May 15, 2013
Out of Left Field
Did the Dodgers Make Suckers of the Red Sox?
A narrative about last August’s Red Sox and Dodgers trade has grown up, certainly in Boston and to a lesser extent in the national press. Essentially, the Dodgers foolishly helped the Red Sox by taking a bunch of expensive garbage off their hands. The Red Sox gladly took advantage of the Dodgers, passing off said garbage while also acquiring two top pitching prospects in Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa. Weighed down by their expensive Boston detritus, the Dodgers now languish in last place while the Red Sox, freed from these obligations, have floated towards the top of their division. In short, win for Boston, loss for Los Angeles. But I’m not so sure that’s the case.
When the trade was made the players headed to Los Angeles were looked at as under-performing and expensive. That’s mostly because they were. Carl Crawford had played 161 games over two seasons for Boston, producing just over a win in the process, and had followed that up by undergoing Tommy John surgery. Adrian Gonzalez was in the midst of his worst season since his first in San Diego, and was supposedly one of the organizers of a meeting with the front office to complain about manager Bobby Valentine. In retrospect it’s hard to fault Gonzalez for that one, though the optics aren’t great. Josh Beckett had taken his reputation from World Series hero to clubhouse cancer and added the cherry on top of a five-plus ERA. Nick Punto was who cares I don’t know why he was included in the trade. Point is, the players Boston sent west were not at the peak of their trade value, yet L.A. took them, their full contracts, and handed over two pitching prospects to boot.
The season ended with more mediocrity from Gonzalez, 43 innings of decent pitching from Beckett, nothing from the still-injured Crawford, and who cares he’s Nick Punto from Nick Punto. Sometime between then and spring training the narrative took hold. What readers of Baseball Prospectus surely know though is that you can’t judge a trade after two months of baseball and one offseason, let alone one of this complexity.
I would like to make four points about the trade to at least complicate narrative.
1. The Ex-Red Sox Are Playing Well In Los Angeles
If you look up the Dodgers’ positional players this season and sort by OPS, you’ll find their best hitter is Hanley Ramirez, who is on the DL, followed by Scott Van Slyke, with six plate appearances. After those guys, their top three hitters have been Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto. While Josh Beckett has been, if not a garbage fire, then at least garbage, the other three have been every bit as good as the Dodgers could have hoped for.
It shouldn’t be all that surprising that Gonzalez and Crawford are having good seasons. Gonzalez is still in his peak, if just exiting it, and his down season in 2012 was both not so bad as down seasons go, and just that, a down season. While 2012 could have been the beginning of the end for Gonzalez, his body of work indicated that it probably wasn’t, so much as it was a down season. Of the two, Carl Crawford’s resurgence was likely more difficult to see, if hardly impossible. A look at Crawford’s career to-date shows two things; first, an impressive level of production, and second, an inability to play well when seriously injured. That isn’t a knock on Crawford. Many players, indeed almost all, play badly when seriously injured. His worst seasons have come in 2008, when he suffered through a hamstring strain and had surgery to repair a tendon in his finger; 2011, when another hamstring strain, plus elbow and thigh strains, left him hobbled; and 2012, when he played 31 games before season-ending surgery.
This might seem an overly selective argument – Crawford’s medical history is extensive, so much of his career has been spent in and around injuries – if it weren’t for his going under the knife first to repair his wrist and then ultimately for Tommy John elbow surgery. Anytime someone needs surgery of that severity, there has been a build-up. Crawford didn’t wake up one morning and think, “I need Tommy John surgery!” There was a gradual process of deterioration that took place that contributed to his performance at the plate and in the field while in Boston.
Health may have been no guarantee, but once achieved it’s a short leap to the old, good Carl Crawford’s reappearance. Like Gonzalez, Crawford is just 31, not an age when elite players typically dive off a cliff. Maybe it seems elementary with the help of hindsight, but if Crawford and Gonzalez play out the remainder of their contracts in L.A. as elite players, the Dodgers have to be pleased with this deal.
