The Red Sox Should’ve Just Paid Papelbon

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Misunderstanding the value of a closer is the Red Sox blindspot.

Adhering too strictly to theories, stats and factoids about closers, the Red Sox have repeatedly made the same mistakes by going back to where their hearts and minds and supposed logic reign instead of where reality and how baseball actually works. They cling to an ideology, occasionally bow to need and concede the point that a legitimate closer is necessary while still holding true to the fanaticism of not paying for saves.

But they are paying for saves with currency other than money and, in retrospect, the $50 million guarantee Jonathan Papelbon received from the Phillies would have been better spent by the Red Sox to keep him rather than do what they’re currently doing, having just acquired their third replacement for him in one year. $50 million is a lot of money, especially for a closer, but here’s the tree of what the Red Sox have spent so far in getting Papelbon’s replacements:

Andrew Bailey

Bailey was acquired from the Athletics and earned $3.9 million in 2012. He spent most of the season on the disabled list with thumb surgery—an unforeseen circumstance to be sure and one that played a large role in the sabotaging of the 2012 season.

To acquire Bailey and Ryan Sweeney however, they surrendered Josh Reddick and two minor leaguers. Sweeney was paid $1.75 million in 2012. Sweeney is a good defensive outfielder in both right and center, but received 219 plate appearances, provided 0 homers, and a .263/.303/.373 slash line, making him nearly worthless at the plate.

Josh Reddick

Reddick earned $485,000 from the Athletics in 2012 and hit 32 homers with 11 stolen bases in 12 attempts and won a Gold Glove in right field for the AL West champs. The Red Sox could certainly have used Reddick in 2012, but they clearly misjudged him, used him as a chip to get a closer and replaced him with Cody Ross.

Cody Ross

Because of his feistiness and everyman likability, Ross became a popular player with the Red Sox and their fans in his lone season as their right fielder. Like Reddick, he could play center field in a pinch; like Reddick he had pop (22 homers), but with no speed and average defense in right field. He cost them $3 million and departed as a free agent for an inexplicable $26 million from the Diamondbacks. To replace Ross, the Red Sox signed Shane Victorino.

Shane Victorino

The Red Sox signed Victorino to a 3-year, $39 million contract. Keith Law referred to Victorino as a “fourth outfielder,” which is absurd. Victorino is a good player with a great attitude and clubhouse presence. He’s versatile and can play both right and center field, is a switch-hitter with power and speed. Victorino gives the Red Sox the freedom to consider trading Jacoby Ellsbury before his heads into free agency after the 2013 season.

That sort of sounds like what Reddick added, except with Reddick they’d have spent around $37.5 million less.

The separate tree to replace Bailey, who replaced Papelbon goes something like this:

Jed Lowrie

Lowrie is an average defensive shortstop at best, but he hit 16 homers with a .769 OPS in 387 plate appearances for the Astros in 2012. He earned $1.15 million last season. The primary Red Sox shortstop, Mike Aviles, had a solid defensive season and hit 13 homers while being paid $1.2 million. It’s a wash on the field, but the Red Sox could’ve gotten something more useful than Melancon for Lowrie.

Aviles was traded to the Blue Jays for the rights to manager John Farrell, whose hiring will be eventually seen as a mistake if he actually has to do some managing rather than sit there and look managerial. Given this roster, his stern face and ability to deal with the press won’t be enough.

Melancon was shipped along with Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus Jr. (two players the Red Sox got from the Dodgers in their salary dump/clubhouse enema deal sending Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to Los Angeles) to the Pirates for Joel Hanrahan.

Mark Melancon

Melancon made $521,000 in 2012. He had closed for the Astros and was acquired to be a set-up man/backup closer for Bailey just in case Bailey got hurt. But when Bailey got hurt, the decision was made (by manager Bobby Valentine or someone in the front office) to use Alfredo Aceves as the closer.

Aceves was, to put it lightly, not Papelbon. As gutty and useful as Aceves was in 2011, he was equally inconsistent, difficult and contentious with management and teammates in 2012.

Melancon? He got off to a dreadful start and wound up back in the minors. When he returned, he pitched better in a far less important role than as the set-up man. To acquire Melancon, the Red Sox gave up Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.

