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August 1, 2014

Transaction Analysis

Give the Red Sox Your Tired and Your Poor But Do Not Give Them Your Prospects

by Sam Miller

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Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired LF-R Yoenis Cespedes from Oakland A's in exchange for LHP Jon Lester and OF-R Jonny Gomes. [7/31]

Acquired OF/1B-R Allen Craig and RHP Joe Kelly from Boston Red Sox for RHP John Lackey. [7/31]

Okay, imagine you woke up and we were having our coffee together and you asked me whether anything had happened at the trade deadline. “Yup,” I tell you. “An All-Star outfielder in his late 20s with one and a half years left on his contract got traded.” You easily fill in the rest: A team that wasn’t in the pennant race had traded the All-Star to a team that was, cashing in the veteran for a bunch of prospects. It happens all the time. It happens all the time to Hunter Pence, for goodness sakes.

Of course, this is what the Red Sox got for Jon Lester. The return on John Lackey had a bit of wait-what? to it, as Boston traded another top-of-the-rotation starter for a 30-year-old slugging corner guy who got MVP votes a year ago. They also got Joe Kelly, a 26-year-old starter who at least fits the trade deadline tradition of being cheap and under team control for a long time, but still: a 26-year-old no. 4 starter. The returns make sense because the Red Sox are actually good, but there’s a bit more to it.

The music critic Jody Rosen says if you want to know the next big thing in pop music, just look at what the teenage girls are listening to, and go to where people are dancing. And if you want to look at what big-market teams are going to do next, just look at what the smartest small-market teams are doing. These trades weren’t just about putting the Red Sox in a position to win next year. They were Oakland A’s trades. Billy Beane got Jon Lester because the Red Sox are ripping off his shtick.


You’ll hear this a lot:

You’re telling me that [GM] couldn’t get more than [what he got] for [what he gave up]?

The idea being, sure, okay, we knew he had to trade Jon Lester, it made no sense to keep him around, so we can’t complain about that, but that’s all he could get?

Yeah, probably. They’re not dumb, GMs. They’re not lazy. Their self-interest is involved, and they’ve got layers of smart people helping them avoid mistakes, and they’re not dumb. So probably that’s all he could get. It makes it really hard to assess trades that the team obviously had to make when you don’t know all the competing offers.

The nice thing about this trade is that the Red Sox made a choice right in front of us by choosing to not get prospects at all. It makes sense: The Red Sox don’t figure to go all Astros on us, and they need players. As Matt Kory pointed out two days ago, “In 2016, two seasons from now, the Red Sox are committed to spending $13.37 million on two players.”

The nice thing about having only $13.37 million committed is that you have a ton of money left to spend. The problem is that spending a ton of money is perilous. In fact, there are two primary ways that teams add impact rosters. They share one thing in common.

Collect prospects.
For most of baseball history, “risk” has been associated with young players. Sure, he’s great as an amateur, but will he be able to make the jump to the pros? Sure, he’s great at the low-minors, but can he hit advanced pitching in Double-A? Sure, he’s raking in Triple-A, but can he adjust to the major-league lights, the major-league lifestyle, the major-league slider? It’s not just that prospects might never turn into anything, but that the ones who do turn into something won’t necessarily do it on your schedule. An actuarial table might accurately foretell the future stardom of Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson, but if you’re a team that wants to win, plans to win, and builds around the expectation that you will win in 2015, it’s difficult to count on a player’s flourishing just in time.

Buy players.
But in recent baseball history, “risk” has become associated not with the young and unproven but the experienced and the proven. These are the players who demand contracts that run far into the future, and that are so lucrative and so unmovable that they have the potential to weigh down entire franchises.


So you can choose the young, but you have no way of knowing what they will become; or choose the old, but without knowing how much it’s really going to cost.

Then the third way, which to some degree avoids both. You get players who have established themselves at the highest level, and you avoid giving them deals that last long. This isn’t rocket science, but it’s incredibly difficult to pull off—Boston's seven–free agent haul (with no deal lasting beyond three years) before 2013 being as unexpected and impressive as any moment on the field that season. Absolutely nobody missed what they had done, and the competition for such players willing to sign such contracts will undoubtedly tighten.

So the Red Sox, eager to add similar players with similarly limited commitments, traded a bunch of prospects for them on Thursday. They didn’t trade the prospects in their system. But, rather than exchange Lackey and Lester for minor leaguers, as they certainly could have done, they chose the cost-controlled veterans. They traded the opportunity to add four or five prospects for Allen Craig, Yoenis Cespedes and Joe Kelly.

This, too, won’t be easy to do forever, and it’ll be curious to see how long the Red Sox can hold to their stated position of avoiding long contracts. They’re not the only team trying to get these contracts:

Big leaguers, not prospects. Less risk on either side. For a small market team, or a big market team that wants to be as disciplined as a small market team, it’s the only way to avoid the risks that can send you into a three-year rebuild.

The A’s figured this out years ago, around the time that the enormity of the Carl Crawford and (at the time) John Lackey deals was becoming clear. As R.J. Anderson wrote this May, the A’s front office has been zagging by trading its prospects for these sort of non-star, two- and three-year commitments: Jed Lowrie, Alberto Callaspo, John Jaso, Chris Young, Craig Gentry.

The point of prospects isn’t to win a prospects ranking, after all. It’s to put a good team on the field, however you can, with as much or as little risk as your organization can responsibly bear.

As for the players:

Yoenis Cespedes has stalled a bit since his rookie year, which isn’t terrible—he’s good!—but is a bit disappointing to those who thought he was still learning the game. He doesn’t produce the sort of grind-it-out at-bats that are cool in Boston, and his power is more center field than most hitters, which will limit the benefit of Fenway on his offensive stats. On the other hand, he has developed one of the most extreme fly-ball swings in the league—only Chris Carter hits more fly balls than he does, and Chris Carter never actually hits anything, so I think Cespedes wins—so he’ll at least aim plenty toward Fenway’s pinched dimensions.

Allen Craig is having one disaster of a season, which happens. Here are three numbers:

  • Justin Upton, 121 career OPS+
  • Allen Craig, 120 career OPS+
  • Yoenis Cespedes, 119 career OPS+

His plate discipline has improved this year, he is making more contact, and he has shown hints of defensive competence. He has also seen his BABIP drop 50 points below his career average, particularly on line drives.

Joe Kelly throws really hard and gets grounders but doesn’t miss bats. There’s a little bit of space between what he is and what Drew Smyly is, but it’s pretty small:

  • Kelly: 266 career innings, 115 ERA+, 4.00 FIP, 4.07 xFIP, 2.1 years of service time after 2014
  • Smyly: 276 career innings, 121 ERA+, 3.53 FIP, 3.57 xFIP, 2.1 years of service time after 2014

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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