It took the better part of January to complete–a span of time so long that the Red Sox had a different GM at the end of the road than they did at the beginning of it–but the long-awaited Coco Crisp-for-Andy Marte (et al) trade was finally consummated late last week.

In a winter of interesting decisions, I think this may be the most fascinating move yet. The Red Sox initially made a great deal by acquiring BP’s 2005 #1 prospect in exchange for the last three seasons of Edgar Renteria‘s contract, then swapped out the benefit to fill what was a significant hole in center field. How significant? Before the deal, the Sox looked like they might have to start Adam Stern, a 25-year-old Rule 5 Draftee with all of 15 career major-league ABs, in center.

Crisp saves them from that fate. A switch-hitter with some speed and pop, Crisp had back-to-back good years with the Indians at ages 24 and 25, settling in as a .300/.345/.450 guy. He had been shunted to left field last year due to the emergence of Grady Sizemore. It was Sizemore’s play, and the Indians’ subsequent inability to get maximum value from Crisp by using him in center field, that motivated them to deal the outfielder.

From the Tribe’s standpoint, the deal is a no-brainer, even before considering the rest of the package. As a left fielder, Crisp lacks the OBP or power to be an impact contributor. His .280 EqA is a positive, but less of one as he becomes more expensive, while his defense doesn’t make up the gap. He clearly had more value for teams able to use him in center than he would for the Indians, and trading him was the way to extract that value.

Meanwhile, Marte is still one of the game’s top prospects. He followed up his terrific ’04 by hitting .275/.372/.506 for Richmond, a performance marred only by a brief, unsuccessful stint in Atlanta (.140/.227/.211 in 57 AB) during a Chipper Jones DL stay. It’s not clear why–his lousy audition in Atlanta, concerns over his right elbow, or just the circumstances of two teams with crowds on the corners–but Marte has been very acquirable this winter, and the Indians did well to pick him up. Although their ’05 run was driven by homegrown talent like Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta and Victor Martinez, no player in the organization has the upside that Marte has. He’s ready to play in the majors right now, especially when you consider that the Tribe might have made the postseason last year had they gotten more from third base than Aaron Boone‘s .243/.299/.378 with average defense. Boone is declining, while Marte, just 22, should be improving. Even if the two players just ape their ’05 performances, you’d have to think the gap between Triple-A and the majors is twice what it actually is to justify playing Boone over Marte.

I expect the Indians to do just that at the start of the season, given their contractual commitment to Boone and the organization’s established preference for nominal “character” guys like the incumbent. They can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of ’05 again, and Marte needs to be playing for them by the All-Star break if they’re to compete with the White Sox and Twins. Boone just isn’t a championship-caliber player any longer.

As good as Marte may be, however, I don’t know that the Red Sox made a mistake in using him to patch their center field hole. We don’t talk much in terms of success cycles any longer, but the Red Sox, with an aging roster–and particularly, aging stars with high salaries–are clearly at the end of a period of high competitiveness. They have to maximize their chance of winning in the next two years, the end of Manny Ramirez‘s contract and the back side of David Ortiz‘ peak. Going into a season with nine corner infielders and Adam Stern patrolling center doesn’t do that, not in the AL East.

The Sox have an assortment of options to play third base, with Mike Lowell expected to open the season as the starter and Kevin Youkilis perhaps the player with the highest offensive upside. Stern, and perhaps Gabe Kapler, were the only center fielders likely to be anywhere near Sarasota next month. With Crisp and Marte projected to be comparable hitters in ’06 (PECOTA has Crisp with a .276 EqA, Marte with a .271), the Sox get an edge by adding a true center fielder defensively while sustaining a bigger upgrade over the expected CF production (Stern’s .253 EqA) than Marte may have provided over the candidates to play third base. That kind of short-term analysis is usually misguided, but in the specific case of the 2006 Red Sox, it’s not just prudent, it’s necessary.

There are other costs here for the Sox. If Crisp plays as well through his peak as he has at 24 and 25, he’s going to become expensive quickly, whereas Marte will be very inexpensive through 2008, and retainable at below market value after that. Again, though, the Sox are at a point in their cycle where they have the cash to cover that cost and the need to do so if doing so helps them reach the postseason. The Sox are almost certain to lose this deal in the long term, because Marte is going to be a seven- or eight-win third baseman through his peak, and Crisp won’t provide that kind of performance. For this team in this offseason, however, it was a deal that had to be made.

To the Sox’ credit, they’re acquiring a player who may still have some growth ahead of him. Crisp’s numbers may get a boost in the move from Jacobs Field–an underrated pitchers’ park the last few years–to Fenway. If you squint, you can actually see a resemblance between Crisp and the departed Johnny Damon at the same age. Damon had more speed, more power, and a better pedigree as a .300 hitter who’d established himself in the majors at 22. Crisp won’t be Damon, who posted a career-high 7.2 WARP in his age-26 season; if he can get just a little better through his peak, be a six-WARP player for the next few seasons, he’ll help this team get the most from the tail end of the Era of Manny.

The rest of the trade pushes it even further into the Indians’ column, although there’s room for disagreement here. Concerns about the condition of Guillermo Mota‘s elbow are what nearly scuttled the deal, and may yet lead to the Tribe getting money or a prospect added. If healthy, though, I expect Mota to outpitch David Riske in 2006. Riske’s flyball tendencies aren’t going to mesh well with Fenway Park, and he’s been a big beneficiary of both the Jake and the Indians’ excellent outfield defense the past two years. Mota, even in an off year, had a decent strikeout rate and kept the ball in the park.

Kelly Shoppach has power and will take a walk, but his high strikeout rate at Triple-A leads me to believe he’s going to be a Mark Parent-type in the big leagues, struggling to hit .240 and stay in the lineup for managers who can’t get past the strikeouts to see the walks and power. I’d still rather have him than Josh Bard, who’s just a catch-and-throw backup chasing Joel Skinner‘s legacy.

Small wins like that add up, but it’s the big wins–like getting a guy good enough to be the best player on a championship team–that lead to dogpiles and banners and parades. That’s the move Mark Shapiro made, and I give him a ton of credit for trading a popular player to make the team better.

Thank you for reading

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