Joel Hanrahan

Now it’s Hanrahan who’s going to be the closer.

Hanrahan is a free agent after 2013, is arbitration eligible and set to make around $7 million next season. He’s probably better-suited than Bailey to the pressure of pitching in Boston as the closer for the demanding Red Sox, but he won’t be a known commodity until he performs. He’s never pitched for a team with these expectations and with free agency beckoning, he might try too hard and pitch poorly. Or he could be Brad Lidge, circa 2008 and be shockingly close to perfect. We don’t know.

All of this is without the horrific misjudgment the team made in trying to make Daniel Bard into a starter and succeeded in nothing more than popping his value like a balloon. Nobody even talks about him anymore, let alone mentions him in a prominent role as a reliever or starter.

Short of re-signing Papelbon, the easy move would’ve been to use the succession theory and simply insert Bard as the closer to replace Papelbon, but they didn’t do that either.

So let’s tally it up:

Hanrahan (±)$7 million + Ross $3 million + Sweeney $1.75 million + Victorino $39 million + Melancon $521,000 = $51.271 million

vs

Papelbon $50 million + Reddick $485,000 + Lowrie $1.2 million = $51.685 million

This is before getting to the Red Sox results in 2012; the dysfunction; and what they could’ve acquired in lieu of Bailey and Hanrahan if they chose to spend the money they spent and players they traded to get them.

Papelbon received a guaranteed $50 million from the Phillies with a vesting option making it worth a possible $63 million. If he reaches the appearance incentives in 2014-2015 to gain the vesting option, that will mean that Papelbon is healthy and pitching well, making the money moot because the club would be getting what they need from him.

The Red Sox never fully appreciated the value of having a pitcher who was automatically the ninth inning man. They’d underestimated the value of a closer in 2003 when not having one cost them the pennant and possibly the World Series; they accepted that they needed one in 2004 when they signed Keith Foulke, paying him $20 million for what amounted to one productive season. If you conducted a poll of everyone involved with the Red Sox from ownership on down and asked them if, prior to 2004, they’d make a bargain in which they paid any closer that amount of money for one season and were rewarded with a World Series, each and every one of them would’ve said yes without a second thought and been right to do it.

Any manager with experience and who isn’t beholden to taking orders from the front office or brainlessly attached to new theories will say that it takes a great deal off his mind to know that when he calls down to the bullpen, more often than not, his closer will be ready and willing to pitch and, the majority of the time, will nail the game down. The numbers of every game in which a club is leading in the ninth inning winning the game being X% regardless of who closes the game is separate from the sigh of relief self-assuredness the team as a whole feels when a Papelbon is out there.

Yet they still hold onto that ideology like it’s the last bastion of what they aspire to be.

A year after Papelbon’s outstanding rookie year in 2006, they put forth the farce of making him a starter before acquiescing to reality and shifting him back to the bullpen. In large part to Papelbon, they were rewarded with a World Series win in 2007.

Conceded the point; clinging; practically; financially; logistically; ideologically; injuries—there are so many words to attach to why the Red Sox run on this treadmill, but none cancel out that the simplest and smartest option would have been to re-sign Papelbon.

You can go on about his WAR being less than 2 wins in both 2011 and 2012, his failures late in the season of 2011 and how he was inaccurately perceived as a clubhouse problem. How inaccurate that was only became known in 2012 when it wound up being Youkilis, Beckett and the other malcontents who were the troublemakers and not Papelbon, who came to play every day.

You can mention the injury concerns, but as you can see in this posting on Fire Brand of the American League, the Red Sox medical staff hasn’t distinguished itself in a positive way in recent years.

You can talk about Papelbon “wanting” to leave or the clubhouse issues, but sometimes all it takes is a branch of communication and the expression from the club that they truly wanted him and said so. They never did. They constantly diminished his importance by refusing to give him a lucrative long-term contract to forego his arbitration years and free agency as they did with other young stars Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Kevin Youkilis. They gave Beckett a 4-year $68 million extension. They paid $106 million in total for Daisuke Matsuzaka. They gave Crawford $142 million. They gave John Lackey $82.5 million.

