Are the Red Sox the New Yankees?
The Boston Red Sox went on a bit of a spending spree yesterday, signing two of the biggest bats in this Major League Baseball offseason: Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval.
Ramirez, the former Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop, was given a four-year, $88 million deal with a vesting option for a fifth year; Sandoval, the former San Francisco Giants third baseman, a five-year, $100 million contract. Fresh off a World Series win, the switch-hitting Sandoval will stay at third before moving comfortably into the designated hitter role as he ages (David Ortiz allowing), while Ramirez will likely move to the outfield, with 22-year-old Xander Bogaerts already occupying shortstop.
Boston is coming off an extremely disappointing season for a team that won it all just one year ago. The Red Sox finished 2014 at the bottom of the American League East with a 71-91 record, thanks in large part to a lackluster offense that was fifth-worst in the league in runs scored and second-worst in slugging percentage and park-adjusted offense. Adding Ramirez and Sandoval gives Boston one of the deepest lineups and arguably the best team in the American League, at least on paper, and gives it a significant boost in a once-dominant division that, aside from the Baltimore Orioles, was the weakest it's been in years.
That said, the signings do carry some heavy risks. Ramirez, who started his career in Boston, has never played in the outfield and was already a defensive liability at shortstop and third base. His fielding will be a definite question mark when he moves to the already crowded Red Sox outfield. He's also not a stranger to the disabled list, having missed 50 games in 2011 and played just 86 games in 2013. Last year, the Dodgers were reportedly frustrated with his inability to stay healthy, nursing, as the Los Angeles Times put it, "a finger, a thumb, a hand, two calf injuries, and most concerning, a shoulder." But he ended up playing in 128 games, and has proved his worth when he's on the lineup card, averaging 4.5 wins above replacement over the last two years.
Sandoval, meanwhile, is a proven veteran, especially in the postseason. His .344 playoff batting average is the best in MLB history, and his 12 hits in October helped propel him and the Giants to their third World Series win in five years. But conditioning has always been a concern for the 250-pound Sandoval, and the Red Sox will need him to stay in shape as his age and demanding position take a toll on his production.
What's intriguing about these moves is how it fits in to Boston's overall management strategy. Red Sox president and chief executive officer Larry Lucchino likes to tout that his team and the rival New York Yankees are "very different animals," but in throwing long-term, lucrative deals at two big-name free agents, the Red Sox appear the be taking a page out of the Yankees' playbook. In signing Ramirez and Sandoval, the Red Sox will lose two draft picks, and still haven't addressed their biggest issue in starting pitching.
But it's a long winter, and these moves give Boston a significant advantage over New York: options. As ESPN's Buster Olney notes, the Red Sox have many pieces in the outfield that are could now be on the trading block, including Yoenis Cespedes, Shane Victorino, Brock Holt, Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, Will Middlebrooks and Jackie Bradley Jr. Boston is reportedly looking at Philadelphia Phillies lefty Cole Hamels, who has said he would waive his no-trade clause if the Red Sox were willing to pick up his $20 million option. And the need for the team to sign Jon Lester has never been more apparent. The Red Sox reportedly offered the pitcher a six-year deal in the $120 million range before signing Ramirez and Sandoval, and would likely need to up the offer with the Cubs and Giants in hot pursuit.
In some parts of the Boston media, there's the feeling that the Red Sox brass is straying too much from its game plan, engaging in high-roller tactics when it suits them while denouncing those of their competitors, leaving us to wonder exactly where they stand. But it's rather naive to expect a big-market team such as the Red Sox not to start throwing money around when things go awry. As Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan puts it, that's simply the way you do business in baseball, no matter what outgoing commissioner Bud Selig will tell you about competitive balance. There is far more parity in MLB than the league gets credit for, but the conditions are still ripe for a rich team to come out guns a-blazin' in the free-agent market to avoid another embarrassing season.
At the same time, the small-market disadvantage is often greatly exaggerated by owners to excuse their spendthrift ways. Giancarlo Stanton might have just signed the biggest contract in sports history with the Miami Marlins, but it is heavily backloaded, meaning he's still working for less than his full value for the first few years. Stanton will make $6.5 million in 2015, $9 million, in 2016, and $14.5 million in 2017; the big annual paydays won't start coming until 2018, when he's set to make $25 million.
There are two ways to read this: Either the Marlins have given themselves the flexibility to spend money now on other pieces to try to build a winning team for the present. Or, knowing owner Jeffrey Loria's tendency to feign poverty and cut payroll in the interest of profits, there is something more familiar at work. Per Rob Neyer, both Keith Olbermann and Joe Sheehan have poked holes in the narrative proclaiming the Stanton signing as a "new day" for Marlins baseball, noting that once the big money kicks in, it'll be "business as usual," which with the Marlins means another fire-sale to shed payroll, talent and any glimmer of hopes their fan base had left.
So if you're a Red Sox fan complaining that your team is spending foolishly, just be glad that it's spending at all, and that baseball is structured so that your team can likely withstand the financial hit if Ramirez and Sandoval don't live up to expectations. If you're one of the surprising number of Giants fans petulantly complaining that your beloved Panda is disloyal and greedy, just be glad that you got seven years of cheap production from him, and ask yourself under what conditions you'd be willing to take a pay cut. And if you're one of the (too many to link) Yankees fans trolling Red Sox fans for overpaying injury-prone players, just try to get your house in order first.
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