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 Red Sox Vault Is Closed

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After they spent big last winter to try and win in 2011, the Red Sox were seen to have filled all of their holes; built a run-scoring machine of a lineup; shored up their bullpen; and placed themselves in a position blow away the competition in both the regular season and the playoffs.

They didn’t.

The reasons for the downfall and collapse will be debated forever.

The likelihood is that one specific incident wasn’t the catalyst for the failure, but minute cracks that manifested themselves over time; cracks that were irreparable, exploitable and resulted in an embarrassing stumble and post-season bloodletting of departures, allocating of blame and alibis.

If the partings with Terry Francona and Theo Epstein weren’t enough, the Red Sox went in the opposite direction of what they’d done in the past by hiring Bobby Valentine as manager.

Valentine is decidedly not a middle-managing functionary in the Moneyball fashion who’s hired to implement front office edicts and do as he’s told for short money.

He’s going to let his feelings be known and do as he sees fit without relying on consensus and organizational planning to dictate which reliever he uses when, in writing the lineups or other on-field decisions.

In a similar vein, the Red Sox rampant spending is over.

They didn’t post a bid for Yu Darvish; they haven’t been mentioned as anything other than a historically wary “oh, them” option for the name free agents; and they’re making under-the-radar and cheap acquisitions to fill their holes.

They allowed Jonathan Papelbon to leave without a fight and have steered clear of the “name” closers.

They may be willing to sign a proven closer like Ryan Madson, but it’s not going to be for the $44 million he and his agent Scott Boras were requesting. He’ll be lucky to match Heath Bell’s $27 million over three-years from the Red Sox or anyone else.

The Red Sox have chosen a different route from the headline-grabbing Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez acquisitions of a year ago.

Mark Melancon is the newest addition to the bullpen via trade from the Astros for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.

They shunned a large expenditure on a DH as David Ortiz accepted their offer of salary arbitration.

They signed a competent partner catcher for Jarrod Saltalamacchia with Kelly Shoppach and a veteran utilityman Nick Punto to replace Lowrie.

Jason Varitek‘s and Tim Wakefield’s playing careers are done in Boston.

The vault is closed.

Rather than toss more money at their problems, the Red Sox are using a different strategy in hoping that Crawford rebounds; Clay Buchholz returns from injury; the bullpen survives without the intimidating closer (Madson or no Madson); and that Valentine is able to rein in a fractured and out-of-control clubhouse.

In years past, Epstein sought to build a team that would have a consistent pipeline of talent and operate under a need-based free agency/trade-style; as they grew more successful, the fan base, media and front office were unsatisfied with the peaks and valleys inherent with accepting down years as necessary to reasonably priced consistency and they became a carbon copy of their arch-enemies, the Yankees. As was the case with Mark Teixeira, it became a case of which team was going to pay more to get the quarry and anything short of a World Series win wasn’t good enough.

The Red Sox won the hot stove battle a year ago, but that didn’t equate into the expected regular season dominance and post-season glory.

Now they’ve stopped tossing money around and are going with cheaper alternatives and the hopes for a rebound of what’s already there.

Under new GM and Epstein protégé Ben Cherington, they’re refusing to spend wildly—which is what Epstein loathed doing in his early years running the team; this might be on orders from ownership and is preferable to the GM.

But they have spent and hired a different type of manager from their original template—that too is likely to have been done on orders from ownership; Cherington wouldn’t have hired Valentine if the choice were his and his alone.

It’s a mixture of old and new; it’s understandable; and it won’t work unless the highly paid players they already had do their jobs and Valentine is able to maintain a sense of discipline that disappeared under Francona.

Don’t expect splashy headlines this winter from the Red Sox because this is pretty much it.

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The Hits Keep On Coming For The Red Sox

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Judging by the stipulation in his contract that says the 2015 option turns into a league minimum paycheck if he requires surgery due to a pre-existing elbow condition between 2010 and 2014, the Red Sox can’t be surprised that John Lackey is having Tommy John surgery. Presumably, they weren’t expecting it in the third year of his deal; nor did they foresee his results to be mediocre in year one and atrocious in year two.

Now Lackey joins Daisuke Matsuzaka from the 2011 Red Sox staff—the team that was supposed to challenge the 1927 Yankees as the greatest in history—as needing the surgery on his elbow.

I’m trying to imagine the amount of abuse that would be heaped down on a team with a spotty medical history and the perception of ineptitude like the Mets if they had two high-priced imported arms that needed Tommy John; another young stud, Clay Buchholz, who was repeatedly misdiagnosed in treating a back injury; and had their supposed “aces” Josh Beckett and Jon Lester putting on weight as the season moved forward along with the embarrassing beer drinking allegations.

It would be fodder for ridicule for months on end.

Added to the departures of general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, the Red Sox winter and 2012 hopes are looking more and more daunting.