There was no money to pay one of the best closers in baseball over the past seven years? No financial wherewithal to pay one who had proven himself in the post-season where the true separation between the Mariano Rivera-type and the Joe Nathan-type is made? They were unable to provide a reasonable deal and tell Papelbon that they wanted him back? That was too much of a commitment?

The bottom line with Papelbon is that he was proven in the post-season, durable, able to handle the cauldron of baseball madness that is Boston, and they knew what they were getting without having to do a tapdance to replace him.

Hanrahan might work out or he might become another Bailey. They don’t know. With Papelbon, they did know. They just went cheap and retreated to their core beliefs of not paying for a closer while presenting a litany of excuses as to why they were doing it. All they succeeded in doing, though, was to cost themselves more money and prospects, simultaneously adding more questions to the ones that would’ve been answered had they just accepted reality and paid Papelbon to stay.

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The Kevin Youkilis Trade And All Its Angles

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Yesterday the Red Sox traded 3B/1B Kevin Youkilis to the White Sox for INF/OF Brent Lillibridge and RHP Zach Stewart. Let’s look at the ins and outs.

For the Red Sox:

They had to get Youkilis out of Boston in part because they had nowhere to play him and in part because his time as a centerpiece in the lineup had passed.

Bobby Valentine has gotten the bulk of the blame for Youkilis falling out of favor, but he’s the lightning rod. In truth this became inevitable last September and should’ve been done over the winter.

As GM Ben Cherington said, Will Middlebrooks needs to be in the lineup. He’s injected a desperately needed freshness and enthusiasm into a stagnant atmosphere.

Last season Lillibridge played all over the field defensively making memorable plays and broke out offensively with 13 homers; this season he’s reverted back to normal and his normal—a career slash line of .215/.283/.358—isn’t good.

Stewart has an average fastball and is a 4-A pitcher who the Red Sox can use as an emergency starter or long-man out of the bullpen. He’s going to Triple A Pawtucket.

The Red Sox paid $5.5 million of the $7.6 million Youkilis is guaranteed.

For the White Sox:

The disappointing Tigers have left the AL Central wide open and the White Sox are in surprising contention.

Brent Morel and Orlando Hudson were so bad at third base that 45-year-old manager Robin Ventura could’ve pulled a Roger Dorn and activated himself and couldn’t have been worse.

They needed a third baseman and got a good one for nothing.

For Youkilis:

If he’s healthy, Youkilis can still play. He was stale in Boston, wasn’t in the lineup enough to gain a rhythm and the relationship with Valentine was beyond repair. At age 33, he still has something left. The change-of-scenery plus desire to shove it to the Red Sox will rejuvenate his bat.

Players like Youkilis are judged on the now. When he was hitting, his sour faces were viewed as an intense player hating to fail. When he wasn’t hitting for a losing team and there was a replacement in the wings, he was viewed as an annoying baby.

One year ago today, Youkilis had an .890 OPS, 11 homers and 33 extra base hits. He was an All-Star. The idea that 365 days later the Red Sox would get two journeymen for him and pay him to leave was unthinkable.

But it happened.

It’s best for everyone involved.

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Mid-Season Trade Candidates—Kevin Youkilis

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Name: Kevin Youkilis
Tale of the tape: 1B/3B; 33-years-old; bats right; throws right; 6’1”; 220 lbs.
Contract status: $12 million in 2012; $13 million club option for 2013 with a $1 million buyout.

Would the Red Sox trade him?

Barring injury to Will Middlebrooks, Adrian Gonzalez or David Ortiz, they’re going to trade Youkilis somewhere.

What would they want for him?

Whatever they can get.

Perhaps they can move him for a player who’s not performing well with his current club but could be of use to the Red Sox like a Grant Balfour or Ryan Roberts.

Even if they pay the rest of his 2012 salary, they’re not going to get much of a prospect for him.

Which teams would pursue him?

The Orioles have been mentioned in certain circles, but I doubt the Red Sox are going to trade him in the division.

Casey Kotchman has been a disaster with the Indians and they could slot Youkilis in at first base. The AL Central is winnable for them and Youkilis might be a change-of-scenery player who goes on a tear (if he’s healthy) once he’s out of Boston.

