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August 27, 2012

Out of Left Field

Boston Translation

by Matthew Kory

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As you’re certainly aware, the Red Sox and Dodgers pulled off the super-crazy extreme mega-trade of this or any other century last Friday night. BP’s own R.J. Anderson and Kevin Goldstein already delved into the specifics of the deal, but if I may be permitted, I’d like to share some further thoughts.

The Name
It’s being called the Mega-Trade, and hooray for that because what we need now is to put names on specific trades that make them sound like Transformer knock-offs. The Dodgers next deal will be dubbed the Decepti-Deal and it will turn from a reasonable trade into a franchise stomping dino-car.

Fixing Boston’s Problems: Off the field
The 2012 Red Sox underperformed for numerous reasons, all of which become the foundations for making this blow-it-up deal. One of the most-cited causes for the team’s lousy win-loss record was problems in the clubhouse. If you believe media reports, those problems began last season and manifested themselves in the September collapse (the “Mega-Collapse”), the famous and now completely unfunny Clubhouse Chicken ‘n Beer Meme being the best-known example.

The problems carried through into the next season like a bad cold and infected this year’s team. There were reports of everything up to and including clubhouse rebellions, which I assume required players to paint their faces with eye black and dry erase markers, grab the freely available pitchforks from the Pitchfork Room (adjacent to the clubhouse), light a few torches (undershirts wrapped around the knobs of baseball bats, then set ablaze) and march on the manager’s office 25 feet away.

Clubhouse chemistry is impossible to quantify, and my own personal belief is that chemistry’s effects on a team’s won-loss record are vastly overstated. Yet, if there is enough data in any normal distribution, there will eventually come an outlier of extreme proportions. Could this 2011-12 Red Sox team have been it? The first club whose innocuous personalities combined to form some awful team-destroying serum. Some people seemed to think so. Maybe. I’m certainly not in a position to dispute such an accusation. But if so, I have a two questions.

1) If the players leaving Boston were the problem, then doesn’t it stand to reason that the Dodgers are now in for some serious clubhouse turmoil?

2) If the players leaving Boston aren’t the problem, then doesn’t Boston’s problem remain in Boston?

Fixing Boston’s Problems: On the field
The on-field problems for the last-season 2011 Red Sox and the 2012 version were two-fold:

1) Gadawful starting pitching

2) Underperformance by previously star-level players

This trade addresses the second, sort of, and it gives the front office a chance to address the first. But to believe in the trade wholeheartedly from the Red Sox standpoint you have to believe in the Red Sox front office’s ability to take the clean-ish slate presented and turn it into a championship-level team. There are reasons to question their capability to do so.

Ben Cherington
Evaluating Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman has always been nearly impossible. The sheer money the organization has to work with is unprecedented in baseball, and over his tenure there has been, one would assume from various reports and behaviors, meddling of one kind or another in baseball decisions by owners, team presidents, owner’s future-ex son-in-laws, and so on. It’s difficult enough to evaluate a GM when you know who is in charge of making the decisions, let alone one in Cashman’s situation.

Though his tenure has been much shorter, Ben Cherington is in a similar boat. The media has enjoyed poking at him over the Bobby Valentine hire, noting repeatedly that Valentine was never his choice and was hoisted upon him by, depending on who is writing the story, team President Larry Lucchino or owners John Henry and Tom Werner. The offseason trades of potential starting-caliber players Josh Reddick and Jed Lowrie for relief pitchers didn’t help Cherington’s perception, and the injury and implosion of the two relievers acquired in those deals only made them look worse.

Ben Cherington is getting credit for the Mega-Trade trade in the media. Neither the Red Sox owners nor their team president were at the press conference announcing the deal. Assuming the reports are right and this is Cherington’s baby, we now know Cherington can tear a team down in the blink of an eye. That’s something. Maybe the reports of an impotent Cherington at the beginning of his time as GM were false. Or maybe running a major-league baseball team in a city like Boston is far more complicated than that. Naaaah, that can’t be it.

The Value of Financial Flexibility
As we’ve all heard by now, the Dodgers have taken on over a quarter of a billion dollars in financial commitments, and by doing so they have removed those commitments from the Red Sox future obligations. A quarter of a billion dollars sounds like a lot of money. It is a lot of money. But when trying to build a baseball team it’s probably less than you think. Look how much players are making now. Joey Votto signed a 10-year, $225 million contract that doesn’t kick in until the year after next. Coming off a season that suggested decline, Albert Pujols got a quarter of a billion dollars from the Angels. Prince Fielder got the Tigers to bid themselves up until they agreed to nine years and $214 million. This is the going rate for superstar players nowadays. Sign one guy and all of a sudden there goes the vast majority of your quarter of a billion dollars.

Of course signing a free agent isn’t the only way to spend the money, but note that Votto’s wasn’t even a free agent. Matt Kemp wasn’t a free agent either and he signed for eight years, $160 million. A quarter of a billion might not buy more than two star-level players in their late 20s or early 30s, and depending on how you rate Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, that’s basically what the Red Sox just gave up.

A quarter of a billion dollars doesn’t buy what it used to. And with the new restrictions on the draft and international free agents added on, the Red Sox might have more trouble improving the team with that money should they even choose to reinvest it all in the first place.

Negative Interpretation
The Red Sox’ starting pitching failed spectacularly. So Boston’s answer was to trade two of the team’s best position players.

Boston’s Future Could Still Be Now
If this deal says anything concretely it says that any hope Boston had of making the playoffs in 2012 is over. Looking at the playoff odds we already knew that, but many are extrapolating forward and writing the Red Sox off for next season as well. Do so at your own peril. If the Red Sox choose to re-sign David Ortiz and Cody Ross, their lineup next season is more than serviceable:

Here’s how a 2013 Red Sox lineup might look: 

1.Jacoby Ellsbury
2. Dustin Pedroia
3. David Ortiz
4. Will Middlebrooks
5. Ryan Lavarnway/Jarrod Saltalamacchia
6. Cody Ross
7. Left Field
8. First Base
9. Jose Iglesias

I don’t have a clue who mans left field or first base in Boston next year, but if they find two players who don’t actively hurt the team, the lineup isn’t half bad. If the team can find some starting pitching they could surprise some people.

Funny, I just wrote that the Red Sox could surprise some people. We’ve come a long way in a single weekend, huh?

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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