Why I Hate the Chris Sale Trade

wasteland

Dave Dombrowski was hired by the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday, August 18th of 2015, thirteen days after being fired by the Detroit Tigers. The General Manager in Boston at the time, Ben Cherington, a former Theo Epstein lieutenant and disciple, resigned later that night.

Even while en route to their third last place finish in four years, there was substantial trepidation amongst Red Sox fans about the hire. Not surprisingly for someone who’s been in the game since 1978, Dombrowski’s reputation preceded him. “Dealin’ Dave” was known for having no reservations about moving the kind of minor league talent that the Epstein and Cherington regimes fiercely protected.

The immediate question in the wake of Dombrowski’s appointment was what it meant: would the Red Sox remain committed to player development and home grown talent, or would the system be strip-mined and sold off for veterans? The retention of Mike Hazen as Dombrowski’s GM seemed at the time like an olive branch, a sign that the front office tradition that won Boston three world championships in a decade – one of which came at the expense of Dombrowski’s Tigers – would be respected.

Fifteen months later, Hazen is gone, and with him the last vestiges of the front office Theo Epstein created. As Peter Gammons says, “The organization is far different than the one [Theo] created; more than a dozen, many of them key people, have left the organization since Dave Dombrowski took over.” An organization that once prided itself on its ability to draft and develop talent was no more, as was originally feared.

All of which explains how it’s possible to be crushed that the Boston Red Sox acquired a player the caliber of Chris Sale. The following is a look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

  • The Deal is Defensible:
    As many writers have noted, the deal is not without its merits. Absent context, even so-called “prospect hoarders” would be forced to admit that it can be defended. Most obviously, the deal was completed without affecting the major league roster. Once, Sale would have been traded for nothing less than a Betts, Bogaerts, or at worst, Bradley. Instead, all three remain with the club. It’s also fair to note that even the best prospects in the deal – Kopech (who’s comped to Syndergaard) and Moncada (who’s comped to Cano) – do not come without question marks. Basabe and Diaz, for their part, are even further away and thus riskier. Evaluating the deal on its own merits, you might not take a single player – even one as good as Sale – for multiple high upside prospects (one of whom is regarded as the best prospect in baseball) because you’re concentrating your risk. But you might, because:
  • Sale is Good:
    Excellent, in fact. By fWAR, he was the seventh best pitcher in the league last year, ahead of names like Kluber, Bumgarner, Tanaka, Price, Hendricks and Lester. If you go back to 2012, in fact, his first season as a starter, there are three pitchers who’ve been more valuable: Kershaw, Scherzer and (by a tick) Price. By virtually any metric, Sale is one of the best pitchers in baseball. And he’s not the only star.
  • The Roster is Good:
    Sale isn’t the only good Red Sox starting pitcher, as you might have heard. The reigning American League Cy Young winner, in fact, could be the number three starter for the club – and the final two spots are likely to be filled by pitchers who either have been an All Star (Buchholz, Pomeranz, Wright) or have that kind of ability (Rodriguez). And while the offense has an enormous hole to fill with the departure of Ortiz and is unlikely to lead the league in runs again – let alone by a hundred – it is capable and with the exception of third base and arguably DH has no obvious holes. Nor is this a typical Dombrowski club with incredible starting pitching but a porous bullpen: if Carson Smith makes it back by midseason, the Red Sox could throw five guys late in the game who hit the high 90’s in Barnes, Kelly, Kimbrel, Smith and Thornburg. Even the depth is reasonable, with three potential catchers, Brock Holt and Marco Hernandez and players like Sam Travis waiting in the wings at Pawtucket. And not only is the lineup good.
  • The Core Players Are Young:
    In Betts, Bogaerts and Bradley, the Red Sox have an enviable trio of talented and young players. Bradley’s the elder statesman at 26, while Betts and Bogaerts are 24. As is Blake Swihart. Andrew Benintendi, meanwhile, who presumably will start in left field, is 22. That is the kind of core that every team in baseball that’s not the Cubs would envy and take in a second. And even after all the trades, the farm system isn’t quite tapped out.
  • Not All the Remaining Prospects Are Bad:
    While the Red Sox minor league system is in the worst shape it’s been in in over a decade, and has effectively no depth, there are two players left over with potentially high ceilings in Jason Groome and Rafael Devers. Neither are exactly knocking on the door to the major league club, but they remain a top two that are at least the equal of most other systems in the game.

The Bad

  • Tick, Tick, Tick:
    One of the things that everyone seems to agree on is that the price for Sale came down. From “a Betts/Bogaerts/Bradley to start the conversation,” the White Sox ended up settling for a package that included no players from the major league roster. The question no one seems to be asking is: why did the price come down? One potential, frightening answer: injury risk.Gammons: “A source close to Jerry Reinsdorf, the most loyal of owners, says he is concerned about Sale’s long-term shoulder wear given his delivery and the extreme effort.”

    Olney: “According to sources, the White Sox are pushed by a concern in some corners of the Chicago organization that it’s inevitable the All-Star left-hander with the contortionist pitching mechanics will eventually break down.”

    Presumably the White Sox know more about him than anyone else, and they lowered the price to acquire him. And then there are the numbers.

  • Warning Signs?:
    Sales’ FIP in 2016 was 3.46, the worst of his career. The last time he had a FIP above 3, in fact, was 2013. He also struck out batters at the lowest rate since his debut in 2012. The rumor early in the season was that he was trying to pitch more to contact, but as Keith Law notes he lost a mile and a half of velocity. There’s nothing in his numbers that screams red flag, but neither is the trajectory and more importantly, the dip in velocity, encouraging.
  • The Odds:
    To read some of the initial reactions to the trade, you’d think that trading for Sale guaranteed a World Series berth, if not title. But the math of the postseason is remorseless. Even a club as talented as last year’s Cubs, who were arguably the best defensive team in history and fronted by a similar trio of Cy Young types had something close to a 25% chance of winning the World Series. They won, of course, much to the delight of Cubs fans everywhere, but they were also down three to one to an Indians team short two of its best starters and if not for the rain delay in Game 7, who knows how that series turns out. None of which is to say that you don’t go for it when you can, but given the long odds of even the best teams reaching the series let alone winning it, it’s important to always keep the long view in mind. As Dombrowski should know well from his time in Detroit: it’s not that often that a team opens a series almost no hitting the opposing club the first three games and loses.
  • The Context:
    Even for the Red Sox fans most devoted to prospects, if the Chris Sale trade was Dombrowski’s first trip to the well, he’d be universally hailed.Unfortunately, in fifteen months Dombrowksi has traded seventeen prospects. The following is Sox Prospect’s Top 20 on July 1, 2015, a month and a half before Dombrowski took the reigns.