The White Sox have been playing Brent Morel and Orlando Hudson at third base and neither one has hit or played particularly good defense.

It would be an admission that they were wr-wr-wr-wrong (think Fonzie from Happy Days), but the Tigers could get Youkilis and put Miguel Cabrera where he belongs—in the DH spot.

Gaby Sanchez has been atrocious for the Marlins but putting Youkilis in that hair-trigger clubhouse is a bad idea.

The Phillies might make one last desperation move on Youkilis to try and save the season before taking offers on Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino.

The Pirates are an intriguing option because they’re hovering around contention and could use a veteran with name recognition and send a signal that they’re serious about winning without giving up the farm.

The Cardinals could use insurance for their questionable status at first base as they wait (hope) for Lance Berkman to come back; David Freese has had frequent injuries in his career and Youkilis is insurance for that.

It would be an odd acquisition for the Cubs, but Theo Epstein knows Youkilis and they’re not giving up on 2013 in spite of the rebuild they’re planning. They can try and steal a Wild Card next season while simultaneously stocking the farm system by trading other veterans on their roster.

Both the Dodgers and Diamondbacks could use a corner infield bat.

The Athletics would be a weird landing spot but given the bizarre moves made by Billy Beane—clearing out the house of his starting rotation and closer and signing Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Ramirez—maybe he’d like to get his hands on the player he coveted back when Moneyball was believed to be reality. The Greek God of Walks was almost an A when Beane was taking the Red Sox job and Paul DePodesta was going to be the new A’s GM. Youkilis was the compensation for Beane being let out of his A’s contract. But Beane backed out on the Red Sox and Youkilis became a star in Boston.

The A’s need a first baseman and with their young pitching and needs at first and third base, they could trade for Youkilis and renegotiate his 2013 option to sign him for a couple of years. He might be rejuvenated as a fiery leader and dirt-caked, win at all costs type to show the young team how it’s done.

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Trading Youkilis For The Sake Of It Is A Mistake

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It’s not as simple as the Red Sox have a new third baseman; they don’t need another first baseman; and they have a DH, so they’re going to trade Kevin Youkilis away. They have to make sure: A) they aren’t going to need him; B) they’re getting something useful in a trade; and C) their position in the standings is secure enough (positively or negatively) to trade Youkilis away.

Will Middlebrooks looks like the real deal at third base and he’s younger and cheaper than Youkilis. But he’s still a 23-year-old rookie who strikes out a lot, doesn’t walk and is shaky defensively. The Red Sox need guaranteed production from third base and Middlebrooks, as talented as he is, is not a guarantee yet. Will Bobby Valentine—notorious for trusting his veterans over most rookies—want to play Middlebrooks through a slump when he has Youkilis as a proven commodity if healthy?

On the trade front, teams will be interested in acquiring a proven veteran like Youkilis in spite of his declining value, physical breakdown and reputation as a whiner. A change of scenery might be exactly what Youkilis needs for his whining to revert to being called “feistiness”.

It’s a fine line between the two. When the Red Sox were contenders every year, Youkilis’s sour faces and griping about anything and everything was seen as an intense player who wanted to win and wore his emotions emblazoned across his chest right above the words “RED SOX”. As they collapsed in 2011, that intensity was seen as a divisive and tiresome stream of complaints and “why me?” laments that no one wanted to hear from a player out of the lineup with injury.

They should not trade him just for the sake of it. Because he has a contract option for 2013 at $13 million with a $1 million buyout, the Red Sox don’t have to commit to any one strategy. If he proves himself healthy over the last few months of the season, over the winter many teams would be willing to give up decent value for a productive Youkilis for only one season. It’s got to be explored and thought seriously about before pulling the trigger. The Red Sox could come to an agreement with an interested club, exercise the option and trade him instead of taking whatever offer comes along just to get him out of town. He’s not a “get this guy outta here at all costs” player whose teammates can’t stand him. He might be annoying, but he’s not hated.

