Saturday, December 20, 2014

Red Sox Off-season Review: Beware Worms

On December 10, 2014, the Boston Red Sox had the following rotation: Clay Buccholz, Joe Kelly, Ruby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo and Allen Webster.

On December 11, 2014, the Boston Red Sox had the following rotation: Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Clay Buccholz, Joe Kelly, Justin Masterson.

The pitching staff on December 11 is better than the pitching staff on December 10. Analysis over. Article over.

Ok, since you all paid good money to read my thoughts (oh you are here for free?), I will dive a little deeper. The thing is, the analysis of the rotation as it stands right now is really that simple. The three players that the team acquired on 12/11 are better and more reliable than the players they replaced. At the heart of any transaction that a competitive team makes, the goal should be to get a player that is better than the player he is replacing. In these transactions, the mission was accomplished.

Let me get one thing out of the way real quick. I already discussed this in the Jon Lester piece, but when evaluating these deals I really only want to look at what happened and not what people think could have happened. If you want to say they should not have traded for Wade Miley because he had a down year last year and he may not be that good, that is ok. If you want to say they should not have traded for Wade Miley, they should have traded for Jeff Samardzija instead, that is not ok. I'm sure the Sox made an offer to Oakland, but Billy Beane decided he liked the White Sox package centered around a young, MLB ready middle infielder. The Sox have two guys that fit that profile in Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts, but I hope none of you think trading either those two for Samardzija would be a smart move.

Since each of these players is an individual, let's take a look at each move individually before discussing the rotation as a whole (if you want a quick analysis just skip to the end)...

Rick Porcello

I will address the other side of this trade (Yoenis Cespedes) when I talk about the offensive additions. For now, let's talk about Porcello, who I think is now the team's "number one" starter. Some people will think calling Porcello our number one is depressing. In his career, he has had an ERA better than league average twice in six seasons. He typically strikes out less than 6 batters per nine innings. His career high in wins is only 15 (you all know I think pitcher wins are as valuable as an asshole on your elbow). Since Porcello has reached the big leagues, he has been nobody's idea of a number one starter, let alone an ace. But he is right now the best pitcher on the Red Sox, and I don't think that is a bad thing at all.

I am very optimistic about Porcello this year. The number one reason is Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. These strapping young men were the third and first basemen, respectively, protecting Porcello's myriad of ground balls in 2012-13. Both men should probably be DH's and that's been true for at least the last 3 years and yet they were being relied on to field behind an extreme ground ball pitcher. This, predictably, led to Porcello surrendering a lot of baserunners which in turn led to a high ERA. In 2014, the Tigers removed Fielder and moved Cabrera to first base, instantly improving the infield defense. Guess what else instantly improved? If you said Porcello's ERA you are right! Well now Porcello is going to a team with a Gold Glove second baseman and two very good defenders at third and first. If all he does is repeat what he did last year in front of a strong defense, then he's a very good pitcher.

Which leads me to my second point and that is the fact that I think Porcello is going to be even better this year. Porcello is going to be 26 years old this coming year and yet this will be his 7th full season in the bigs. All the pitchers that were on the roster were the same age or slightly younger and had between one and two seasons in the majors. These are all players we viewed as prospects, but Porcello is already fully realized. If we were hoping for those other guys to be a little better this year, couldn't we also make the same assumption about Porcello? Players tend to peak in their mid to late 20's so it is entirely possible we still haven't seen the best out of this guy.

It sucks that we only have him under contract for one season, but Cespedes also only had one season left so it seems like a fair swap. If he pitches really well this year and prices himself out of the Red Sox budget, then we will get a first round draft pick for him. However, I think if he pitches well here, the Sox will try to extend him and he will accept. Because he is only 26 years old, the team will feel much more comfortable giving him a 5 or 6 year deal that takes him to his age 32 or 33 season.

Bonus fun fact: He's a handsome dude. Also, he and his dad are supposedly building a cabin in Vermont (do they allow father-son marriages now too?), so I guess this means he is even more likely to sign here long term.