    1 Eduardo Rodriguez
    2 Yoan Moncada (TRADED)
    3 Rafael Devers
    4 Manuel Margot (TRADED)
    5 Brian Johnson
    6 Henry Owens
    7 Andrew Benintendi
    8 Michael Kopech (TRADED)
    9 Javier Guerra (TRADED)
    10 Deven Marrero
    11 Anderson Espinoza (TRADED)
    12 Trey Ball
    13 Michael Chavis
    14 Pat Light (TRADED)
    15 Sam Travis
    16 Travis Shaw (TRADED)
    17 Ty Buttrey
    18 Mauricio Dubon (TRADED)
    19 Teddy Stankiewicz
    20 Wendell Rijo (TRADED)

    As you can see, he has traded almost half the high end prospect inventory he inherited, and with obvious exceptions such as Devers, many of those that are left likely haven’t been traded because their value cratered (Johnson, Owens, Marrero, etc) or was always minimal (Ball).

    Many will protest, saying that fans become too attached to prospects that haven’t proven anything yet, and that Sale is an elite pitcher. My response to that is that so was Cole Hamels when the Phillies asked for a minor leaguer called Mookie Betts in return for the lefthander’s services. Personally, I’m glad we kept Mookie.

    The net is that Dombrowski has taken a scythe to one of the most fertile farm systems in the game, and in less than two years has left behind a wasteland. Which is a problem because:

  • Contracts Are Coming Up Sooner Than You Think:
    Most of the trade reactions you’ll read are focused on the 2017 season, which is understandable because the prospects seem bright, even if the winner of the offseason has historically faired poorly. Thanks to Dombrowski, the outlook in the short term is excellent. But what if we look further out? What does the Red Sox roster look like? The answer, if you’re a Red Sox fan at least, is troubling.Two seasons from now, Price can opt out, Hanley’s status depends on games played and Kimbrel and Pomeranz are free agents.

    The year after that, Bogaerts, Bradley, Porcello, Sale and Thornburg are on the market.

    The year following? Betts, Rodriguez and Smith.

    In four years, then, we could lose four top starters, our closer and setup men, two of three outfielders, and our starting shortstop. This is less alarming if either a) the competitive balance threshold went way up so you could spend with impunity, or b) you have a wave of young players coming up behind them, because you can either swap the departing players for younger replacements, or retain the ones you want and fill in the gaps with young, low cost alternatives. Well, the CBT isn’t going way up, and Boston doesn’t have that wave of young players anymore. Our two best starting pitching prospects in years – Kopech and Espinoza -are gone. One potential superstar position player in Moncada has departed, as have a host of potential starters or utility men in Asuaje, Basabe, Dubon, Guerra and Margot. Even if next year’s draft is incredible – and with all of the front office departures it’s worth asking whether it will be – the impact won’t be felt for years. The well is dry, and the club will have to pay that price eventually.

The Ugly

  • Restocking the System:
    As the hemorrhaging from the minor league system continued, the front office has responded by expressing confidence in its ability to restock the farm. This is a confidence which, at best, seems misplaced – and not just because Dombrowski clubs have rarely drafted with any notable success.For many years, there were opportunities for wealthy clubs like the Red Sox to leverage their financial resources to maximum effect in the draft or international markets. These opportunities have since been eliminated.

    First, MLB closed the loophole with the draft, by imposing restrictions on spending so that clubs like the Red Sox couldn’t scoop up elite talent in later rounds simply by being willing to field angry calls from the commissioner’s office. And as of the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, the last remaining asymmetric opportunity for amateur spending was removed when MLB established a hard cap on international signings.

    In other words, where the Red Sox could once simply outspend other major league clubs on the amateur markets, the reality is today that if anything, high payroll teams are disadvantaged relative to their small market competitors.

    Gone are the days when the Red Sox could acquire a talent like Moncada simply by being willing to spend what the market bore: $60M+, in his case. In short, it’s hard to think of a worse time for the Red Sox to have completely depleted their minor league system.

  • The Brain Drain:
    Longer term, the most damage from the Dombrowski era may come from the loss of executive talent. As mentioned above, the Red Sox have already lost a number of key executives – executives who in many cases played critical roles in one or more world championships – in the Dombrowski era. And given the reports that Dombrowski’s inner circle is considerably smaller than his predecessors’, it stands to reason that the Red Sox – in spite of being the Red Sox – may not be able to attract or retain the front office talent that they once did. Which is a significant problem, one that compounds the devastation of our minor league system. As we’ve seen in recent years, so much of the game is now being driven by creativity, from talent identification and acquisition to defensive positioning, but the Red Sox do not appear to be the premier destination they once were.

The Net

During his tenure in Detroit, Dombrowski worked for an owner in his seventies who was desperate to win a world series, desperate enough to mortgage the future in an effort to win in the present. Despite assembling powerful lineups and rotations full of hard throwing Cy Young candidates, the current Red Sox president was never able to give his owner that title. His successor Al Avila, meanwhile, will be the one that pays for Dombrowski’s decisions, and is currently attempting to sell anything that’s not nailed down.

As the ownership group that empowered Theo Epstein all those years ago to build the player development machine Dombrowski has now, finally, dismantled, it’s ironic that John Henry and Co’s willingness to pound the nail in that coffin might have come from watching two men they ran out of town face off in the world series, cementing their Hall of Fame credentials in the process. It took a while, but the best Manager and General Manager the Red Sox ever had may yet have the last laugh.

In the meantime, enjoy 2017.

