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May 5, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Who's Winning the Dodgers/Red Sox Trade This Second?

by Sam Miller

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The gods had condemned Collettius to ceaselessly having his most famous trade reanalyzed on the internet, whence the analysis would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless reanalysis.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Collettius, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.

Albert Camus, baseball blogger

***

On Aug. 25, 2012, when the Dodgers took three of the Boston Red Sox’ biggest contracts, Ned Colletti accepted one other burden: More than a half-decade of second-guessing. With Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford each locked up for more than five years, it would be at least that long before we’d be able to close the book on the move. For that matter, with Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa potentially on the cusp of long big-league careers—great careers, for all we knew/know​—Colletti’s exposure to second-guessing might run through 2020 or longer.

Sure, you might argue (shoot, I have argued) that a trade should be evaluated only on the day it’s made, that everything that comes afterward falls under You Can’t Predict Baseball. But that’s no fun, and that’s not human nature. So with each hot and cold streak, each buzz from Pawtucket or DL stint in Los Angeles, each shift in the real-world standings, there’s a corresponding shift in the Who Won This Trade standings. With Adrian Gonzalez currently leading the National League in home runs, it’s worth not worth, but too tempting to avoid asking, who won this trade? To the rolling Who Won This Trade timeline!

The crucial shifts in this trade’s reevaluation’s journey:

Aug. 25, 2012: Dodgers seem to make shocking overpay for three veterans in varying stages of decline, taking on quarter-billion in contracts for modest three percent increase in playoff odds. But, second-guesser notes, club understands its finances better than we do, and modern free agency makes it hard to acquire players of Gonzalez’s impact (and Crawford’s potential impact). Super important, further, that the Dodgers make the playoffs this year, following McCourt debacle. So important. Unbelievably important. If they don’t make the playoffs, then whatever inaction they took would be unforgivable. Any series of actions, however prudent, that fail to land Los Angeles in the the playoffs, is by definition a bungle.

Sept. 29, 2012: They miss the postseason.

December 15, 2012: “Heyman asked a Dodgers person about the team's budget, to which the reply was, ‘What budget?’" Dodgers sign Hyun-Jin Ryu, then Zack Greinke days later; it becomes apparent that judging the trade on some sort of wins-per-dollar standard is like asking how many millions a billionaire should spend trying to be loved. The cost is negligible; all that matters is whether the premise makes sense.

May 11, 2013: The Dodgers are in last place, again, yet counterintuitively the trade makes even more sense. If they’re to come back from this deficit, it’ll be because they have three stars such as these: Adrian Gonzalez, hitting .345/.397/.517; Carl Crawford, .309/.370/.488 after coming back from surgery; Josh Beckett, a 3.96 ERA and flawless health since the trade. Sure, the Dodgers are seven games out, but with a healthy Beckett, rejuvenated Crawford and MVP-candidate Gonzalez, they have the pieces to erase that deficit. (Webster, meanwhile, had just allowed eight runs in 1 ⅔ innings in his second major-league start.)

June 29, 2013: The Dodgers remain in last place, with Beckett on the DL, Crawford on the DL, and Gonzalez having hit .262/.319/.427 in the intervening seven weeks.

Oct. 12, 2013: Aw, heck, the Dodgers are in the postseason and aren’t they glad to have these guys on the team, no bother the cost. Crawford hits .310 and slugs .619 in the postseason; Gonzalez hits .316 and slugs .605. Nick Punto is arguably good, too.

Oct. 19, 2013: Aw, heck naw, Dodgers lose in the playoffs. What a lot of money spent for nothing. Josh Beckett didn’t pitch. (Allen Webster had a 2.54 ERA in his final 50 innings, between Triple-A and the majors.)

December 28, 2013: The Dodgers sign Jamey Wright and Chris Perez, completing an offseason when they seem to have plenty of money (signing Brian Wilson and Alex Guerrero, too) and few needs. The Gonzalez/Crawford/Beckett money is apparently no obstacle to signing what they want.

January 25, 2014: But they don’t come close to signing Masahiro Tanaka, after a winter as a rumored destination for him. The Dodgers’ reported $119 million bid is $36 million short of the Yankees’ bid. One interpretation is that the Dodgers don’t need Tanaka, because of their pitching depth, and that they didn’t see Tanaka as an ace. Another, voiced by the LA Times’ Steve Dilbeck, is that “the team does have financial limitations that it intends to abide by. ‘We went as far as we thought we could go,’ said GM Ned Colletti."

May 3, 2014: And so here we are today. As noted, Gonzalez leads the league in homers. By WARP, he’s the 26th-best player in baseball. The old saw goes that the team that gets the best player in a trade wins, and the Dodgers certainly got the best player. Webster, who at one point seemed like he might become the best player in the trade, has a walk for every strikeout in Triple-A and has fallen off the top 100 lists. De La Rosa is now 25 and has thrown 11 innings for Boston. Beckett is healthy again, and so is Crawford.

On the other hand, though, Crawford has been one of the worst players in baseball this year, and Beckett’s pretty-good ERA isn’t enough for WARP, which puts him below replacement level thus far. Together, the trio has produced 0.6 WARP this year, for about $11 million. Maybe dollars don’t matter to the Dodgers, and the point, after all, isn’t to produce the most marginal wins per dollar; it’s to win the World Series. But right now, this week, the Dodgers have spent f*** you money without actually running away with anything. Right now, this week, the trade doesn’t look like it did what it was supposed to. It didn’t make the Dodgers invincible.

Next week, this could change. Something certainly will. This is what the point is: The Dodgers’ needs have changed multiple times over the past two and a half years, as have their opportunities. Further, at various points we all might have drastically reconsidered our opinions of these players’ true talent levels, from All-Star Crawford 12 months ago to sub-replacement Crawford now, from Gonzalez in decline 10 months ago to Gonzalez starting the All-Star game two months from now. Analysts probably shouldn’t be allowed to watch baseball, at least without duct tape over their mouths or potholders strapped to their hands.

If Ned Colletti wants to escape this burden, there’s only one thing he can hope for. The Red Sox’ rolling Who Won This Trade standings don’t change:

And they never will.

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

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