Though the “offseason” technically does not end until Opening Day on April 1, the beginning of spring training this week symbolizes the beginning of a new year for the Boston Red Sox.
Following a very active winter in which general manager Ben Cherington wheeled-and-dealed (wheeled and dealt?) his way into spending over $100 million on new player contracts, the Sox have an updated club heading into the 2013 season. The 25-man roster is just about set, give or take a bullpen arm or a battle for the fifth outfield spot.
It’s time to look forward to a new era in Boston, but also a time to look back on the last few months, in which Cherington and his bosses paved the path for the franchise. Many of the moves they made this offseason made a whole lot of sense; others, not so much.
All told, the Red Sox had, at the very least, a productive winter. Now let’s take a look at some of the best and worst moves that were made.
Three Best Moves
Nov. 14, 2012: Red Sox sign catcher David Ross to a two-year, $6.2 million deal
In what was one of the most unheralded bargains of the winter, Boston was able to scoop up Ross, arguably the best backup catcher in the game who has always deserved more trips to the plate.
From 2009-2012, Ross posted a .358 wOBA in 663 plate appearances for the Atlanta Braves, netting 6.4 fWAR during that span. He’s also one of the best defensive catchers in the game, as his 37.5 percent caught-stealing rate over the last two years is second to only Yadier Molina (40 percent).
At 36 years old, Ross won’t compete with Jarrod Saltalamacchia for the starting job, but he will provide an excellent platoon behind the plate. Saltalamacchia took a small step forward last year, popping 25 homers and posting a solid 2 fWAR, but his struggles against left-handers (.216 wOBA compared to .334 against righties) was evident.
Expect Salty to carry most of the burden behind the dish, but there’s plenty of room for Ross to step in against the many talented southpaws in the American League. Look for him to come to the plate 200-250 times this season, and for Boston to get its money’s worth and more.
Dec. 18, 2012: Red Sox sign relief pitcher Koji Uehara to a one-year, $4.25 million deal
With all the hilarious multi-year deals given out to relief pitchers over the past few offseasons, it’s amazing that a guy like Uehara has been unable to cash in on one.
Since 2010, when the Baltimore Orioles decided to use the Japanese right-hander out of the bullpen, Uehara has led all big league relievers with a 10.76 K/BB ratio, and it’s not even close (Rafael Betancourt ranks second at 7.82). He also has left runners on base at a rate of 86.9 percent, good for second in the majors over the last three years.
Uehara does what every relief pitcher is supposed to do, and he does it better than anyone else: he strikes guys out, he doesn’t give anyone a free pass to a base, and he cleans up after the last pitcher’s mess.
Somehow, the Red Sox were able to nab the soon-to-be 38-year-old for a relatively modest one-year deal. It appears that Koji Uehara is the next market inefficiency.
Jan. 22, 2013: Red Sox sign first baseman/catcher Mike Napoli to a one-year, $5 million deal plus incentives
This was supposed to end up on the “worst moves” list, as Boston initially had agreed with Napoli on a three-year, $39 million deal at the beginning of the offseason. But the initial deal was nullified after a physical brought health concerns, and both sides finally settled on a contract that could net Napoli up to $13 million in 2013.
In the worst case scenario, the Red Sox wasted five million bucks on a guy who won’t see the field this year. In the best case scenario, Boston added one of the most devastating right-handed hitters in the game to an already potent lineup.
Napoli is a career .259/.356/.507 hitter, but he showed unbelievable potential in 2011, when he hit .320/.414/.631 with 30 homers in just 432 plate appearances for the Rangers. He’s also smacked left-handers to the tune of a .390 wOBA during his career.
The Red Sox are banking that Napoli is healthy and can rebound from a relatively unimpressive 2012 campaign, in which he hit .227/.343/.469. Boston also hopes he benefits from playing in Fenway Park, which tends to be friendly to right-handed pull hitters.