 

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The Great Red Sox Panic of 2016

On Monday, April 8th, 2002 Dave Dombrowski fired Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner after an 0-6 start. If the hope was to change the clubs fortunes, the move failed: his replacement Luis Pujols went a staggering 55-100. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Dombrowski tied the quickest hook for a manager since 1900 – the other unfortunate being Cal Ripken Sr in 1988.

In case there was any doubt, it has become clear over the past few days that John Farrell is aware of this history.

2015 was a difficult year for the current Red Sox manager. The team entered the season with great expectations following a second last place finish in three years, but after a mediocre start (12-10) in April the wheels came off in May (10-19). By the trading deadline, it was all over but the crying, and what few movable parts there were were shown the door for negligible return.

As bad as the on the field situation was, Farrell’s health off the field was the real concern. Shortly after undergoing hernia surgery on August 11, it was discovered that he had stage 1 lymphoma. He would not return that season.

Having staggered to a .439 winning percentage under Farrell, the team’s luck changed shortly after his exit. Buoyed in part by unexpected performances from young players like Bradley or Shaw, not to mention the merciful decision to stop running Hanley Ramirez out in left field, the Red Sox made a run towards finishing .500 by playing .636 ball under interim manager, and former bench coach, Torey Lovullo.

If this had all happened one year earlier, there is no managerial controversy. In 2014, Farrell was fresh off a World Series title and respected throughout the organization, some of his odd tactical decisions notwithstanding. By the time he took his leave of absence last year, however, he was coming off a last place finish and had overseen the club’s steady march towards their second in a row.

Hence the question: who should manage the Boston Red Sox? John Farrell or Torey Lovullo? And if you stick with Farrell, what becomes of Lovullo? The Red Sox answered these questions in early October, announcing that Farrell would return and that Lovullo had been retained as well.

Personally, this was my preferred outcome, because it seemed inappropriate that Farrell not be given the chance to manage again because of his cancer diagnosis. Looking back, however, it may have been kinder to simply fire him.

Throughout this spring, there’s been an undercurrent of desperation. Writers wrote about how the team needed to get off to a fast start, unnamed front office executives were quoted as saying the same, but nothing has confirmed this more than Farrell’s repeated statements that the players performing the best in Spring Training would be the ones receiving playing time when the season opens on Monday – as if Spring Training performances were reliable predictors.

Which is how we find the players expected to be starting at third base (Sandoval) and left field (Castillo) headed for the bench.

For many in Boston, this has been welcome news. Neither Castillo nor Sandoval performed last year – Sandoval was one of the worst regulars in the league, in fact – and three last place finishes in four years means that business as usual isn’t acceptable.

Except that Farrell and the club’s approach so far makes little sense.

The personnel decisions, for example, are clearly the product of panic, not rational planning. Sandoval’s first year was indefensible. Fine. He’s hardly the first big ticket free agent to succumb to the pressure of the contract, however. While populist sentiment is in favor of assigning playing time independent of contract terms, in practice this makes little sense. By putting Sandoval on the bench, you increase rather than decrease the pressure on a player who already struggled with it last year. Which elevates the risk of losing him entirely, at which point you now have seventy plus million of dead money to try and find a home for.

While starting Sandoval and hoping for a return to something closer to his historical performance baselines is the correct decision, sitting him would be understandable if he was blocking a known quantity at third base. He is not. Statistically, in fact, there is greater reason the believe in Sandoval than Shaw, as Paul Swydan covers well.

Even setting the money aside, from a career accomplishments’ standpoint, it would unquestionably be easier to start Sandoval than Shaw. If Sandoval falters, Shaw has his opportunity. If Sandoval bounces back, Shaw can either refine his craft in the minors – where he has not performed particularly well, notably – or serve as the bench bat he was expected to. By starting Shaw, the Red Sox are placing their faith in one good month in the majors and a handful of spring training at bats. If they’re wrong, and Shaw is not a major league regular, their backup option is a mentally fragile third baseman that they just publicly benched.

How does that make sense, exactly?

The decision to start Holt in left field over Castillo, meanwhile, is more defensible but just as puzzling. First, making Holt a near regular contradicts the club’s previous assertion that he performs better when not asked to play every day. Second, it flies in the face of their plan the entire offseason, which was to finally give Castillo an extended opportunity to see if he can make the most of it. Third, they made this decision, apparently, on a few week’s of Spring Training at bats. And lastly, if you’re that desperate to win games early that you need to start Holt over Castillo, why keep the latter on the major league roster? He’s certainly not going to improve by not playing as a fifth outfielder.

Worse than any particular personnel decision, however, is the tone that has been set around the club. As a cerebral game, baseball is not one that is played best under tension, or fear. It’s not good for the individual player’s performance, and it can lead to a poor decision-making which overvalues the present at the expense of the future.

The Red Sox appear fixated on coming out of the gate at a sprint. In a sport that is more of a marathon, however, this approach seems questionable at best. The club has, as Tim Britton writes, completely overhauled its philosophy this offseason. It’s understandable and to be expected that some change accompanies the last place finishes. But the last time the Red Sox over-rotated this far, we went from Tito Francona to Bobby Valentine.

The only consoling thought amidst the current panic, in fact, is that if things do begin to go south, we’re more likely to end up with Lovullo than another season of Bobby V.

On Dave Dombrowski: I Have Some Concerns

When you’re on track for a third last place finish in four years, World Series sandwiched in there or no, it’s not surprising that the popular reaction to the front office’s regime change is positive. For the casual fans that read, say, Dan Shaughnessy, patience and a bigger picture perspective are in short supply, so the reality that last place finishes or no, Ben Cherington is leaving behind a solid foundation is not well understood. Or appreciated, at least. But he has.

Last winter’s major signings are disasters today, no argument. The free agent acquisitions of Pocello, Ramirez and Sandoval were so unsuccessful, in fact, that they are unmovable absent either major financial or prospect sweeteners attached. Sweeteners that make dealing them highly impractical. And as Cherington said, while the responsibility for those signings may not rest entirely with him, as it’s impossible to know where the ideas behind those deals originated and the degree to which ownership was or was not involved, the accountability is, or rather was, Cherington’s alone. Just as Cherington is rightly hailed as the architect of the 2013 World Series win, he is equally the person on the hook for those signings and the third last place finish they contributed to.