Justin Masterson

I'm not incredibly excited about Masterson, but he is only signed to a one year deal and he is likely a better bet to be serviceable than the De La Rosa/Webster/Ranaudo trio. I do think it was a good gamble on someone who has produced very good seasons recently in the majors.

In 2013, Masterson was a really good starter. A pitcher who has always been a ground ball machine (his career rate of 56.6% ground balls would have ranked third in the league last year among qualified starters), he took his strikeouts to a whole new level. For most of his career to that point he struck out about 17% of the batters he faced. In 2013, he upped that to 24%, which ranked 15th in all baseball. The main change in his approach that season was an increased reliance on a nasty slider that was nearly unhittable. The performance earned him his only All Star appearance and at just 28 years old he looked like a young pitcher hitting his prime.

Then last year he crashed back to earth. An early season knee injury evidently lead to altered mechanics, decreased velocity on the fastball (over 3 MPH), and a diminished reliance on his dominant slider. He was still a groundball machine (his 58.2% rate was the second highest of his career), but the strikeouts fell back and the walks increased. Players seemed to be able to lay off the slider more this year because they could just wait on the hittable fastball. With more balls in play and a questionable infield defense (former catcher Carlos Santana started the year at 3B and played 26 games there), his ERA sky rocketed. An in-season trade to St. Louis proved not to help either.

So why am I slightly optimistic about Masterson? First, he claims to be healthy again. If he is able to get his fastball up to 93 MPH and the coaching staff can get him to rely on the slider again, I don't see why his high strikeout rate won't continue. The second reason is the same reason that I am optimistic about Porcello (and Wade Miley) and that is the infield defense. Despite the injury, Masterson still got hitters to pound the ball into the ground a lot last year and that should continue. And if Masterson can't return to what he was in 2013, this is only a one year deal and he could have value as a bullpen specialist against righties. There is still enough rotation depth to replace him if he struggles.

Bonus fun fact: He was born in Jamaica.

Wade Miley

This seems like a good time to explain a stat called FIP: Fielding Independent Pitching. This is based off a theory developed years ago by a writer named Voros McCracken (sounds like a Bond villain), where he realized that pitchers only have so much control over what happens once a ball is hit. They mostly control strikeouts, walks and home runs, but once a ball is put in the field of play they can't really dictate what happens (later people realized that different pitchers have control over ground balls and fly balls at least).

If you think about it, and if you've been following my analysis of Porcello and Masterson, this makes sense. If a routine ground ball is hit to Derek Jeter's left, it's likely to get through the infield for a base hit because Jeter, like another Derek, Zoolander, can't go left. But if that same exact ground ball is hit to Andrelton Simmons, it's an easy out. In those situations, the pitcher did nothing different, but in one situation he gave up a hit and the other he came one out closer to getting out of the inning.

FIP strips away the majority of balls put in play and focuses mostly on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed and produces a number that is scaled to look like ERA. FIP is particularly useful when trying to determine whether a player who had a bad ERA will bounce back the following year, or if a player with a great ERA will collapse. If your ERA is higher than your FIP, you probably had an unlucky season. If you subtract FIP from ERA, you can see who may have had the most unlucky season.

In 2014, Wade Miley had a 4.34 ERA and a 3.98 FIP. The difference of 0.36 was 17th in baseball among pitchers with at least 162 innings pitched. Oh by the way, number one on that list was Clay Buccholz with a difference of 1.33, yet another reason for optimism this year. Also, Masterson would have ranked number one if he had enough innings with a difference of 1.34.

Ok, this makes sense at a certain level, but does it actually hold true? Do starters with an ERA higher than their FIP correct themself the following year? Well, while one data point doesn't prove a theory, we don't have to look farther than our own Rick Porcello to find a correlation. From 2010-2013, Porcello had an ERA of 4.64 and a FIP of 3.95. In 2014 when he had a better infield to pitch in front of, he had an ERA of 3.43 and a FIP of 3.67. For pitchers that put a lot of balls in play, a good defense is so important.

