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December 5, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Boston Declares Victorino

by R.J. Anderson

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BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed OF-S Shane Victorino to a three-year deal worth $39 million. [12/4]

When Boston’s front office flies home from Nashville on Thursday afternoon, they will do so with a new first baseman and outfielder in tow. A day after signing Mike Napoli, Ben Cherington shook hands with Victorino’s representative on a three-year pact. Although it appears to be an odd marriage on the surface, there is some logic in the depth.

The leading question is where Victorino will play in the outfield. Jacoby Ellsbury—should he remain in Boston—figures to start in center field while the defensively challenged Jonny Gomes looks like a fit for left field, where the small lawn and big wall will limit his damage. Same with Gomes’ platoon mate, be it Daniel Nava or Ryan Kalish. That leaves right field to Victorino. Primarily a center fielder throughout his career, the native Hawaiian shifted to left upon joining the Dodgers last July. He then went on to have a miserable half-season in Los Angeles, leaving one scout to murmur about tentative play in the outfield and another to remark that the indefatigable Victorino appeared lethargic.

Cherington is doubling down on a Victorino rebound by moving him to a more offensively demanding position. But a bounce-back is not guaranteed. Victorino saw his contact rate and power production decline with the Dodgers. The drop in contact, if legitimate, is concerning for a 32-year-old player with more on-base skills than power ability. At his best, Victorino is a dynamo capable of good defensive play, opportunistic baserunning, and voluminous yet efficient base stealing. A lot of his value relies upon getting on base, and his value takes a hit without the contact chops.

As worrisome as Victorino’s stint with the Dodgers is, his struggles against right-handed pitchers have deeper roots. Victorino has a three-year True Average of .334 against lefties and .253 against righties. Switch hitters tend to have small, imperceptible platoon splits. That isn’t the case for Victorino. The potential saving grace for Boston is Victorino’s past success, in 2009 and earlier, against righties. It’s up to the Red Sox to figure out what went wrong in his swing or approach from the left side.

It’s difficult to write about this move without wondering about the Ellsbury-related ramifications. Ellsbury is a free agent at season’s end and could become the belle of next year’s Winter Meetings with a season similar to his 2011. Yet if Ellsbury repeats his 2010 or 2012 offerings then we’ll be talking about him as a lottery ticket. You can understand why the Red Sox may be reluctant to tie big money into Ellsbury given the volatility of his stock. Besides, the Red Sox do have Jackie Bradley in the minors. Using Victorino in center field would allow Bradley to finish his development before taking over.

Barring a trade, the Ellsbury conundrum is a good year from resolution. A matter more worthy of immediate attention is the money handed to Victorino. The Red Sox are seemingly paying a premium despite the down year, but it may have been necessary to net Victorino. The Indians offered the outfielder a four-year deal worth more than $40 million, according to Jordan Bastian. Boston won Victorino, in essence, by taking a different approach to risk management than Cleveland.  Cherington would rather pay a player a few million more over a shorter span than ease the budget blow by adding another season.

Whether Boston’s apparent decision to pay more for less is the right decision will depend on how Victorino performs.  

 

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

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