But this isn’t the place to debate Cherington’s tenure. Amherst alum or no, I’m more positive on Cherington’s work than most, and I think it’s easily possible to build the case that he didn’t deserve his fate, but even his supporters must acknowledge that the arguments for his removal and replacement are not particularly difficult to marshal.

It’s unfortunate that the process played out the way it did, of course. Under normal circumstances, ownership may have had no responsibility to keep Cherington informed of the process of hiring someone up the chain of command such as Dombrowski. But given both the public support offered for Cherington and more importantly the conversations he reported having with Henry and Werner about the process of improving the front office, Cherington was seemingly well within his rights to expect to be looped in to any such plans. When blindsided about the hire, then, ownership had no right to expect Cherington to do anything other than what he did. Why, for exanple, would ownership give Cherington the go ahead to bring on DiPoto in an advisory capacity one week and then hire Dombrowski the next? As Peter Gammons asks, why was Cherington lied to? Ownership has the right to make whatever decisions they like regarding they fate of their front office, but it’s a shame that they keep bungling the people side of things because they’re uncomfortable with confrontation.

None of which has anything to do with Dombrowski, of course. How they handled communications with Cherington up to and subsequent to their recruitment of Dombrowski has little bearing on whether bringing him on board was the correct decision, or whether Cherington could have righted the ship on his own.

If nothing else, Dombrowski offers value to ownership from a PR perspective. To the legions of frustrated, impatient fans, they can point to this change as a sign that they’re not standing pat, that losing is unacceptable, et cetera, et cetera. What could be more impressive than hiring the man who Jonah Keri calls “one of the best front-office guys in the sport?”

It would silly to argue that an executive with Dombroski’s pedigree had nothing to add beyond PR cover, of course. From the Expos to the Marlins to the Tigers, Dombrowski has amassed an impressive track record of success. It’s not without blemishes or missteps, of course, but there have been no perfect baseball executives to date, Branch Rickey included. Dombrowski also brings, as did DiPoto when he was brought on, a fresh set of eyes, one that is less personally attached to the individual prospects and – theoretically, at least – more disposed to view them dispassionately as assets to be used for the betterment of the Red Sox organization, whether that’s as players or trade fodder.

All of which makes it sound like the hiring of Dombrowski is a positive development, and it may well be. Personally, however, I have some concerns. The problem isn’t as much Dombrowski versus Cherington, but rather what specifically, organizationally, that means.

Most objections to Dombrowski are relatively superficial. “He can’t build bullpens!” “He’s going to trade away our entire farm system!” These aren’t entirely without substance, of course, but they’re not the real worry. Detroit’s consistent lack of a bullpen obscures the fact that other clubs he’s managed have produced elite relievers: Robb Nen, for example. And while I very much hope that our farm system – which Cherington has built into what is widely regarded as the best in the game – isn’t gutted, there is little argument that we have areas of redundancy from which to deal. As much as I love Manuel Margot, for example, we have three (in my view) young, talented centerfielders are on the major league roster already. We also have an emerging talent two levels behind Margot in Benintendi. So if Dealin’ Dave turns some of these talented but blocked players into young talented players at other positions, well, that’s what the farm system is for. If we drop from #1 to, say, #10 in an effort to acquire young, elite and major league-ready talent, then so be it.

No, my issue is what Dombrowski’s hiring means for the Red Sox organization. There are two ways this can go, in my view. Behind door number one is Frank Wren. Behind door number two is Mike Hazen. The former would be a disaster, in my view, while the latter offers hope that this could actually make the organization stronger. Here’s why.

Frank Wren

According to Ken Rosenthal, a “rival executive” will be shocked if Dombrowski hires anyone other than Wren. Here’s what ESPN’s Keith Law had to say about that idea:

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but why? What’s the problem with Frank Wren?

There are many, but for me it’s not the obvious problems like his free agent errors – if you think Ramirez and Sandoval are bad deals, check out BJ Upton or Dan Uggla. Issues like that could and would be mitigated by having Dombrowski as the final decision maker. No, my issue with Wren is his ability – or rather, lackthereof – with people.

Whatever one thinks of Cherington and his front office at present based on their track record the past four years, the fact is that the Red Sox are an extremely bright, progressive organization. In a podcast with the Globe’s Alex Speier, Law calls the front office “if not the best, one of the best” in baseball. It’s easy to forget now in the wake of another lost season, but this a front office that delivered us three titles in less than a decade. It’s a front office that is sufficiently well regarded so as to be periodically raided for talent by other major league clubs. Hell, the Cubs president and general manager are both products of the Red Sox front office. The front office is also responsible for the drafting and international signings that have left the club as the consensus best farm system in the game.

The very intelligent – and thus, valuable – collection of individuals is very loyal to Cherington, a man whose critics even go out of their way to acknowledge as posessed of exceptional integrity, honesty, and accountability. The same man who was just treated in a less than ideal fashion by ownership.

If the perfect world is one in which the Red Sox complement their existing well regarded front office – one, importantly, that is exceptionally capable in an area where Dombrowski’s successor in Detroit acknowledged the club to be behind, analytics – with his traditional scouting acumen, the nightmare is one in which Dombrowski’s hire leads to a massive exodus of the best and brightest of baseball minds. Minds that it’s taken this Red Sox ownership group over a decade to accumulate.

What then would be the simplest method of setting this nightmare in motion? By introducing into this already unsettled situation a general manager who’s bad with people. Which brings us back to Wren. Here’s what Atlanta writer Mark Bradley said about the Braves’ ex-GM Wren in a piece ostensibly recommending the hire entitled “Frank Wren to Fenway? Why this could actually work.”

Wren wasn’t fired because of wins and losses. He was fired in part because he whiffed egregiously on Dan Uggla’s contract extension and especially on the free-agent signing of B.J. (now Melvin Jr.) Upton, but mostly he was fired because he ran the organization but made almost no allies. Nobody disputed that he was smart and hard-working. He just wasn’t very good with people.