They officially named Ben Cherington as the new GM yesterday; he’s a qualified baseball man and prepared for the job. He has to hire a manager and then decide what direction to take in improving the club.

Before Lackey got hurt, the starting pitching was still in relatively good shape if everyone came to spring training ready to pitch and healthy. Beckett, Lester, Buchholz, Lackey and a 5th starter from the system, acquired via trade or in a reasonable free agent contract would’ve been solid.

Now they have to replace those 200 innings expected from Lackey.

Can they get it from Kyle Weiland? He can be a big league contributor, but he’s not going to give them 200 innings in 2012.

There’s been discussion of moving Daniel Bard into the starting rotation, but even if they do that he’s not going to be able to give them more than 160 innings at the most. And that’s pushing it. He began his professional career as a starter and was terrible, but that shouldn’t matter.

They have to make up the innings from somewhere and if they do shift Bard into the rotation, they’re going to need bullpen help.

The litany of issues facing the Red Sox aren’t being fully grasped by their fan base; a fan base that is misunderstanding the fallout from a season of failed expectations; a collapse; off-field turmoil and turnover; and relentless competition.

The American League East is a torture chamber. The owner has clearly stated his reluctance to delve into the free agent market and after the disastrous Lackey signing, they’re not going after C.J. Wilson, CC Sabathia or Edwin Jackson. The Matsuzaka nightmare probably leaves them out of the Yu Darvish sweepstakes.

The other names floating around won’t want the years the above pitchers will; they’ll accept a shorter term deal, but Mark Buehrle would prefer a Mid-West venue and don’t be surprised to see him wind up with Epstein and the Cubs; Roy Oswalt would accept a 1 or 2 year contract, but he’d want no part of Boston or New York.

If they want to make a trade, there are names available. Paul Maholm, Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Wandy Rodriguez are quality arms, but the Red Sox system has been gutted by previous trades for Adrian Gonzalez.

Would they be willing to trade Josh Reddick or Jose Iglesias?

They could take a heavy contract (and old friends) Derek Lowe or Bronson Arroyo and wouldn’t have to give up much to get them; Lowe’s been awful; Arroyo would provide innings and is a known, popular commodity in Boston.

They also have to decide what they’re going to do with Jonathan Papelbon and how to replace him if they let him leave; David Ortiz is a free agent as well.

For so long the Red Sox off-seasons were spent trying to improve the club in the interests of contending for a championship. It had become a situation where they continually competed with the Yankees to win the Hot Stove title along with the crown to be the “favorites” in the preseason predictions. Now they’re going to be reorganizing their management team in addition to assessing and addressing all the other problems—on and off the field—while still maintaining relevance.

Tradition, foundation and and competence aside, things spiral after a collapse. And ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.

Cherington’s got a lot of work ahead of him and right now there are more questions than answers; the circumstances are dire whether their fans admit it to themselves or not.

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Red Sox Need A Sense Of Urgency And A Few Wins, Not Panic

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I understand what David Ortiz was doing with his “it’s time to panic” headline grabber.

Ortiz is a far better psychologist and leader than his lovable Big Papi persona would indicate and he’s playing bad cop to manager Terry Francona‘s good cop.

Francona will maintain his composure and preach a sense of urgency without the aforementioned panic.

With a predominately veteran team, the influence on either will be negligible.

The bottom line is this: if this current construction of the Red Sox were what they started the season with, they’d be picked for fourth place in the AL East.

Kevin Youkilis is out; Josh Beckett is out (but is expected back soon); Clay Buchholz is out; J.D. Drew is out. Their rotation behind Jon Lester has a fourth starter with an ERA over 6 in John Lackey; Tim Wakefield, a beloved veteran whose quest for his 200th career win has reached satirical proportions and who’s being asked to do far more than his 44-year-old body—knuckleball aside—is capable of; a talented journeyman for whom it’s about time we accept that this is what he is in Andrew Miller; and a rookie, Kyle Weiland.

The 2011 Red Sox are eerily similar to the 2007 Mets in more ways than this slow-torture collapse and fans repeatedly saying (not asking, saying), “is this really happening”. There’s an air of doom surrounding them that no amount of cajoling, yelling and eloquent speechmaking can extinguish. They’re locked in a vacancy in which their only path to the playoffs is going to be the Wild Card; and they have a young Rays team with nothing to lose pursuing them.

Those Mets were undone in large part by playing the Washington Nationals managed by former Mets coach Manny Acta; these Red Sox are beginning a series against a team managed by their former pitching coach John Farrell; much like Acta, don’t think Farrell is going to do the Red Sox any favors this week; if anything, he’s going to tell his players that this is their playoffs and if they want to contend next season they’re going to have to get used to playing in games where the world is watching.

And the world is watching the Red Sox now to see if they come apart.

They still have time to pull it together.

The question is, will they?

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