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 Real Questions with Bobby V and Ben Cherington

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Repeatedly we’re seeing the debate as to whether new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington wanted Bobby Valentine as the Red Sox manager.

Some say yes, he’s on board and is sincere about it.

Some say yes, but are shrugging and rolling their eyes as they say it.

Some say no. Larry Lucchino and John Henry wanted someone who was the polar opposite of Terry Francona; that they wouldn’t tolerate the nonsense that played a part in the club’s collapse in September and began the ball rolling sending Francona and Theo Epstein out of town and opened the door to the shocking hire of Valentine.

The truth is probably closer to the middle.

Did Cherington want Valentine?

No.

But Lucchino wasted no time after the departure of Epstein to step right back into the breach amidst the chaos and fill the vacuum. When the Red Sox won their 2004 championship, Lucchino’s position had been usurped and his influence marginalized by his former protege and eventual nemesis as Epstein won the subsequent power struggle.

With the collapse, the dismissal of Francona and the Epstein departure, the opening was there for Lucchino and he took it.

Is Cherington comfortable with Valentine?

I’m sure he’s rationalized it.

Valentine has a 2-year contract with 2 option years; he’s a qualified and experienced manager who is well-versed in statistics and truly knows the game from both a numerical and scouting point-of-view; he’ll nip any behavioral issues in the bud; if things go wrong, Cherington won’t get the blame as the puppetmaster in the Moneyball tradition of telling the “middle-manager” what to do.

Whereas Epstein would’ve been allowed to hire the man he wanted to hire to replace Francona, Lucchino and ownership stuck to the Red Sox recent historical script of doing the Yankees thing and importing a recognizable name.

It’s been this way for years.

When Epstein was hired and the Red Sox set about altering the culture and strategy, it wasn’t to sign the big name free agents or championship-winning managers for show in a keeping up with the Steinbrenners competition—that’s what got them and other teams in trouble in the first place—but it was done to import players and staff who fit into what they wanted to build logically and intelligently.

Now that they have immobile contracts; a greedy fan base; and an apathetic, comfortable and encroaching core of veterans who took advantage of Francona’s hands-off style. Valentine was the one name who’d drop a bomb in the clubhouse and put a stop to the off-field negativity that harmed their playoff run.

Valentine’s not going to storm in and get in the faces of Josh Beckett and Kevin Youkilis. He’ll try a conciliatory “let’s work together” approach, talk to them like men and then handle it if they step out of line.

You can make the argument for a younger, less stringent manager with a personality that wasn’t going to ruffle the delicacy of the clubhouse hierarchy, but the front office is paying the players to be in shape and behave appropriately as a matter of course; they hired Valentine to implement that desire.

If they hired someone inexperienced who fit into the middle-managing profile and it didn’t work, the Red Sox were staring in the face of a full-blown housecleaning which would’ve relegated them to possibly 3-5 years of missed playoffs and repercussions in revenue, fan response and media vitriol.

It’s easier and cheaper to bring in Valentine and see if he can tweak what’s there than it is to make wholesale roster changes and take someone else’s headaches in exchange for their own. Catering to the whims of the players would’ve made the 2011 problems worse.

Hiring Valentine is not so different from the Moneyball style of field managers except that this middle-manager isn’t going to be intimidated nor is he going to get fired if the players complain about him.

Here’s the big question: Had Epstein stayed, would Bobby Valentine be the Red Sox manager right now?

Universally, the answer will be the same no matter whom you ask.

That answer is no.

And despite assertions that all are in agreement, smiles and glad-handing, that pretty much tells you where Cherington truly stands on the situation as well.

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