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July 31, 2014

Skewed Left

The Nomar Garciaparra Trade Turns Ten

by Zachary Levine


Ten years later, the trade that allegedly won the Red Sox the 2004 World Series has been drowned in so much narrative that it’s almost impossible to separate it from the breaking of the 86-year drought that happened three months later.

When 4 p.m. Eastern rolls around today and the fates of Jon Lester and the like are decided, it will mark exactly 10 years to the hour since Nomar Garciaparra was unceremoniously dumped on the Cubs. He was a year removed from a second straight 7-WARP season and a sixth 6-WARP season in seven years. He was already the best shortstop in Red Sox history and he didn't have to play a single game in his 30s to get there.

Ask some Red Sox fans, as I did this week, for their memories of the trade, though, and many are likelier to bring up Garciaparra's last 30 days in Boston than his last 10 years.

July 1, 2004 was the beginning of the end, as the sort of dumb story goes. Garciaparra didn't play in Boston's extra-innings loss to the Yankees in New York. Derek Jeter, whom Garciaparra was considerably better than, not only did play but made a spectacular catch, running into the stands. As the innings went on, the cameras became more and more intent on Garciaparra, the last position player on the Boston bench, who never moved from his spot.

He had to go, and four weeks later—with the threat that he would have to miss time with an Achilles’ injury that had already cost him two months earlier in the season—he did.

On the surface, looking at the storylines that dominated the trade, it's the kind of move we think a dumb franchise would make. It would be a stretch to compare it to the detested Justin Upton trade because Garciaparra’s contract was about to come to an end. But it read—and to many still reads—like trading a player for a bad reason (in this case, poutiness and awkwardness after the Jeter game) at the nadir of his value.

Then there are the quotes, which are exactly the quotes a bad general manager would give to defend a bad trade. The Red Sox needed to get better on defense. Look at the quotes from the MLB.com story on the trade.

"If there was a flaw on this club, it was that the defense on this team was not championship-caliber," you could imagine Kevin Towers saying. "We might have gotten to the postseason. But, in my mind, we weren't going to win a World Series with our defense the way it was. We've acquired two players who have won Gold Gloves."

Reads smoothly, right?

But wait. I have a better one.

"If there was a flaw on this club, it was that the defense on this team was not championship-caliber," Ruben Amaro Jr. would utter were he the general manager in Boston. "We might have gotten to the postseason. But, in my mind, we weren't going to win a World Series with our defense the way it was. We've acquired two players who have won Gold Gloves."

It’s got everything we’d think those two would say to defend a bad trade: Gold Gloves as a measure of defense; differentiating being good in the playoffs from being good; treating a matter of secondary importance as the primary focus.

But this was Theo Epstein who traded Garciaparra, a .321/.367/.500 hitter even while injured and a player with only one third of a season of bad defense, again while injured.

The Red Sox had clearly soured on Garciaparra in their negotiations heading into his walk year. Their offer to him the year before was only a four-year deal and things got worse with the injury. They could see what was coming: by one measure the biggest collapse of a ballplayer in generations.

Since 1950, when our WARP stats begin, 40 players (all of whom happen to be position players) had at least five seasons of 5-plus WARP before turning 30. (Garciaparra actually has six seasons of 6-plus so I'm pleading not guilty on cherry-picking.) Six of the players are still active, but of the other 34, none had a worse career from age 30 on than Garciaparra.

Andruw Jones, whose collapse Jay Jaffe mentioned with Ben and Sam on the Effectively Wild Hall of Fame podcast, had the second-worst collapse, and then nobody else was close. Garciaparra will be on the next Hall of Fame ballot and presumably disappear.

Player 5 WARP seasons before age 30 Total WARP at and after age 30
Nomar Garciaparra 6 3.5
Andruw Jones 7 4.0
Ernie Banks 5 12.1
Johnny Bench 5 13.2
Ron Santo 6 13.4
Dick Allen 6 14.2
Ken Griffey Jr. 7 16.3
Bobby Bonds 7 16.5
Roy White 5 17.5
Vladimir Guerrero 5 18.0

The Red Sox were absolutely correct about Garciaparra's defense, which showed to be no fluke in the first half of 2004. That stint dropped him to a lifetime 41 FRAA. In his time with the Cubs, Dodgers and—is this right?—Oakland, he was 21 runs below average.

He would go on to have one more great and memorable moment, hitting the game-winning home run in one of the best games ever played, making sure the Dodgers’ four home runs in the ninth off Trevor Hoffman didn’t go to waste.

But for many Red Sox fans, including those I talked to this week, this was the beginning of trusting the regime on when to let go, a sensitive subject in Boston in the wake of Dan Duquette labeling Roger Clemens as being in the twilight of his career when Boston rid themselves of the Rocket. It made an easier process out of letting Pedro Martinez walk rather than re-signing him to a contract he never would have justified.

And it’s a lesson in recognizing actual value rather than caving to a franchise icon with deal after deal when it hurts the team.

The Jon Lester situation is different than Garciaparra’s: It's bad team this time, and a player who hasn’t shown the decline (yet). With his scrubbed start, the awkwardness has now settled in, though, to the point where it’s feeling a little like 2004 again.

The epilogue to the Garciaparra trade has been a decade-long search for the next shortstop. The one they got for Garciaparra (we probably should mention Orlando Cabrera by name at some point, as well as the other Gold Glover in Doug Mientkiewicz) was another guy who was easy to get rid of, even as well as he’d played. The search was supposed to be over with Xander Bogaerts this year, but the midseason acquisition of Stephen Drew just kept it rolling on.

As of now, they’ve gone through 11 different shortstops with 50-plus starts since 2005.

Shortstop Starts
Julio Lugo 245
Marco Scutaro 233
Stephen Drew 160
Alex Gonzalez 153
Edgar Renteria 150
Jed Lowrie 136
Mike Aviles 129
Alex Cora 116
Nick Green 74
Xander Bogaerts 59
Jose Iglesias 53

The 245 games that Julio Lugo started is pretty easily the fewest of any team’s leader over the last decade. (Twins: Jason Bartlett, 299.) It could have been Hanley Ramirez through those years, but the Red Sox were able to use him to get the costlier services of Josh Beckett, thanks also in part to being able to say goodbye to popular and expensive players who weren’t going to be all that useful anymore.

Thanks to Rob McQuown and the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index for research assistance.

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

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