Denizens of Red Sox Nation, kneel before Ben Cherington and John Henry. Let them ease your burden. Let them lighten your load. Let them do that thing from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where they erase any memory you ever had of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.
There? Doesn’t that feel better?
So much lighter. Breezier. More carefree. It’s like you can breathe again without all those pollutants of expectation choking your lungs. Everything is going to be OK. At long last, everything is going to be OK.
Er, maybe not.
In the hours following the stunning trade of those three supposed clubhouse cancers to the Los Angeles Dodgers in favor of some prospects, some James Loney and all the payroll relief, most mainstream writers and statheads have been quick to praise Boston.
They’re getting back to the philosophy that won them two World Series.
They’re getting rid of bag eggs.
They’re gaining tremendous flexibility going forward.
They’re able to hit the reset button.
Cherington is being praised for his creativity in getting out of a bad situation and his unprecedented ability to dump payroll. But did he throw out the baby with the bath water? And ultimately, who gives a fuck about the payroll of the Red Sox?
Adrian Gonzalez was the best or the second-best player on the Red Sox and probably would have remained so for a few years. Dustin Pedroia is a great player too, playing a premium position, which has allowed him to exceed Gonzalez in Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement since the start of 2011 (11.2 vs. 9.5). But what else do the Red Sox have after this trade? Jacoby Ellsbury, whose amazing 2011 season seems like an outlier. And then what? Even Nick Punto is gone, for God’s sake.
Gonzalez is only 30 years old, an age at which we can expect him to start to decline soon, but he probably has a few prime years left. This year, he’s putting up his worst OPS in a full season ever. Crawford is 31 and just underwent Tommy John surgery. The Red Sox literally sold as low as they possibly could on both those players, who as recently as 18 months ago seemed so great that the Sox front office couldn’t restrain themselves from throwing mountains of cash at them.
In short, the Red Sox panicked. They’ve lived through a horrid 12 months, complete with a historic collapse, a beloved GM leaving town, an insane number of injuries, a controversial managerial hire, an attempted mutiny, and David Ortiz whining about being disrespected every other week. They feared that their clubhouse chemistry had turned irreparably toxic so they jumped at a chance to change it. But in doing so, they haven’t just given up on this lost season, they’ve been themselves in trouble for seasons to come.
They got rid of two of their four best offensive prospects (and Nick Punto!) and got back a couple of raw pitching prospects who might or might not amount to anything (and James Loney!). But, oh that sweet payroll relief. Thank God Henry and Larry Lucchino will now have the flexibility to reload their arsenal!
But have they checked out the class of 2012 free agents? Are the Red Sox going to sign Josh Hamilton, one of the riskiest big-time players to ever hit the open market? Or Zack Greinke, who clearly prefers to avoid big markets? How about Michael Bourn, aka Carl Crawford Lite? The streaky Nick Swisher? The pariah Melky Cabrera? What’s a rich boy to do with so much money in the bank and nothing fun to buy?
And that’s just this year’s free agent class. The trend in baseball is for small-market teams to lock up their rising stars to long-term deals while they’re still in their arbitration years, so fewer impact players than ever before are entering free agency. The Red Sox can try to trade for some other team’ problem contracts (Ryan Howard? Joe Mauer?), but wouldn’t that be putting themselves right back in the same position they just fought so hard to escape? They could use it to resign their own players, but Ellsbury is injury-prone and will never sniff 30 home runs again; and David Ortiz is pushing 37.
Furthermore, why would anyone except the team’s owners and investors care about the payroll they’re saving? So what if they put themselves in better position to avoid the dreaded 2014 luxury tax? The Red Sox have enough revenue pouring in to weather that tax and a lot more. No team aside from the Yankees is better positioned to carry albatross contracts and still succeed.
If the Sox were so worried about the chicken-and-beer-and-mutiny attitude in their clubhouse, they should have simply released Josh Beckett and called it a day. Instead, they’ve decimated their lineup so that Cherington could put his own stamp on the franchise and so that the front office could show the fans they were doing something to make a change.
Change for its own sake isn’t always good.
And who’s going to replace the scrap and grit of Little Nicky Punto?