Miley, like Porcello and Masterson, generates a lot of ground balls (51.1% last season). Like those two guys he has also had a really strong season in his past (his rookie year in 2012). The significant differences with Miley are that he's a lefty and he's under team control for 3 more years. Lefties can struggle in Fenway because of the short porch in left, but with his ability to keep the ball on the ground, I think Miley will be comfortable here.

One thing to note about Miley is that he saw an uptick in strikeouts in 2014. Like Masterson in 2013, Miley started throwing his slider a lot more. Sliders are really difficult to hit for same handed hitters because it starts off looking like a fastbll, but once you realize it's a slider it has started darting far, far away from you. It appears this is a swing and miss pitch that should help Miley get out of situations with runners on base if he keeps it up.

Bonus fun fact: The D-Backs tried to get him to stop eating gluten and he told them to fuck off. He's going to love the North End.

Final Thoughts

The Sox had a clear Plan B when they lost out on Lester and there are some themes shared by the players they acquired.

  • Each player is in his 20's. The team is trying to avoid commitments to pitchers in their 30's.
  • Each player has had at least one strong season in the majors. The trio of De La Rosa/Ranaudo/Webster all have promise but none of them have translated that to Major League success. It was clearly important to find guys that have done it before.
  • The Sox must believe they have a strong infield defense. Joe Kelly gives up the fewest ground balls in the rotation at about 48% (still well above average), so the infield is going to get a workout. These days, pitchers with high strikeout rates are all the rage, but if you have the right players you can find value in guys who generate specific kinds of contact.
  • The goal was to find players better than the players they had on the roster without dipping into their pool of top prospects. They dealt from a position of strength in getting Porcello and offloaded a couple young pitchers they no longer wanted to get Miley. Masterson only cost money.
  • The rotation overall may not be elite but it will be deep. Each pitcher has a high likelihood of being at least average. Combine an average start with an elite offense and the team should win a lot of games.
  • If any of the new or incumbent starters are hurt or ineffective, the team still has Ranaudo, Workman, Wright, Owens, Rodriguez and Johnson to step in. Or, they could dip into that depth to acquire any number of other pitchers mid-season.
  • If a trade for an "ace" does present itself, any of these guys can be bumped from the rotation. If Ruben Amaro lowers his demands, the team will have no problem sticking Masterson or Kelly in the bullpen or trading away Buccholz or Miley.
Bottom line, the moves improve the team. I think there is a lot of upside with these guys and Ben Cherington did a great job to pivot so quickly when they lost their number 1 target. There is still a lot of off-season left so the rotation could change, but if the season started tomorrow (now that Rondo is gone baseball can't come soon enough) I would be very comfortable with this crew.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Emotioal Mark v. Rational Mark: Rondo Traded

In honor of Stephen Colbert's final show, I am going to try a new gimmick inspired by his "A formidable opponent" gimmick: Emotional Mark v. Rational Mark.

The first topic my duality will tackle is the trade of Celtics star Rajon Rondo. For those who don't know the details, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Powell were traded to the Dallas Mavericks for Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson, a protected 2015 first round pick (likely to be received in 2016), a second round pick and a $12.9 million trade exception. I apologize in advance for Emotional Mark; he's got a dirty mouth.

Rational Mark: This is the best the Celtics could get for Rondo. Let's look at how the rest of the league views Rondo at this point. He is a free agent after this year and expects to be paid a max contract. He does a lot of things really well, but he also does a lot of things really poorly. These things include shooting from the foul line, shooting from the three point line, and this year (not in years past) shooting from mid-range. He's also not quite the defender he used to be (though he is better than he has gotten credit for this year). He definitely chases stats. There is nothing quite like realizing he is within a few points/assists/rebounds of a triple double and watching him literally chase rebounds or pass up open shots for a pass or take contested shots instead of pass. He also may or may not have a bad attitude. I tend to think that trait has been overblown, but it certainly could have driven down his market value. So adding all these factors up, it's not terribly surprising we couldn't get much back.