2. The Talent Disparity
Inarguably, the Red Sox lost a lot of talent in that trade. That is not nothing. A saying about trades is the team that gets the best player usually wins the trade. There is little doubt the Dodgers got not just the best player, but also the best players in this deal. Sure those players were owed lots of money, but both teams, and especially the Dodgers, have money. There is the luxury tax to consider, but both teams make enough money that they should be willing to pay for top talent. From that perspective both teams should have wanted those players, except that Boston had decided Beckett and Crawford needed to go and they were willing to deal Gonzalez, the player the Dodgers really wanted, to make it happen. The cost to L.A. has been discussed ad nauseum, but the cost to Boston was potentially high as well.
The Red Sox traded three of their better minor leaguers to get Gonzalez, lost a first round pick to sign Crawford, and, going back a ways, dealt away Hanley Ramirez to get Josh Beckett. There was significant cost to acquiring those three players, far greater than they recouped.
To date, Boston has replaced their discarded four with players on short-term deals. Those deals will expire and those players will have to be re-signed, or tossed aside and new players will have to be acquired. That isn’t necessarily a bad way to do things, but it does place a greater stress on the front office’s ability to assess and acquire talent. The Dodgers are locked in to Carl Crawford et al for five years. The Dodgers have bet Crawford, Gonzalez, and Beckett will perform well over that period of time. The Red Sox are betting they can spend the same amount of money differently and have a more positive impact on the field and off. But what if they make a mistake? The decision has already been made for LA, but Boston is going to have to make more decisions over the course of Crawford’s contract and the more decisions they have to make the greater the chance of a mistake.
3. Good Free Agents Are Getting More Expensive And Rare
If you count Webster and De La Rosa as the lost first round picks for signing a protected free agent, the Dodgers signed Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett to six-, five- and two-year deals, respectively. No amazing bargains there, but none are egregious in length or total dollars compared to what players of their ilk might command on the free agent market.
While the Dodgers don’t have to fill those positions any longer and thus don’t have to mess with the market, the Red Sox still may. Daniel Nava is a good story and Jonny Gomes has a funny beard but neither is the long-term solution in left field that Crawford was. Mike Napoli is having a nice season but he has a degenerative hip condition that could flare up at any moment. He’s not likely a long-term solution either. Without Crawford or Gonzalez, the Red Sox may have to make trades (i.e. deal away minor-league talent) or sign free agents to fill those holes, and considering the dearth of free agent talent and the unsightly salaries those few who hit the market will demand, well, grabbing players already signed to long-term contracts doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
The Red Sox did get two pitching prospects in De La Rosa and Webster from Los Angeles, but while pitching prospects may exist, there is nothing more uncertain than a young pitcher. Until getting bombed against the Twins last Wednesday, Webster was putting together quite the season. De La Rosa has had some good starts in Triple-A recently as well. Both could be studs in the rotation for a decade or more. That possibility exists, but the likelihood is that that won’t happen. The likelihood is probably closer to one of them getting hurt and the other ending up in the bullpen or the back of the rotation. That’s not pessimism, that’s what happens to pitching prospects. The Red Sox got talent, but volatile talent that could dry up at any moment, while the Dodgers got more certainty.
* * * *
Everyone loves prospects, especially hard-throwing pitching ones, and there are few things fans dislike more than a veteran free agent sucking down a paycheck while contributing little on the field. So it isn’t surprising in retrospect that the team that traded expensive veterans to open up payroll flexibility while receiving prospects was viewed as the winner. But that doesn’t mean they won. The Dodgers got good players while the Red Sox subtracted them. The Dodgers spent money while the Red Sox freed it up.
Neither team has enough value on its side to claim victory in this deal. It may be that both teams win the trade. But the early returns from 2013 indicate that this wasn’t the one-sided slaughter of a deal that’s been portrayed. The Dodgers didn’t get the shaft, they got good players. Maybe we forgot that a little bit.