peter Abraham documents, our roster doesn’t have many movable pieces, either because they cost too much or because they’re paid too little to be worth moving. If we assume that the Red Sox feel that they need to add pitching and have to move payroll to do so, it’s either Scutaro or Youkilis. Given that the latter is coming off injury, the return will be downward adjusted which makes trading him less attractive. Add in the fact that the market for a $12M player is narrower than a $6M player, and you’re trading Scutaro. It’s not ideal, but Cherington’s working within the constraints established by ownership. Fine.

What is less fine is the return. Over the last four seasons, Scutaro’s averaged 3.2 wins per season. By Fangraphs math, this has made him worth around $14M per season. His 2012 option salary? $6M. When you trade an asset worth more than $10M but is paid $6M, you need to get something of comparable value back. As Keith Law put it on Twitter, “You don’t dump a 3 win player making $6MM for no return.” Which brings us to the real problem in this trade, Clay Mortensen, who is – at least on paper – the definition of no return.

Originally a product of the Cardinals system, Mortensen has put up middling numbers at multiple minor league stops – 5.26 ERA in 446.2 innings at AAA with a 6.5 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 – against even worse numbers in the majors. The Red Sox are likely to tout last year’s 3.86 ERA with the Rockies, but when you adjust that for fielding and things like BABIP you get a 5.34 FIP. His K/9 and BB/9 last year, respectively, were 4.63/3.70. Even if you don’t grasp the significance of strikeouts or walks per nine in the statistical sense, it’s easy to understand that it’s probably not good to be walking almost as many people as you strikeout.

Nor does his stuff allow for much projection. He’s 26, and it’s not like he has a big fastball which the Red Sox hope to better harness: his career average fastball velocity is 89.8. We’re told he’s a sinkerballer, which makes the fastball velocity less unfortunate, but his career ground ball to fly ball ratio is 1.61. Compare that to sinkerballers like Justin Masterson (career 2.07) or Derek Lowe (3.03) and you see the problem. Our own Daniel Bard – who is most certainly not a sinkerballer, in spite of the addition of his two seam fastball – put up a 1.68 last year. For a sinkerballer, then, he doesn’t get too many ground balls. And if you can’t break 90 on the gun and you’re not a real ground ball pitcher, well, what you are then is fringe.

And Scutaro is worth substantially more than a fringe asset.

Which leaves us with two possible explanations. One, that the Red Sox see something in Mortensen that no one else does. Or two, that they assessed the Scutaro market and felt that this was the best they could do. Having looked at the numbers in some detail, the former seems improbable. But if they assessed the market, and Mortensen was really the best they could do, was it worth it?

Even if this nets us Oswalt, it’s hard to defend this deal. We’ve given up three wins for which we were paying maybe 60 cents on the dollar in return for a pitcher whose career win total is -0.2. And yes, theoretically, the opportunity to pay a free agent premium for a pitcher whose averaged three and a half wins over the past four seasons. Oh, and was limited to 23 starts last season because of back issues. Even if the Scutaro deal and an Oswalt signing are dependent on one another, that cannot justify losing the first transaction so badly.

Oswalt or no Oswalt, this is a poor deal. I guess this is what you get when your GM went to Amherst.

[1] As noted on Twitter, ZIPS projections for Iglesias are .251/.289/.311. The career line of Rey Ordonez, the ultimate no hit shorstop who played most of his career for our new manager? .246/.289/.310. That’s too terrifying to contemplate.