Emotional Mark: This is the best the Celtics could get for Rondo!?!?!?! What is the fucking point then? These are not real assets. The players we got back are role players and the first round pick is likely to be in the 20's two years from now. You know what types of players get picked in the 20's? Fab Melo and JaJuan Johnson. Great work Danny, can't wait to see the next Fab Melo walk through that door. Why wouldn't we just hang onto Rondo through the rest of the year, let him throw beautiful entry passes to Tyler Zeller, perform his around the back fakes, post his triple doubles and then sail off into the sunset next year. Ya we would lose him for nothing, but we basically got nothing back. There is even the possibility we could have got a better offer closer to the deadline. I know the "experts" are saying this is the best we were going to do even if we waited, but so fucking what? This return is shitty. When you can eat shit now or eat shit later, why not just eat shit later if you at least get to watch Rondo for 3 more months? It's not like this was a deal we couldn't refuse.

Rational Mark: The return isn't so bad. Wright is a super efficient post player. The all time record for field goal percentage in a single season is 72.7%, held by Wilt Chamberlain in 1972. Wright this year is shooting 74.8%. Not many people can claim to hold a statistic better than Wilt. He does a lot of his damage on pick and rolls, a play set that Brad Stevens clearly wants to run more. He is also the mythical rim protector the team has been desperate for since they traded Garnett. Crowder is a good wing defender and can shoot threes. The less said about Nelson the better, but maybe he'll be an even better mentor for Marcus Smart.

The first round pick and trade exception are the real keys to the deal. The trade exception means that the Celtics can take on any contract or combinations of contracts up to $12.9 million in a trade even if they are over the cap. A large trade exception from the Paul Pierce trade was the only reason the team was able to get Zeller, Marcus Thornton and a first round pick. In a league often driven by financial decisions, the team now stands poised to absorb an undesirable contract from a team with the caveat they sweeten the deal with a first round pick and/or a young player like Zeller.

The first round pick may end up in the 20's next year, but it could also end up in the lottery this year or next year as well. Rondo will probably make the Mavs better, but he also may not. As we discussed before, there was a reason he was able to be had so cheaply. He could screw up what the Mavs have going right now. He could also get hurt as could Tyson Chandler or Dirk, who are both deep into their 30's, and torpedo that team. The Western Conference is an unforgiving bitch and just one injury on any of those teams could drop them right out of the playoffs.

Emotional Mark: Brandan Wright shoots 75% because he gets open shots because the Mavs have shooters surrounding him to space the floor. Who is spacing the floor on the Celtics? And who is going to get the passes to him off the pick and roll any way? I honestly sometimes mistake Phil Pressey for the ball boy and Smart can't stay on the court. Speaking of staying on the court, Wright has never averaged more than 18 minutes per game in a season. And oh by the way, Wright is a free agent after this year! This is one of the things that pisses me off most about this trade. Rondo is a free agent after this year so I get why you trade him so you don't end up with nothing. But Wright and Crowder are also both free agents so that counts for nothing. Nelson isn't a free agent, but that's not a good thing since he is just going to clog up the Celtics' cap sheet next year. The only long term asset acquired is a likely shitty draft pick to add to our "treasure trove" of other shitty draft picks from the Clippers and Cavs. If these assets had any real value, the Timberwolves would have traded us Kevin Love before the season started and we wouldn't be having this talk right now.

Rational Mark: Regardless of what you think about the assets the team has acquired, it was time to accelerate the rebuild. The Celtics right now were mildly competitive. They have lost a lot of close games this year that could easily have been wins. They aren't far off from the number 8 seed in the Eastern Conference (ya, the league is that bad once again). Keeping Rondo around could have made the team good enough to make that 8 seed. And while playoff basketball is great, getting swept in the first round isn't really that fun. Typically teams that hover around that 8 seed have a hard time progressing much further than that. It is pretty clear that Danny Ainge and ownership aren't content with challenging for playoff spots. They want to win championships. In making the team worse this year, they can improve their draft position and hopefully land their future superstar in the draft to go along with the other quality young players on the team.