If everything goes according to plan, Napoli will be the everyday first baseman in 2013, and Boston will have inadvertently stumbled upon a nice bargain.
Three Worst Moves
Dec. 26, 2012: Red Sox acquire reliever Joel Hanrahan in a six-player trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates
The Red Sox clearly set out to improve their pitching staff this offseason, and a slurry of acquisitions culminated in a trade for Hanrahan, who should be the closer on Opening Day.
As Evan Brunell noted immediately following the trade, there’s a lot to like about Hanrahan, who has compiled 76 saves for the Pirates over the past two seasons. But there are also plenty of red flags that come with the 31-year-old right-hander.
Hanrahan survived an astronomically high 5.43 BB/9 rate in 2012 with incredible batted ball luck, as his .225 BABIP led to a very solid 2.72 ERA. FanGraphs says Hanrahan was worth negative 0.4 wins last season; certainly not the kind of “value” Boston wants from its closer.
In reality, Hanrahan is likely to produce somewhere in the range of his 2012 season and his 2011 campaign, in which he struck out eight and walked just over two hitters per nine innings, ending up with a 1.82 ERA. He’ll likely suffer from a move to the AL East, but small innings samples for relievers will make it hard to tell. All told, the Red Sox added a quality relief pitcher for 2013.
But at what cost? As Brunell also noted in his December column, the Sox gave up reliever Mark Melancon, who in the past has shown potential to be just as good if not better than Hanrahan. Melancon struggled mightily last year, posting a 6.20 ERA in 45 innings, but he was pretty strong down the stretch. He is also just two years removed from a wonderful 2011 season, in which he posted a 2.78 ERA in 74.1 innings for the Astros.
Combine Melancon with the prospects Boston gave up for just one year of Hanrahan, and the deal just doesn’t quite add up for Boston.
Dec. 13, 2012: Red Sox sign outfielder Shane Victorino to a three-year, $39 million deal
Victorino is a serviceable hitter with plus tools in the field and on the basepaths, but that’s just about all he is at this point in his career. And considering the supply of available quality outfielders on the market this winter, this deal left quite a few analysts scratching their heads.
At 32 years old, Victorino is on the wrong side of a career that is highly dependent on tools (speed, fielding ability) that don’t tend to age well. While he does rank sixth amoung big league outfielders in fWAR since 2006, most of that value has been driven by his outstanding play in center field and his ability to steal bags.
At roughly $5 million per win, Victorino will have to average roughly 2.6 wins a year over the course of his deal for the Red Sox to break even. That’s certainly possible, perhaps even likely, but with the depth of outfielders that Boston has both at the major league and minor league levels, one wonders if Victorino will take up space that could be allocated to other players.
This deal isn’t a particularly bad one, and Red Sox fans will certainly enjoy the antics Victorino brings to the club and the city. But it’s also one that probably didn’t have to be made, and could have unforeseen negative consequences in a year or two.
Oct. 21, 2012: Acquired manager John Farrell from the Toronto Blue Jays; signed Farrell to a three-year deal
I know, it’s a stretch to say this was a “bad move.” But I mean, come on. Trading for a manger? Doesn’t that seem a little excessive?
It’s almost impossible to determine the amount of value that any manager can bring to or detract from a club. One can objectively analyze the merits of moves within the context of the game, and assign run expectancies and win shares to those moves; but it’s beyond our realm of comprehension to truly know how a manager aids a team as the clubhouse leader.
The players seemed to like Farrell when he was the pitching coach in Boston from 2007-2010. But did he have to be the guy the Sox hired as the new manager? Did they need him so much, that he was worth trading an asset for? (Yes, I just called Mike Aviles an asset.)
Truth be told, I don’t have much of a problem with this move, and the only reason it’s in this column is for symmetry’s sake. Either that shines light on a very good offseason for the Red Sox, or it’s an indictment on my obsessive compulsion.
I guess I’ll look into that next week.