A Question of Worth

The Boston Red Sox have won the winter* by trading for Adrian Gonzalez and signing Carl Crawford, and in doing so, have committed an insane amount of money to two players over the next seven years. (Gonzalez will eventually sign a massive, Teixeira-sized extension, though he hasn’t done so yet.)

* At the winter meetings every year, columnists drool over which team won the winter, which is a ridiculous concept. They don’t give you a five-game lead in the standings for winning the winter in Jon Heyman’s mind. The Phillies supposedly won the winter last year with the Roy Halladay trade. How did that work out for them?

In this case, there’s no doubt the Red Sox have vastly improved an offense that already scored the second-most runs in the American League last year, and their starting pitching remains solid. It would be difficult to argue that the Red Sox are World Series favorites heading into 2011, even if the Yankees do sign Cliff Lee.

And if they do win the World Series, and if, as most analysts expect, Crawford ends up being worth nowhere near $140 million over the life of his contract, will it have been worth it?

Carl Crawford is a great player, but he’s certainly not worthy of the eighth-richest contract ever given to an outfielder. His lifetime OBP is .337 (essentially league average), and he’ll give away a chunk of his defensive value playing half his games in Fenway Park’s miniscule left field. (If Manny Ramirez can play there and not completely humiliate himself every night, you don’t need a top-tier defender manning that position.)

But Boston’s left fielders killed them offensively last year, and Crawford will be a massive upgrade. He’s still in his prime, and should be worth about 4 additional wins for the Red Sox when compared to last year’s left field melange. Gonzalez will be worth additional wins, although the overall effect will be tempered somewhat by the loss of Contract Year Adrian Beltre.

So let’s say things go according to plan for the New Evil Empire. Let’s say Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz hold up their end of the bargain, and the Red Sox ride a little postseason luck to their third World Series title in eight years.

And let’s also say that Crawford’s career continues on a fairly predictable path, and that he remains a great player for a couple years, then becomes a good player for a couple years, loses a little speed, and becomes a below-average outfielder making in excess of $20 million/year for the last few seasons of his contract.

In that (quite likely) scenario, Crawford’s contract will be an albatross even for a cash-cow team like Boston. It will make winning repeated World Series exponentially more difficult.

I’m not interested in whether or not the contract would then be worth it to the franchise — there are methods to calculate how much money a title brings in, and ways to calculate whether that would offset the Crawford and Gonzalez deals. I’m interested in whether it would be worth it to fans. Is one banner worth years of struggle?

The question has a different answer depending on your team of choice. Cubs fans would certainly take that bargain. Rangers fans would happily accept a ten-year Cliff Lee monster contract if it meant bringing home their first championship. Red Sox fans are a different animal though. Their decade of winning has made them spoiled and entitled. Would that one extra title be worth it to them?

In their current incarnation, Red Sox fans are probably most similar to Yankees fans. They expect to win every single year as if by divine right, and they grow incensed with both their management and the world when that doesn’t happen. And as it happens, the case study most similar to the current Red Sox situation took place in the Bronx just a couple of off-seasons ago.

After missing the playoffs (as Boston did this year), the Yankees went on a wild spending spree in the winter of 2008, signing C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira to massive long-term deals. The year before, they foolishly re-signed Alex Rodriguez to a ten-year extension worth tens of millions more than any other team would have paid.

The moves paid off immediately, as all four players contributed to a World Series run in 2009. ARod’s bat carried the team through the playoffs, Sabathia pitched like an ace, Teixeira had a great regular season in the field and at the plate, and even Burnett pitched well at times. Without ARod, Sabathia or Teixeira, the Yankees wouldn’t have won the title. Without Burnett, they might not have won.

Now, the bill comes due.

Burnett was one of the worst regular starting pitchers in baseball last year, and killed the Yankees in Game 4 of the ALCS against Texas. He has three years left on his contract. ARod has a bad hip and seven years left on his contract. Teixeira is maybe the seventh-best first baseman in baseball, and has six years left on his contract. Sabathia has a declining strikeout rate, shaky peripherals and five years left on his contract (though he has the right to opt out after this season).

When combined with Derek Jeter’s newly inked deal, the Yankees have expensive commitments to a lot of aging, declining players. These contracts are going to make Brian Cashman’s job progressively harder over the next half-decade. Yes, the Yankees are flush with cash, but even they have their limits, especially now that George Steinbrenner is dead. There are going to be some players the Yankees can’t sign or trade for because they’re stuck with Burnett, ARod et al.

So, assuming the Yankees struggle to win championships over the next few years, was that one 2009 title worth it to fans?

I’m just one fan, but for me the answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

The A.J. Burnett signing was well past stupid and irresponsible, but I’d do it again. I’ll suffer through three more years of his starts, just as I’ll suffer through watching ARod limp around third base until after Obama’s second term is over. (Wait, what?) World championships are not easy to come by, even for the Yankees, and they require a perfect blend of talent and luck. I’m not spoiled by the seven titles the Yankees have won in my lifetime — that 2009 championship still meant the world to me.

And if the Red Sox do win next year, I hope to God it won’t be worth it to Red Sox fans.

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1 Comment

Filed under Sports Has AIDS, The Dilemma

One response to “A Question of Worth

  1. Keyboard

    That rotation is anything but solid.

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