If the best arguments in favor of your hiring include phrases like “made almost no allies” and “just wasn’t very good with people,” let’s just say you have issues. If I’m Red Sox ownership, and I want to preserve any semblance of continuity with the organization that I’ve spent a decade building and is both well regarded externally and has delivered more world championships over the span than any other organization in the game, I make clear to Dombrowski that under no circumstances is Wren to be considered, let alone hired.

If not Wren, though, then who?

Mike Hazen

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that some measure of organizational continuity is valued. How does an incoming leader build bridges into this new organization? By elevating one of its own.

In his reaction to the Dombrowski hiring, Peter Gammons floated the idea of Mike Hazen as the new Red Sox GM under Dombrowski. This is a decision that almost certainly won’t happen because it makes too much sense. Among the justifications:

  1. Hazen is ready for a General Manager’s role, having been a candidate for and interviewed for openings such as the Padres
  2. Hazen comes from the heavily analytical Red Sox front office tradition, and thus would mitigate Dombrowski’s weakness in that area
  3. Hazen would be much better for the retention of key Red Sox front office personnel than a candidate like Wren
  4. Hazen’s retention would be a signal, internally and externally, to the front office that Dombrowski’s hiring is not the repudiation of the Red Sox analytical philosophy that it is currently being made out to be
  5. Hazen’s institutional knowledge and experience will be important given Dombrowski’s minimal window to evaluate minor league talent prior to this offseason’s trading opportunities

The only real downside to Hazen’s hiring, unless Hazen has significant professional shortcomings that have not been made public, is that he hasn’t worked with Dombrowski previously. If I’m the Red Sox ownership group, however, I would strongly “encourage” Dombrowski to look beyond that, because the upside to a candidate like Hazen stands in stark contrast to the downside of one like Wren.

The Net

The decision to hire Dombrowski, or at least the way in which the ownership group went about the move, is reminiscent of what I’d argue is the worst decision of their tenure, the dismissal of Tito Francona. In the wake of the disastrous 2011 collapse, ownership essentially assigned Francona the blame for a starting rotation that was so desperate that Kyle Weiland was run out every five days. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and Francona took the fall. In similar fashion, Cherington was effectively held accountable for a perfect storm of mistakes, whether these could have reasonably been foreseen or not.

Whatever mistakes were made in this process, however, do not need to be compounded further by the addition of a candidate like Wren. It is entirely possible for the Red Sox front office to emerge from this transition better and stronger than it was previously, because the addition of an evaluator like Dombrowski to an organization with already elite analytical capabilities is intriguing.

But for this marriage to work, Dombrowski needs to let the existing front office employees know their talents are valued, and the simplest way to do that is by hiring one of their own as his General Manager. If he’s not interested in preservation, but instead wants to work with only those he’s known like Wren, well, let’s just say I’m not looking forward to the future.

The Red Sox 2013 Plan

Fork in the road

Having reset the roster in late August, the Red Sox effectively had two paths open to them for 2013. The first path, best described as Win Now, would have entailed bidding heavily on free agents like Greinke, Hamilton or Sanchez, and in all three cases offering contracts of five or more years. This was never likely, given that it was not even six months ago that the Red Sox pulled the ripcord with a first-time-in-major-league-history $250M trade in an attempt to dig us out from just these sorts of contracts. But you’d never know it from the baseball writers, who are disappointed in the Red Sox for not pursuing one big ticket item or another.

The second option available to the club – “Compete Now, Win Later” – was probably the only realistic one given John Henry’s feelings on free agency risk. The basic idea is to overpay in the short term for middle tier free agents – smaller contracts that individually represent fractional risks – in an effort to buy time for the farm system. While Keith Law among others had the Red Sox organization in the bottom half of minor league talent entering 2012, it was a good year for many players in the system. From Barnes to Bogaerts to Bradley Jr, several Red Sox prospects took steps forward last season – some quite significant. Add to that two legitimate, high ceiling arms in De La Rosa and Webster, acquired via the Dodgers trade, and the Red Sox farm system looks better than it has in recent memory, particularly at the upper levels of the system.

The club cannot hope for much help in 2013, however. The roster will see contributions from a variety of prospects next season, of course, but the bulk of the real pitching and positional talent is at least a season away. Lavarnway is probably major league ready now, at least offensively, but Bogaerts, Bradley Jr, Brentz, Iglesias, Shaw, et al need consistent at bats. Both for the player to grow and for the club to assess whether they’re pieces for the roster or pieces with which to acquire talent for the roster. Likewise, our potential crop of starting pitchers is either young and inexperienced (Barnes, Owens), coming off of injury (De La Rosa) or both. It’s probably realistic for the club to hope that of Barnes, De La Rosa, Webster and possibly Owens, Workman and Ranaudo, they’ll find a young starter or two.

Just not this year.

If we assume that the Big Ticket Free Agent plan was never an option, both because the club’s been burned by it recently and because this year’s crop of free agents all came with question marks, Cherington’s course was clear. After last year’s implosion, bottoming out in 2013 by betting everything on the likes of Kalish, Iglesias and Lavarnway wasn’t in the cards. Which meant plugging holes with pieces like Dempster, Napoli, Victorino and Stephen Drew. None are superstars, but neither are any of them being paid like it. Thirteen million might seem like a lot to you, and it sure as hell sounds like a lot to me, but in today’s game that’s the going rate for a mid tier free agent – just ask 37 year old Torii Hunter.

Rather than place all of their financial eggs in one or two baskets, then, the Red Sox front office has obtained bona fide major league candidates for left field, right field, first base (assuming Napoli is finalized), shortstop, catcher, set up man and the fourth spot in our rotation. The aggregate cost has us back within hailing distance of the luxury tax threshold, but it seems inevitable that a few bodies will yet be moved along (my bets would be Salty and at least one reliever). For around $13M less than what Greinke will cost the Dodgers, then, the Red Sox added Dempster, Drew, Gomes, Napoli, Ross, Uehara and Victorino. While I might quibble with some of the individual signings, or their terms, it’s difficult to build the case that Cherington’s dollars would have been better invested in Greinke given the number of holes he had to fill. You pay the cost for a Greinke or a Hamilton or a Dickey if you’re a win or two away from contention; you don’t if you gutted your roster coming off of a 69 win season.

