December 9, 2010
It looks like not winning anything last year to complete their second four-season set--LDS loss, LCS loss, World Series win, and October golf, in no particular order--wasn't considered an acceptable result in Beantown. By signing Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million deal, Boston doesn't simply deny him to the Yankees, they wind up adding a fine ballplayer.
Is that all, though? Fine, not great? I don't think this is sticker shock talking. Crawford's 2010 True Average was a career-high .309, good enough to finish in a three-way tie for 11th. That was the outcome of his having a career-best year in the power department, with an ISO of .188, where his previous high was .177. That's not a case of his achieving a new level of ability, but it was the predictable outcome of a natural crest for a player in that sweet spot between the ages of 25 and 29. As athletic as he is, and as well as you can reasonably expect him to age, he going to get better still? I doubt he's going to keep getter better in his age-29 season and then over the six more beyond it. His walk rates aren't especially high, down at seven percent last year, and while he amply makes up for that by putting hard-hit balls in play that reflect a great ability to make contact, leading to a consistently above-average BABIP that has nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with plate coverage. On defense, he'll be an asset in the road half of the schedule, and will presumably get the hang of the Monster well enough to be just as valuable at home.
The best possible outcome is that Crawford winds up as something like the Tony Gwynn of the American League (classic edition, not Li'l Gwynn). Only 'something,' though, because he's faster and more athletic than Gwynn ever was. He may never run into the problems with conditioning that hampered Gwynn in his 30s; as well-regarded as Gwynn deservedly was, is, and ever shall be, he was prone to miss 20-40 games annually once he headed into the back half of his career. But what if Crawford gets hurt? Say he blows out his knee, and the speed and defense components get knocked down a peg or three. What are you left with? A left fielder without big-time power is a luxury few clubs can afford, or should. We can of course play that game with any player on any team, but this kind of expense demands a certainty that Crawford lose nothing to Father Time or Mother Accident, a certainty nobody should really feel.
That said, could the Sox have spent their money any differently? Not spending it at all was an option, of course, especially with an outfield crowded with prospects they didn't have to give up to get Adrian Gonzalez. While the rotation was full, the pen might need somebody, but that isn't exactly a big-ticket expense of the same order. Spending to spend, to "keep up" with a Yankees team that, if it doesn't sign Cliff Lee, looks downright vincible in the future, isn't really a useful motivation. The addition of Gonzalez and the expectation of a healthier ballclub ought to have already inspired a certain measure of confidence about what the next couple of seasons would bring. Signing Crawford at this price provides little additional guarantee, while taking on considerable risk beyond 2012. If the Sox wind up with anything less than a World Series in the next two years, the expense goes from luxury to handicap.
Finally, an apology to everyone for the late filing, as I pack up and go to the airport. One of the best parts of being at the Winter Meetings is the simple fact that there is no better opportunity to run into everyone. Last night, ping-ponging between Justine Siegal and Kim Ng, Craig Calcaterra and David Laurila, Professor Parks and Jorge Arangure, Gordon Edes and Gary Gillette, Jonathan Mayo and Matthew Leach, or Derrick Goold and Gordon Wittenmyer, speaking at length with an academic working on defensive metrics about his findings (Colin, incoming!), and suddenly realizing that it's 5 AM and that even if I did not need a change of blood, I had forgotten that while there ain't no rest for the wicked, at some point they gotta sleep. Which is probably how I'm going to spend the next two days, but you cannot beat the experience.