Emotional Mark: I'm sick of the fucking draft, I really am. I played this game last year and I'm done with it. So what if we lucked into the 8th seed this year? That would be a huge accomplishment for these young players and it would have been an indicator that Rondo is a good leader. This has been a crazy fun team this year. The close losses suck, but the thing about rebuilding is that you don't really care about the final results. The Celtics haven't had a team this entertaining since 2009. Rondo is a huge part of why they were so much fun to watch. He does stuff on the court that I have never seen before. Not everything is necessarily the right move and he may not help the team win as much as it seems, but he's fun! Wins are great and championships are great, but fun basketball is just as great. If you don't think it's fun to watch Rondo than you are probably an old white Boston sportswriter named Dan Shaugnessy or Mike Felger or Gary Tanguay.

I also want to address this chase for the Championship. Winning the title in 2008 was amazing. I was there. It was one of the best nights of my life and I would love to get back there. The reality is that it is nearly impossible to win a championship in the NBA. In my 30 years on this earth, there have been 8 different NBA teams to win a championship. That means 22 teams have not won in that time. Almost every team that wins is anchored by a top 10 player and one or two more top 20 players. Getting guys like that is really difficult. I don't think Rondo is a top 20 player right now and I don't think he would help us land one. I also don't know that these draft picks will yield those players either.

My point in bringing all this up, is that it is more likely that the Celtics will not win a title in the next 30 years no matter what moves they make unless we luck into a once in a generation talent in the draft. So if we aren't going to win a title any time soon, why not just watch fun, unique, awesome players and teams? Trading Rondo makes me enjoy basketball less.

Rational Mark: You know what EM? You are right and surprisingly rational. This trade blows. What's the frigging point of watching basketball if teams are just going to consider the players a bunch of line items on a balance sheet? Basketball is a multi-billion dollar industry, but it's also a game. Games are supposed to be fun. Happy fucking holidays Boston, enjoy Jameer Nelson. It's 10:36 AM as I am writing this. Is that too early for a drink?

Emotional Mark: Not at all, RM. I'm already on my third. Let's go to whatever bar will have us and watch Rondo Youtube highlights.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Red Sox Offseason Review: Jon Lester

Repeat after me: Jon Lester is a Chicago Cub. Repeat after me again: Jon Lester was an Oakland A's free agent. Accepting these two basic facts is the first step towards understanding how the Red Sox were unable to bring one of the best left handed pitchers in team history back to Boston.

My simple analysis here is that I would have been happy if Lester had come back, even if the Sox were willing to match the $155 million contract he received, but I am not upset that he didn't return. I think there is a very healthy debate to be had over whether or not bringing him back on a six year deal was the right move at all, let alone one that will pay him over $25 million a year.

Since all the radio discussions have started/focused on the contract extension negotiations in March, I guess that is where I will start too. I will get this out of the way by saying that in making a 4 year $70 million offer to open negotiations, the team basically killed its chance at extending Lester for the notorious "hometown discount." I definitely don't think it killed their chances of signing him at all, but it meant he was going to test the waters to see what his market really was.

The thing is, in March 2014, his value shouldn't have been crazy high. Let's play a little game of player A and player B (granted I am cherry picking here; the analysis for long term contracts is much more nuanced here but it is illustrative of how the Red Sox could have started with 4 for $70).

From 2012 to 2013:

Player A: 24-22 record, 4.28 ERA, 418.2 IP, 97 ERA+*, 1.34 WHIP, 2.54 K/BB ratio
Player B: 25-24 record, 4.08 ERA, 390.1 IP, 95 ERA+*, 1.29 WHIP, 3.12 K/BB ratio

*ERA+ is a players ERA compared to his league average taking into account whether he pitches in a pitchers or hitters park. Player A is 3% worse than average; Player B is 5% worse than average.

