If you were banking on the Red Sox making a big splash this winter by chasing after the cream of this year’s free agent crop, you might want to readjust your expectations. According to new General Manager, Ben Cherington, that won’t be the case. Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal has the story.
“This offseason is going to be more about fixing what’s under the hood than it is about buying a new car. We’re going to make moves and we’re going to build pitching depth and we’re going to be active, but I’m not sure that right now is the time to go through that exercise given the kind of targets we’re going to have.”
While Red Sox Nation isn’t nearly as blood thirsty as they were a month ago, this news won’t likely sit well with the increasingly vocal minority. In the aftermath of the collapse; the chicken, beer, and video game scandal; and the untimely exits of Terry Francona and Theo Epstein, many fans want to see visible, wholesale changes to the club. Anyone who either reads Nick Cafardo’s mail bag or glances (read: trolls) at the horrid suggestions on the Boston.com bulletin boards can tell you that some just want action, regardless of the cost.
People are demanding the team trade away valuable players Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and even Adrian Gonzalez; often for players they think will have a greater impact, but probably won’t. This, of course, doesn’t include the asinine trades involving Josh Reddick and Jed Lowrie, but that’s another story entirely. The fans are looking for change they can believe in. Without turning this into a political discussion, people love the idea of wholesale change, but loathe the actual implementation of it. Look no further than the 2006, 2008, and 2010 election cycles for proof that the American public is incredibly fickle. People vote with their hearts, and later retract their positions when their brains kick in. The same is true for baseball.
Luckily for us, the Red Sox have a focused, rational front office staff that isn’t swayed by the emotional outbursts of the fan base. While you could make a case that the team eschewed reason and logic in the initial days after the team’s fall from grace was complete, they’ve retreated from that stance considerably. Rather than overreacting to their 7-20 finish, they’re focusing on improving a club that finished 90-72; a record identical to the world champion St. Louis Cardinals. Unlike the fans, the front office understands how to run a baseball team. While sexy, wholesale changes are neither reasonable nor palatable. They understand the fans will be much more amenable to slow, deliberate, incremental change in the long run; except in the most dire of situations.
So what does this mean specifically for the Red Sox winter plans? Well, they almost certainly won’t be making runs at top tier free agents like Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes, and C.J. Wilson for starters. While each player is outstanding in their own right, they either fit the team poorly at the moment or have priced themselves outside of the Red Sox comfort zone. Even second-tier free agents looking for high salary, multi-year commitments like Mark Buehrle, Carlos Beltran, and Aramis Ramirez seem unlikely to sign with Boston without making serious concessions with their demands. Instead, the club will look to make more of the short-term, low risk signings that capture undervalued assets. You know, the kind of moves Theo Epstein made early in his tenure in Boston. This means we could see the front office target role players like Josh Willingham, Hiroki Kuroda, Joe Nathan, Grady Sizemore, or Chris Capuano to play key roles next season. While these moves weren’t sexy, you’d be hard pressed to find many that came down with a case of the vapors at the thought of Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, and David Ortiz wearing a Red Sox uniform. Still, those moves turned out pretty well.
What about the team’s own free agents? That seems to be a little tricky. According to Cherington, the Red Sox have reached out to David Ortiz, traded messages, and spoken to his agent a few times. The general feeling is that both sides are pretty clear on Ortiz’s market, so the dialogue is pretty free and easy. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m not quite convinced of his market. While I still think he ends up accepting a two year deal to remain in Boston, I think he’s going to find the market to be softer than he’d originally had hoped. For his sake, I hope he watched the Vladmir Guerrero situation closely last winter, and is diligent in ensuring he doesn’t make similar mistakes.
With respect to Jonathan Papelbon, the club’s intentions are far more nebulous. In an interview with WEEI, Cherington indicated that Papelbon “has more options,” and the Red Sox aren’t “obligated a courtesy call on right of refusal,” but “the door is still open” for him to return. These words struck Fire Brand‘s very own puppet master Evan Brunell the wrong way. He had this to say in a piece he wrote for CBS Eye on Baseball last night.
“It doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for bringing Papelbon back. The Red Sox might be more interested in promoting Daniel Bard to closer and bringing in some relievers, which would allocate more money to the team to address the starting rotation and right field. Still, it’s a bit surprising the Red Sox don’t seem all that hurried to strike a deal with Papelbon, which could cost them the closer. Papelbon’s agents, Seth and Sam Levinson, are known for working quickly while Cherington is noted to be patient.
Nothing here precludes the franchise leader in saves from re-signing in Boston, and it’s possible the Red Sox are intentionally downplaying their interest in Papelbon, but it’s still notable how little interest Boston seems to have.”
Evan’s right. When reading between the lines, it seems like the Red Sox front office is looking in a different direction to fill their ninth inning needs. To be fair, it’s tough to blame them. At last report, Papelbon was looking for a contract around three years at $45M. With Ryan Madson near an agreement (still on hold) with the Phillies for 4/$44M (plus a fifth year option), there’s a good chance Papelbon’s demands are about to increase as well. Based on the market Philadelphia is setting for closers, four years at $56M and a possible fifth year option seems like a good bet to be his new asking price.
Even though Papelbon’s been an elite level closer for the past six seasons, 4/$56M is way too much money to be committing to a pitcher that only pitches the ninth inning. People tend to overvalue the importance of locking down the final three outs because they’re the most visible and excrutiating outs of the game. This is especially true when your team blows the lead and loses. While these outs tend to have higher leverage than outs in other situations, it’s unfair to overly stress their importance.* Closers are a dime a dozen, and can be easily replaced by another cheaper power arm in the bullpen. The A’s, in particular, have been the most proficient in this regard. In addition to being a terrible stat, saves are often terribly overvalued and overpriced; thus creating an inefficient market.
* In a situation where a generic pitcher enters the game with a one run lead in the ninth inning with no one on base, his team will win 90% of the time. With a two run lead and no one on, they’ll win 94% of the time. With a three run lead and no one on, they’ll win 97% of the time.
With Bard on the staff, the Red Sox have a great alternative to replace Papelbon should he price himself out of the Red Sox market. As a result, they don’t have a need to overpay the gregarious, enigmatic right-hander. Instead, I see the Red Sox sticking to a likely offer of 3/$36M; possibly extending it to 3/$40M. If he balks at the offer, they’ll thank him for his services, and let him walk. It’s not easy watching a talent like Papelbon leave, but it may become necessary. The Red Sox need to step away from paying for post-prime seasons. This would be a good start.