That it’s being reported that the Red Sox are telling teams they “intend” to trade Youkilis could be contingent on their position in the standings. If that’s the case, it doesn’t bode well for how they think the rest of this season is going to go. If they envision themselves as contenders, then they might need Youkilis as a backup or a regular player even if it means playing Adrian Gonzalez in right field or Youkilis in left. If they’re thinking that they’re not going to be able to get the ship straight, then it absolutely makes sense to take offers for Youkilis because, what’s the difference? They’ll be saying the season’s shot and the jettisoning of veterans of the Theo Esptein/Terry Francona era is going to begin in earnest.

GM Ben Cherington denied (in a semantic sort of way) that the team “intends” to trade Youkilis, but he didn’t say it’s not going to happen.

If it does happen during the season, it will be because the situation with the player has become so untenable that they had to get him out of the clubhouse or because they’re out of contention. Neither is palatable for the Red Sox and their fans, but if Youkilis is moved during the season it’s those scenarios that will make it a reality rather than the oft-repeated mantra of performing due diligence and keeping all doors open.

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Trolling Questions and Actual Answers, 5.23.2012

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Have you noticed that certain storylines take on lives of their own and are promoted as fact when they’re—at best—rumors or simple considerations taken by clubs performing their due diligence?

Let’s take a look at three.

Will the Red Sox trade Kevin Youkilis?

The Red Sox are so ravaged by injuries to their outfielders that they fielded a lineup last night with Youkilis at first base, Adrian Gonzalez in right field and rookie Will Middlebrooks staying at third base. For the moment, they don’t have to worry about what to do with Youkilis and Middlebrooks.

Eventually they will have to come to a solution.

The Red Sox won’t trade Youkilis while his value is nonexistent. He hit a home run last night and they still harbor hopes for a playoff run this year. He’s making $12 million this season and the club has an option for 2013 at $13 million with a $1 million buyout. They’ll hang onto him to see if they’re in a playoff race by August and September and if they’re not, they’ll see what the market is for him.

The best bet in dealing Youkilis will be if he plays well for the remainder of the 2012 season and the Red Sox put the word out that they’re trading him. They can come to an agreement with an interested club and exercise Youkilis’s option before pulling the trigger. One year of Youkilis at $13 million is a good deal if he’s healthy.

Will the Mets send Ike Davis to the minors?

It’s nearly June and he’s currently batting .156 with 5 homers.

So yes, the Mets would send Davis to the minor leagues if he doesn’t start hitting.

Jason Bay is still a few weeks away after fracturing a rib, but when he gets back the logical maneuver would be to send Davis to the minors, move Lucas Duda to first base and keep Kirk Nieuwenhuis in the big leagues to play right field.

It wouldn’t hurt Davis to go down to Buffalo for a couple of weeks to a month. One mistake the Mets can’t make is to repeat what the Braves did with Jeff Francoeur when they demoted him and brought him back to the big leagues immediately. It makes no sense to do that. If they’re sending him down, it has to be done with a plan.

Is Kevin Long to blame for the Yankees’ hitting woes?

It’s floating around the Twittersphere and other social media outlets from the armchair experts and cranky, spoiled fans that Yankees’ batting coach Kevin Long needs to be fired for the club’s lack of offensive malaise.

Just so I understand, it was Long who was credited with Curtis Granderson’s subtle changes at the plate in clearing his hips quicker and turning on inside pitches to take advantage of right field at Yankee Stadium, but now it’s Long’s fault that the team isn’t hitting?

As I said when Mickey Hatcher was fired by the Angels, the batting coach is there as a sounding board and adviser when he’s asked for advice. As a scapegoat, he’s a perfect foil, but he’s not to blame when a veteran team is slumping.

In the spring of 2011, at the suggestion of Long, Derek Jeter tried a “no stride” style of hitting. It wasn’t working. He wasn’t comfortable and switched back to his normal style. For much of the first half of 2011, Jeter was thought to be finished. Since recording his 3000th hit, he’s enjoyed a renaissance.

Jeter went to Long; Long made a change; Jeter tried it; it didn’t work; Jeter switched back to what he knew.

That’s how it goes.

If George Steinbrenner were still around, Long would definitely be in the Boss’s crosshairs. But he’s not. Considering the year GM Brian Cashman’s having—on and off the field—it would take an audacity beyond all comprehension for him to fire anyone.

Long’s not getting fired. Nor should he. It’s not because he’s done such a great job, but because firing him is not going to do any good.

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