Player A is Jon Lester; not exactly a great performance in the time leading up to the extension talks. Player B is Ricky Nolasco. Nolasco was a free agent after 2013 and he signed a 4 year, $49 million contract with the Minnesota Twins that off-season after posting very similar numbers to Jon Lester the previous two years.

Now, there are several differences that make Nolasco worse at that particular time than Lester. Nolasco was a year older (though when their new contracts start they would be the same age) and right handed. Lester had just had a dominant post season run while Nolasco pitched in one playoff game and gave up 3 runs in 4 innings. Lester also had many years of success prior to 2012 where Nolasco was below average most of that time. Nolasco pitched in the easier National League in a pitchers park while Lester was in the AL in a hitters park (though this is taken into account in ERA+). On the other hand, Nolasco was a free agent and free agent deals are always going to cost more than extensions before free agency.

I am not saying Nolasco is the equal of Jon Lester. In fact, offering Lester 4 for $70 shows that the Sox agree with that. All I am doing by pointing this out is that Lester's bargaining position wasn't as strong at the beginning of 2014 as people think. Until August 6, 2013, Lester had a 4.52 ERA before he got hot for 2 regular season months and one playoff month. With 2 years of data showing diminished performance and a much diminished strikeout rate, it was fair for the Red Sox to wonder whether it was smart to throw huge money at the guy for the next 6 years, all of which would be in his 30's when players typically decline. The team knew 4 for $70 wasn't going to get it done and maybe that was the point. Maybe they never really wanted him back, but I will get to that in a minute.

Lester headed into the 2014 season without a new deal. He bet on himself and it was clearly the right decision. By any measure (ERA+, WAR, FIP, ERA, K/BB) he had the best season of his career. The success seemed to show that maybe he made some kind of adjustment in his approach or mechanics in the middle of 2013 so this probably wasn't a fluke (seems like he ditched his changeup and threw his cutter more). Unfortunately for the Red Sox, Lester couldn't help the Red Sox score any runs so his success on the mound was completely neutralized. When the trade deadline rolled around, the team was faced with a choice: hang onto Lester and risk losing him for a late first round draft pick, or trade him for future assets. The Sox chose the latter and it was absolutely the right choice.

Some people believe that by trading him, the Sox hurt their bargaining position with him in free agency. I think this is completely false. Forgive me for temporarily speaking in hypotheticals and playing armchair psychologist, but by offering Lester 4 for $70, the team ended any hope they had in extending Lester or getting him for a major discount. Trading him at mid-season did not hurt their position whatsoever because he was not going to sign an extension and the Sox were going to be treated like any other team no matter what. If anything, the Sox did Lester a favor by giving him a chance to win another ring. This says nothing of the fact that the team traded 2 months of a player they had no use for for an extra year of a middle of the order bat plus a second round draft pick. It was a great trade for the Sox.

When the off-season started, the Sox began their pursuit of Lester pretty quickly. Reports said the first offer was 6 and $110 million, which seemed like another offer that meant the team didn't really want him back. But this wasn't a take it or leave it offer. When negotiating, one side offers low and the other side counters high. Eventually you meet somewhere in the middle. The Sox did nothing wrong starting at this level. They continued to increase their offer up to the end. John Henry flew to Lester's house to meet with him. These may have been PR moves, but at the end of the day the team made a pretty large offer to him and if he had accepted it then he would have been our Opening Day starter with no regrets. The Red Sox were one of two finalists for his services because Lester wanted to pitch here despite the low-ball March offer, the mid-season trade and the initial low offer to start the off-season. He was not insulted by anything the team did, nor should he be.