It remains to be seen what the “Compete Now, Win Later” strategy yields in 2013, but Cherington’s approach to the roster is as logical as it has been unexciting. Worst case, they’re improved from last season, best case they’re the 2012 Baltimore Orioles and challenge for a Wild Card spot. Either way, they’re better in 2014 than if the Red Sox had spent like drunken sailors – in dollars or prospects – seeking a quick fix to a long term problem.

It may not be popular, and it will mean the end of the sellout streak, but it’s the sensible approach.

In Case You Haven't Been Keeping Up With Current Events

Papi on Deck

We just got our asses kicked, pal. The 2012 Red Sox were 69-93. Anyone see that coming? Admittedly the “just” is a bit of a leap, as the end of the season is a month plus behind us, but you wouldn’t know it from this space: the last post here was September 2nd. And a few things have happened in between now and then. Herewith is a brief examination of a few of said things.

Bobby Valentine

There was no comment here on Valentine’s exit because, really, what commentary was necessary? While the talk show hosts will claim that everyone is stunned that Valentine didn’t work out, that’s not accurate. It was obvious to a great many people – including yours truly – that Bobby V was a bad fit for this job even before he’d really gotten to work. The only real surprise was how swift and total his failure was. All of the anticipated flaws – his inability to relate to players, his need to communicate via the media, his BobbyV-ness – were on permanent display last year, which will presumably be the last time we’ll see them in a dugout. As was said in this space in April, Valentine was nothing more or less than a classic management blunder: an emotion driven over-rotation away from a manager perceived to be a problem, in spite of eight years of unprecedented success.

The only good news about the damage he did during his tenure is that it was so extensive that bringing him back was completely untenable. And so, mercifully, he’s gone.

John Farrell

I have no idea whether Farrell is going to be a good manager: Keith Law, at one point, implied that the Red Sox had dodged a bullet after watching Farrell throw away a game for the Blue Jays. But he’s got one very important thing going for him: he’s not Bobby Valentine.

Given the higher quality of the managerial candidates this time around, it is a bit perplexing that Cherington and company felt compelled to pay the Blue Jay ransom of Mike Aviles (and don’t even get me started on the rumor that Bailey was the other potential trade item). Aviles is quite clearly a player with significant limitations – his liftime OBP is .308, and he missed that by 20 points last season – but in a market bereft of legitimate shortstops, he was an asset with value. His subtraction leaves Iglesias as the only realistic starting shortstop candidate, a season after ZIPS projected him to put up an Ordonez-an line of 251/.289/.311 and he underperformed that, hitting .118/.200/.191 in 77 at bats.

But with Cherington’s job reportedly on the line in the wake of last season’s disastrous finish and two deals that blew up in his face (the Reddick and Lowrie trades), paying Toronto’s premium for an asset they themselves appeared to have mixed impressions of apparently became more palatable. Ausmus et al may have dazzled in their interviews, but all ultimately lacked what Farrell offered: familiarity. Having worked with him extensively for years, they knew who Farrell was. With the would be contenders, they would be guessing.

So while I’m ultimately ambivalent about Farrell’s prospects, it is simutaneously difficult to fault the process. And at the very worst, he’s not Bobby V.

Juan Nieves

The one thing that everyone agrees on with respect to the upcoming season is that the starting rotation is, as ever, the key. And the best improvements that Red Sox can make in that area aren’t likely to be in external additions – although Cherington has said those will be necessary – but in restoring their pitchers under contract to past levels of performance. Farrell’s clearly expected to play a role in that, having been the pitching coach when both Buchholz and Lester enjoyed their finest seasons. But ultimately, the responsibility ultimately will be the new pitching coach’s.

It’s difficult to assess new hire Juan Nieves in that regard, because he’s been the bullpen coach for the White Sox. But the White Sox join the Cardinals as one of the clubs commonly regarded to have the ability to repair and restore pitchers on the decline. So if the Red Sox believe a little of Cooper rubbed off on Nieves during his tenure with the White Sox, this decision has my full approval.

David Ortiz

This exchange on WEEI last week summed up at once my frustration with sports radio in general and fan ignorance of contracts specifically.

sports radio caller: this ortiz signing is awful. it’s just too much risk: the achilles injury changes everything.

sports radio host: ok, but let me ask you: if he hit free agency and the rangers signed him for 2 years @ 24M, would you crush the red sox next august for not signing him?

sports radio caller: [long pause] yeah, well, that’s why i’m just a fan.

Besides trying to have it both ways, this misreads both the market and Ortiz’ actual value. According to Fangraphs, Ortiz was worth $13.3M in 2012, playing 90 games. His contract for the next two years is that times two. Tough to fault the front office for the move. In a perfect world, of course, the Red Sox would go year to year. And writers have (comically) implied that if Theo were still here, Ortiz would not be handed this two year deal. They base this assertion on the fact that Ortiz has been year to year for a few years now. This conveniently ignores both the realities of the market – there was a much greater scarcity of power threats on this year’s market relative to his previous periods of free agency – as well as his actual performance. It was natural to be cautious with Ortiz in 2009 or 2010, because he was not far removed from a period in which it looked like his career was nearly over. In 2012, Ortiz is coming off of two consecutive years of putting up an OPS better than 900.

There are risks to this deal, as with every deal, but they are more than acceptable – particularly given the short duration of the contract. This fits with the new Red Sox mantra: pay the premium for contracts of shorter duration. Kuroda will be an interesting next test of this philosophy.

David Ross

Boston’s best beat writer Alex Speier summed up the consternation following the signing of David Ross best:

The Red Sox need a starting pitcher, first baseman, two corner outfielders and perhaps a shortstop this winter. So naturally, their first move of the winter was … to sign a catcher, David Ross.

But as he explains, it’s a deal that actually makes a great deal of sense. Although the speculation by Ken Rosenthal and others in the wake of the signing was that this meant that Lavarnway was headed back to Pawtucket, count me among those who believe that this is a prelude to a trade of one of our two catchers.

