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September 30, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

The Benefit of Hindsight or Complacency Revisited?

by Steven Goldman

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The Red Sox were eliminated on Monday when both the Rays and Yankees won. Having won the first two games of their penultimate series with the Yankees and four more head-to-head tilts remaining, Boston had the power to, if not win the wild card or the American League East outright without a lot of help, at least make things very, very stressful for New York. Instead, they capitulated in the final game, throwing away one of the best starts of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s season for typical 2010 Red Sox reasons—a bullpen collapse and a lineup that lacked some important faces.

The reason the Red Sox had a chance was that the Yankees, and to a lesser extent the Rays, had ceased playing like a team gunning for a ring. The Yankees strained both at bat and on the mound, but the main problem was that with their list of reliable starting pitchers was limited to CC Sabathia. Andy Pettitte had spent most of the second half on the shelf, Phil Hughes’ second-half ERA was 4.96, A.J. Burnett’s 6.19. Javier Vazquez had pitched so poorly that he was dropped from the rotation in favor of rookie Ivan Nova, who had his moments but seemed to turn into a pumpkin after four innings.

Meanwhile, the Rays were having their own problems. James Shields has had an ERA nearing 6.00 since the end of May. Jeff Niemann came back from the shoulder strain he suffered at the beginning of August—“came back” in the sense that he was no longer on the disabled list and took regular turns in the rotation, but his stuff was seemingly gone: having finished July with an ERA of 3.08, Niemann’s ERA from then on was 10.41. The offense was largely consistent with its first half, though it suffered from the complete disappearance of Ben Zobrist (.182/.301/.300) and Carlos Pena’s inability to raise his average above .198, even if his power and patience took away some of the sting.

All three of these teams, of which so much was expected, were revealed to have weaknesses, glaring needs that had to be addressed. If the general managers of these teams anticipated them, if they had some awareness of their tenuous hold on success, none did very much about it. The Rays’ two big midseason moves were to acquire Chad Qualls (July 31) and Brad Hawpe (August 27). The Red Sox traded for Jack Hannahan (July 22) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (July 31) and traded away Ramon Ramirez (July 31) and Manny Delcarmen (August 31). The Yankees, a little more aggressive than the others, picked up Austin Kearns (July 30), Lance Berkman, and Kerry Wood (both July 31).

It’s understandable that Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein, and Andrew Friedman felt comfortable doing as little as they did. On July 31, the Yankees were on a pace to win 104 games and the Rays were seemingly on their way to 101 wins. The Red Sox, 7 1/2 games behind the Yankees and 5 1/2 behind the Rays, were on a 92-win pace, nothing to be ashamed of, but also no indicator that they could make a run. It now seems obvious, given the problems catalogued above, that they should have taken the standings less seriously. Since the non-waiver trading deadline, the division has almost turned upside-down:

Bottom Rail on Top: AL East Standings, August 1-September 29

Tm

W

L

PCT 

GB

BAL

30

23

.566

--

TBR

30

24

.556

0.5

BOS

28

25

.528

2.0

TOR

27

26

.509

3.0

NYA

28

27

.509

3.0

Of course, no one could have foreseen the Orioles’ turnaround; Buck Showalter is a control freak, not Gandalf the Grey. The slowdown of both the division’s frontrunners was perhaps not easily inferred from the state of those teams at the end of July, but might have conjured themselves up in the brains of all three general managers with just a few pessimistic thoughts: What if pitcher A gets injured? What if hitter B doesn’t bounce back? Will we/they be able to keep this up? The answer would inevitably have been “No,” because it’s far easier to fall off the high wire than to stay upon it.

What is striking is that none of these clubs wanted to gamble on getting better, even if they were at that moment self-satisfied. Surely, one of the three could have found room for Cliff Lee, Dan Haren, Roy Oswalt, or Ted Lilly, but none went to the AL East. (In fairness to the Yankees, they did make a major effort to acquire Lee, and his ultimate transfer to the Rangers may go down as a monument to Jack Zduriencik’s judgment, or lack thereof, rather than to Cashman’s complacency). The price in talent spent on these players was not high, so perhaps it was the economy that stayed their hands, the GMs not wanting to approach ownership with a payroll increase when it didn’t seem absolutely necessary.

Whatever the reason, there would be no irresistible offer to the Royals that would pry away Joakim Soria. Adam Dunn’s bat would remain a Washington monument. Ryan Ludwick’s .292 True Average would head to San Diego (and die there). Prince Fielder’s massive carcass stayed parked in cheese country. Instead of getting to play before small but enthusiastic crowds in St. Petersburg, Luke Scott continued to play to small and apathetic crowds in Baltimore. The big moves, the deals that would have inoculated the Rays and Yankees against what came later and/or bolstered Boston’s chances of making a run, never happened.

In the month between the July 31 and August 31 trading deadlines, the three clubs played at about the same level. The Rays went 17-12 in August, the Yankees 16-13, and the Red Sox 15-13. During that time, the Yankees lost two of three to the Rays and split four games with the Red Sox. When the Rays and Red Sox met toward the end of the month, the Rays won two of three games, but they were close contests. Something was not quite right; no one was dominating. In September, the reasons why would become more apparent. By then it was too late. The race that nobody wanted to win could have been drastically altered by the importation of talent, but no one had the vision to make a move. As a result, the Red Sox will spend October at home, while the Yankees and Rays will have a more difficult time surviving the first round than they might otherwise have had.

It is very odd, the way these GMs were willing to let things ride. No one has ever won an Executive of the Year award by sitting on his hands, but Cashman, Epstein, and Friedman made the decision to do so. Neither they nor we will ever know what could have happened had it been otherwise. The only thing that is certain is that there is as much risk in trying to do too much as doing too little, but the former is much easier to defend when your team ends up going home.

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

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