$135 million over 6 years is a lot of money and you can easily argue that is what Lester is worth. You can also argue that he is worth $155 million over 6 years. You can also argue that no pitcher in his 30's should get a 6 year deal. All arguments would be valid. Different teams have different methods of evaluating talent and all the wicked smart people in the Boston front office determined that Jon Lester was at most worth $135 million over 6 years. You could say that $155 million is only an extra $3 million a year so why not just give it to the guy if that's what would get it done, but where does it end? A team has to trust it's analysis and set a ceiling for what it is willing to pay. It is possible that the team knew that $135 million was just enough to be competitive but not actually get the job done, but that's a dangerous game to play. If you don't want a player for that much money you shouldn't offer it just in case he accepts.

Let's also be clear about something: this is a crazy risky deal. Pitchers are so unpredictable because of injury. Most pitchers get injured, even ones that looked durable when they were younger. CC Sabathia was a better and equally durable pitcher when he signed his big contract at age 28. The first 3 seasons of that deal worked out well, but then he under performed greatly in season 4 and was injured in season 5. He still has 2 years left and is going to be 34 next year. I think there is a much greater chance that Lester is bad for the last half of this deal than he is good, though some people seem to be ok with that. But why? Why just accept that for 2 or 3 years of a contract you are going to burn $25 million per year and it won't matter? It will matter! That's still a lot of money that you can't just ignore. Look at the Yankees this past year. They had all those expensive arms that were hurt or not effective and there was nothing they could do to fix it. Teams do have a limit on what they can and want to spend.

This is the problem with getting hung up on any one player. Yes, Jon Lester would have made the Red Sox a better team next year. He was the second best pitcher available in free agency and far better than any pitcher the team had under contract at the time of the negotiations. But he was not the only pitcher available and he was not the only pitcher that was better than what the Sox had at that time and signing an "ace" (which is still debatable whether he even is one) is not the only way to make your team better. You can improve the offense (which the team did), the bullpen (which is still possible) or the rest of the rotation where you have crappy options (which the team did). You can also realize that it is only early December and there is plenty of time to make other moves.

In sports, players are really assets to the front office. It's weird to say because as fans we love the human element. It's what brings us to the ballpark. The thrill of victory and agony of defeat. But when you are building a team, each player is essentially a number on your ledger of wins and losses. If you get hung up on specific players rather than the wins and losses you end up overpaying in dollars or prospects when you could have shifted strategies to improve your team just as much in another way. The Sox missed an opportunity to improve their roster at that time with just one player, but, as you will see, they have since found other ways to improve in 2015 and maintain a more flexible future.

We will all miss Jon Lester. He helped bring 2 World Series to Boston. He recovered from cancer to become one of the best pitchers we have ever seen in Boston. He helped bring chicken and beer to the clubhouse (oh wait, we are supposed to hate him for that right?). He was a very intense competitor. He threw a gorgeous cut fastball. He was a three time All Star. He has an outside chance at the Hall of Fame. The Cubs got an excellent player who should help accelerate their bid for contention. But in the long run, I think the Boston Red Sox will be better off.

Red Sox Offseason Review: Preface

I was driving on the Mass Pike this past Friday around 4 o'clock in absolutely brutal traffic. I guess people, myself included, don't work until 5 on Fridays anymore? Any way, I was having a bad time. Maybe it was the bad time I was having, the flurry of Red Sox moves made this week or the fact that I had already listened to my Presidents of the United States of America CD two times that day, but for some reason I decided to flip on sports radio for a bit to see what they had to say about the moves. If any of you have listened to Boston sports radio, you can imagine what the hosts and callers were saying. The team is too cheap even though they have the third highest payroll! How could you sign Justin Masterson to replace Jon Lester? Why would you spend so much money on two guys who aren't even that good and will probably get hurt? Let's talk about what happened last March! 2013 was just lucky and an aberration!

It was all so predictable, uninformed and short sighted that I felt it was necessary to say something. Before I get into the individual moves, I wanted to go through some common themes that have come up through their moves and in all the moves of the baseball world this offseason.