And if pressed on which would be headed elsewhere, my bet would be on a transaction involving Salty. Neither Lavarnway nor Ross could reasonably expect to approximate Saltalamacchia’s power – 25 home runs last year – but both would project to be an upgrade on one of the biggest problems our offense had last year: getting on base. The Red Sox were 22nd in OBP in 2012, one season after being first. Salty’s lifetime OBP is .302, and in 2012 he was at .288. Ross’ lifetime OBP is .324 (.321 in 2012), and while Lavarnway was abysmal in 2012 at .211, Assistant GM Mike Hazen was stressing this week on WEEI’s excellent weekly Hot Stove show that it was important for the club to trust its player development personnel and the player’s minor league performance. Lavarnway’s OBP over five season in the minors? .376.

Add in the fact that Ross was apparently told he would be “more than a backup,” and the tea leaves seem to forecase the end of the Salty era in Boston. Potential trading partners would include the Mets and White Sox, and theoretically even the Braves who just lost Ross and have McCann coming off of surgery.

All in all, what seems initially a surprising move is actually more likely to be the Red Sox creating an artificial surplus in an area of league need at a reasonable cost from which to deal for required assets. Which seems like sound strategy here.

So the Red Sox Should Just Hand the Cubs Their Savior…Why?

“CSN Chicago quotes a source saying, “Larry Lucchino is one of the most unreasonable people I have ever dealt with and because of his frayed relationship with Theo Epstein he is looking to make a point at the expense of Theos happiness and his desire to go to Chicago. I didnt believe that ownership group for one second when they said that they wouldnt stand in Theos way if he wanted out of Boston. They are furious that he wants out and they are trying to make a point.

Two things:

[…]

2. Business is business. Epstein has a year left on his deal and is walking. That means compensation. Epstein is considered one of the best GMs in the game and was signed to do his job through 2012. The Sox have every right to be compensated for his loss and to make it hurt if they want.The “Theo and Larry dont get along” narrative is an old one. Lucchinos job is to represent the interests of the Red Sox.As was written here yesterday, the Sox have all the cards. Ben Cherington is running the baseball operations department and appears to have the full confidence of ownership. They can let Epstein and the Cubs stew as long as they want.In the end, a deal gets made. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts would lose all credibility in Chicago if he cant get his franchise savior in place.

via Report: Sox-Cubs talks turn contentious – Extra Bases – Red Sox blog.

Slicing up Simmons' Puerile Analysis

a stubborn guy

The thing to remember is that Simmons goes through this periodically. He gets disenchanted with baseball, drifts away, gets hooked up to his “juvenation machine,” and hops right back on the bandwagon. If there’s room for him.

That, I can live with. What I have a much tougher time with is his willful ignorance. His celebration of the uneducated. Case in point his piece “Finally Joining the Revolution.” While it’s to his credit that he eventually got over his irrational fear of numbers, the most important piece of data you’ll get from that piece is the date: April 2, 2010. It took Simmons – someone who writes about sports, professionally – decades to acknowledge that statistics not only have a place in baseball, but can actually increase your enjoyment of the game. In some ways, however, the Sports Guy is no less backward than he was last year. Slicing up the Red Sox’s boring pie shows you why.

The ostensible justification is the ratings drop for both NESN and WEEI. The Sports Guy’s got his take on why less people are watching and listening, and it’s offensive.

His tally goes like this:

INJURIES: 10 PERCENT
FRONT-OFFICE PARALYSIS/INADEQUACIES: 5 PERCENT
THE HANGOVER: 15 PERCENT
THE BANDWAGON EFFECT: 5 PERCENT
THE STEROID ERA HANGOVER: 5 PERCENT
THE DECLINE OF BASEBALL IN GENERAL: 5 PERCENT
THE TIME OF THE GAMES: 55 PERCENT

There’s a lot to quibble with. The injuries are massively under-represented, in my view. For all of the charm of the stories of Daniel Nava and Darnell McDonald, nobody wants to see an outfield made up of those two and Eric Patterson any more than we wanted to watch Jason Johnson start a game against the Yankees in 2006. Nor do I believe that fans really care that much about the steroid era; with virtually every other professional sport infected by PEDs, baseball’s gone from black sheep to honor student overnight. And his contention that the time of game issues indicate that the DH should be retired are the product of a simplistic analysis of the problem. Might not the NL’s advantage in that context, for example, have something to do with the fact that the teams in that league just aren’t as good? No, it’s the DH? Oh, ok.

And so on.

The genuinely frustrating bits for me come in his section on the front office, however. Lord knows they’ve had their share of mistakes – hello, Julio Lugo – but Simmons is sadly beginning to read like a budding Shaughnessy. The kind of writer that can’t be bothered to understand the depth of thinking common to our front office and others because it’s a lot easier to cater to the common denominator. The common denominator whose sole purpose in life is bitching.

Consider the following section on our minor league system.

The bigger issue: For all their bluster about building a monster farm system, the Red Sox aren’t exactly teeming with can’t-miss prospects. Yeah, they suffered a horrible blow when Ryan Westmoreland, their best hitting prospect, underwent life-threatening brain surgery. But take it from a guy in an obsessive, ultradorky AL-only keeper league with a 25-pick minor league draft and a full farm system: Boston’s pool of minor leaguers, while deep with yeah-he-might-make-it guys (Ryan Kalish, Stolmy Pimentel, Anthony Rizzo and Julio Iglesias, to name four), has only one certified stud, pitcher Casey Kelly (although he’s not on the uber-stud level of Tampa’s Jeremy Hellickson or Texas’ Martin Perez). Only one Boston prospect made the 2010 Futures Game (Pimentel), and only Kelly cracked Baseball America’s midseason top 50. For a franchise that devoted so much money and energy these past few years toward invigorating its farm system — and struck oil with the Pedroia/Ellsbury/Papelbon/Bard/Lester class a few years ago — the 2010 results have been sobering so far.

(Note: ESPN’s Keith Law had Boston ranked as his No. 2 farm system in February. When I e-mailed him for a July update, he wrote back that many of its top guys were underperforming and added, “They’re not No. 2 anymore. Definitely still top-10.” I’m not pumping my fist.)