  1. Money doesn't matter except when it does: The team clearly has a lot of money to spend. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval will make a combined $40 million this year and Lester would have added another $23 million. The team has already made it clear that they are willing to blow past the luxury tax threshold for THIS year. But one thing they don't want to do is go past it for multiple years because when you do that, your tax payments increase dramatically. So the team is fine with large payouts this year, but when they look 4, 5, 6 years down the line they want to maintain financial flexibility. This article shows the teams with the largest guaranteed payrolls in each future season for the next 13 years. In 2016, the Yankees already have $170 million committed to just 10 players including the no longer effective CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Martin Prado. So the Sox are fine with offering long term contracts to players, but if they want to avoid what the Yankees, Dodgers, Rangers, Tigers and Angels are facing, they need to limit the total number of long term deals and the number of players over 30 years old that have them. In the short term, it is fine to spend a lot, but the money matters long term so they can continue to add to their team.
  2. Offense is more difficult to acquire right now than pitching: I will get into this much more in depth when I cover the additions of HanRam and Panda. The Red Sox pounced on these two very early in free agency even though they already had a strong lineup in place and a terrible rotation at the start of free agency. Offense is down around baseball and there were only a few legit offensive threats on the market this year, compared to a robust free agent and trade market for pitchers. I have a feeling like the Red Sox internally have a valuation that says offense is even more important than we realize. Which brings me to my next point...
  3. MLB front offices are smarter than me, you and definitely everyone on the radio: With the exception of Ruben Amaro in Philly and possibly whoever is running the Rockies these days, baseball front offices are smarter than they have ever been. There aren't many Woody Woodward's running around any more (the man who traded Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb). Sure, teams make debatable moves all the time and part of being a sports fan is arguing these moves. But one thing we have to admit to ourselves is that these people making the moves know more about stats, scouting, business, negotiation and player valuation than any of us. They have proprietary databases, financial experts and access to cutting edge data that none of us have even seen. If you think a player is worth $X and they think he is worth $Y, I am siding with them.
  4. Prospects matter except when they don't: Sorry for another confusing headline. Prospects are really important to fill your team with cheap, controllable players so that you can fill other spots with expensive players who are more likely to perform. However, aside from the elite, near major league ready prospects, every other one is expendable in a trade. The team saw last year that it is just too risky to rely on too many young players that aren't elite. Even Xander Bogaerts, who is absolutely still elite, went through some prolonged slumps. This is why the team can't get rid of their top 4 young players, but anyone else should be free to go. I will go much deeper into this in the pitching section. 
  5. Spring training doesn't start until mid-February: One thing the bitchers seem to forget is that there is still a LOT of offseason left. The team still needs more relief pitching, a backup catcher and they could use a better starter than what they currently have, not to mention they have too many outfielders still. People are acting as if the team is done. They are not done at all.
  6. There is more than one way to win: The team needs an ace! Where's our ace! Gimme an ace! Ok, it would be nice to have an "ace", it really would. But that is not the only way to win in this league. The Royals won with a dominant bullpen, contact hitters, decent starting pitching, defense and speed. The Giants won with a stars and scrubs lineup and rotation and a dominant "ace." Other teams win with slugging offenses. Other teams win with 3 aces. There is no one way to do this. The goal should be to find as much talent as possible and that's what the Red Sox re dong right now.
  7. Ignore hypotheticals: One of the most frustrating things this offseason, and probably every offseason, is how people just assume that the Red Sox can get any player they want with money or by trade. Why didn't we get Jeff Samadzija, we could have beat that offer? Maybe Billy Beane just really wanted Marcus Semien? If we had just matched the Cubs offer of $155 milllion we would have gotten Lester. Maybe he just wanted to go to Chicago for a new challenge? If we just offer Mookie and Xander to the Phillies we can get Hamels. Maybe that is dumb? I want to only focus on what the team actually did.
So over the course of the next couple weeks, I will dig into some of the major moves (and non-moves) the team has made so far. First up will be a review of the Jon Lester saga. Stay tuned...