Really, I’m not even sure where to start with this. The last sentence seems to anticipate criticism from the direction of our farm system’s rankings this winter. As well he should have, given our number two spot on the board. How did we get that high? Because the Red Sox had seven players on Law’s Top 100. How about vaunted systems like Tampa’s or Texas’? Six and four respectively. Maybe it’s me, but that doesn’t seem that bad.

With respect to our horrifying descent from #2 to “definitely still top-10,” what’s gone wrong? Well, Ryan Westmoreland, a legitimate stud prospect was felled with a cavernous malformation on his brain stem. Call me crazy, but I have a tough time blaming Theo for that. Iglesias, for his part, was putting up a .306/.340/.408 line in Double A, then suffered an “occult fracture of his right index finger.” I don’t even know what that is, but I have a hard time seeing how it’s the fault of the front office. Tazawa, meanwhile, had Tommy John Surgery. With three kids out for all or part of the season due to injuries then, yes, we’re underperforming a bit.

What about the rest?

Kelly’s not exactly lighting it up at Portland, but he’s holding his own as a 20 year old, striking out 80 in 88.1 IP on the way to an unimpressive 5+ ERA. He’ll be fine. Rizzo, also young for AA at 20, isn’t embarrassing himself with a .256/.314/.444 line, while Anderson is doing more or less what he did last year, taking time to adjust at the new level (.247/.338/.411). Kalish, meanwhile, is following up two impressive minor league stops with your basic major league 1.149 OPS. Oh, and the kid’s got an absolute rifle.

Any of them world beaters? Probably not; Simmons is right about that, at least. But they’re hardly chopped liver, and more than one of them has the potential to be an All Star. My guess, frankly, would be that the overwhelming majority of clubs – with obvious exceptions like Tampa – would trade their systems for ours in a heartbeat. Because they acknowledge – even if Simmons is reluctant to – that one of the major reasons that our system is less than impressive is the folks that aren’t in it. You know, folks like Bard, Buchholz, Ellsbury, Lester, Papelbon, Pedroia, or Youk. You might have heard of them. Think any of those would be worth keeping in an ultradorky AL keeper league?

As an aside, I can’t tell if this bit – “the Pedroia/Ellsbury/Papelbon/Bard/Lester class” – is intended to mean that those players were drafted together, or that they all came up together. Not that it matters: neither is correct. Bard was drafted in 2006, Ellsbury in 2005, Lester in 2002, Pedroia in 2004, and Papelbon in 2003. Nor did they come up together. Pap was the first to arrive in 2005, while Bard’s the Johnny-come-lately, arriving on the scene in 2009. And you know I’m going to point out the Buchholz omission.

In any event, if I were Simmons, then, hammering the farm system probably isn’t where I would start. Particularly since Law liked our draft more than a bit. The farm system has already produced two top five starting pitchers, a top five closer, first and second basemen, a 70 steal outfielder and one of the most dominant setup men in the league. With more on the way. That sound like a problem to you?

But it’s not just the farm that he’s concerned about. Equally problematic is the WEEI-like lack of stars.

I can’t blame Epstein for watching the July carnage with the same blank look that deadbeat dads have on the “Maury” show as Maury Povich opens the manila envelope. At the same time, you can blame Epstein (and Boston’s owners) for ignoring a simple law of entertainment these past two seasons: Just like you can’t open a blockbuster movie without a star, you can’t expect a nine-figure baseball team to capture the daily imagination of a big market without a player who passes the Remote Control Test (when you don’t flip channels because you know Player X is coming up) or the We Can’t Go Get Food Yet Test (when you don’t make a food/drink run at a game because Player X is coming up) or even the Every Five Nights, I Know What I’m Doing Test (when you have a transcendent pitcher who keeps you in front of the television every five days).

What correlates with attendance: winning, or stars? It’s an impossible question, of course, because the two conditions are not mutually exclusive. Far from it. My suspicion, however, is that Simmons is unduly influenced here by his first love, basketball. The NBA is indisputably a league of stars, but baseball is different. The Yankees were living proof of that for many years, and even last year’s edition which featured big ticket items of the free agent shelves like Burnett, Sabathia, and Teixeira was simultaneously populated by kids from the system. Kids you’d never heard of.

Most of the research I’ve read on the subject indicates that winning has a strong correlation with attendance. Here’s one study by Michael C. Davis from the Department of Economics at the University of Missouri-Rolla:

The three-variable VAR presented here suggests that winning has a substantial and long-lasting effect on attendance, as all ten teams showed a significant increase in attendance. However, there is little support for the idea that shocks to attendance lead to future success on the field for the team, as only one team (Cleveland Indians) showed a significant increase in winning following a shock to attendance. There is also some indication that attendees at sporting events exhibit habit formation in their behavior, as shocks in attendance last for years after the shock.

The above results are useful for researchers examining sports attendance. They suggest that the direction of causation runs from winning percentage to attendance and researchers can proceed under that assumption.

It’s great – and almost certainly helpful to attendance – to have Pedro Martinez starting for you every five days. But to suggest that attendance is more strongly correlated to throwing him or having Manny Ramirez in the lineup than whether or not the good guys win seems a questionable assertion at best. That smacks, frankly, of the kind PR-driven roster management that has doomed big market clubs like ours for years. You know that the 2009 Red Sox hit more 46 home runs than the 2007 World Series winning edition, right? Maybe we didn’t have enough stars that year, but I’ll take the World Series.

Would I like to have a few more big names on board? Sure, who wouldn’t? But as long as the club is putting runs on the board – and in spite of the fact that our starting outfield has played together for less than ten games, we’re second in the AL in runs per game at 5.20 – I’ll watch. And so will most people.

Neither baseball nor the Red Sox is perfect. That much goes without saying. If you’re going to speculate on the causes for a decline in attendance, however, you can certainly do better than Simmons’ piece. Which I suspect he knows.

It’s nothing more or less than the rantings of an admittedly talented writer (the A-Rod joke in particular was excellent) whose writing shows that he still spends most of his time on basketball. Which is his prerogative, of course. Read it for the jokes, if you want, but if you’re looking for real substance I highly recommend you pass on by.