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November 25, 2014

Transaction Analysis

Red Sox Do Whatever They Want

by Sam Miller and Ben Carsley

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BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Reportedly reach a deal with 3B-S Pablo Sandoval, for five years and “close to $100 million.” [11/24]

Reportedly agree to sign SS-R Hanley Ramirez for four years and $88 million, with a vesting option that could be worth $22 million. [11/24]

There’s a collection of facts that form a story about the recent Red Sox, a story that the Red Sox front office itself has at times seemed to embrace: They signed a bunch of free agents to huge contracts, adding star power to a team that was set up to go on one hell of a run. The stars didn’t make them better, surprisingly. The stars’ contracts became restrictive. The team began losing. The clubhouse of stars turned out to be the wrong group of stars when it came to dealing with adversity—particularly in Boston—and things spiraled. The turnaround came when the club returned to its disciplined roster-building values. A different group, comprising different types of players, signed to different types of contracts, won the World Series.

The facts of that paragraph are clear; the conclusions within are debatable, but are mostly accepted. Which makes it reasonable that a lot of us might have reacted to Boston’s signings Monday with at least some feeling of this:

But we shouldn’t.

***

It’s tempting to look at the moves a team makes and write a profile about what that team values. Sometimes it seems to have merit—like the A’s loading up on fly-ball hitters even in a homer-suppressing ballpark. I buy that one. Sometimes it doesn’t—like most of the rest. Certainly, different front offices do have different value systems; I’m guessing that, for instance, if a psychologist showed Ben Cherington and Ruben Amaro Jr. about a million ink blots, then wrote up an assessment of what each looks for in a free-agent position player, the psychologist’s descriptions of each GM would probably look a bit different:

Patient One. Patient One is a patient one. He prefers to wait until the perfect option is available. He likes a player who requires no long-term commitment that restricts the subject’s ability to change course or pursue other options in the long term. While preserving that flexibility, he also demonstrates an appreciation for continuity, and will often retain the players he has on hand with a series of short deals. He’s more likely to make an exception for a middle-of-the-order hitter, though even in those cases generally limits his commitment to three years. He likes players who have certain “intangible” qualities, like the ability to handle adversity, or the character to thrive in a demanding market. He will gamble on players who have struggled recently, knowing that player performance can reverse quickly, and trusting that redemptions come cheap. Plate discipline and the ability to get on base is a significant concern, if a secondary one. Similarly, he likes pitchers who are around the strike zone (particularly his relievers), and is content to sign starters who will provide reliable, steady innings rather than gambling on high-variance longshots. This leads to a type of player who is generally a bit older, less durable, skilled more than athletic, mature, battle-tested. His players tend to be good at what they do, but also limited to that role. He would rather have a tool that does one job well than a tool that does many jobs only acceptably. He avoids losing draft picks.

Patient Two. Patient Two is patient, too. He will wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, until Jeff Francoeur is available.

How accurate is that description of Cherington’s values? There’s obviously a lot of guesswork, projecting, and Kremlinogy to it. Partly it’s speculative, based on his actions. Partly it’s based on his own words, or those of people he has done business with.

On short-term deals:

There’s a preference to avoid really long-term contracts with pitchers or position players in their 30s but that’s not a hard policy. But it would guide us.

“They told me that they didn’t want to sign guys to long-term deals,” [Ross said].

On the exceptions:

There does seem to be something where I think elite hitters, middle-of-the-order bats, guys who are the purest hitters, if you look at the history of long-term deals, those are the ones that tend to work out the best. Not always, but those tend to be the ones that tend to work out the best.”

On character:

“To me, you have a choice whether you’re a player, a manager, or an executive. You embrace the opportunity that comes along with working in Boston or you focus more on the challenge of working in a place like Boston. We were trying to the fill the team as much as possible with guys who would do the former,” Cherington said.

GM Ben Cherington told the Boston Herald this spring that the team makes 10 to 15 calls before acquiring a player, looking for insight into his personality.

On chemistry:

"Back in Boston, in 2002, heading into 2003, we realized we had to change the mood, the atmosphere, the culture, and we brought in guys like David Ortiz and Kevin Millar to have a very specific set of characteristics that might impact the way a clubhouse dynamic worked," Epstein said. "Ultimately we hired Terry Francona to do the same."

On front office discipline:

I hate to use this word, because it gets thrown around so cavalierly, but I don’t think we were disciplined enough. I think we got away from some of our core values.

As far as we’re concerned, we have sort of standards and limits of what we’ll do in trades or free agency. We’re going to try to stick to that, believe and have faith in our process. Over time, the best way to build a team that our fans deserve is through getting the right veterans here, being disciplined and getting the right veterans here through trades and free agency and continuing to develop from within.

So there’s 800 words describing what you might expect Ben Cherington to look for in a free agent or other acquisition. Eight hundred words that don’t matter all that much, because the pool of players available in any given day is tiny. At best, it gets big enough that a team looking for, say, a third baseman might have, say, six options:

Looking for a shortstop, they might have six options:

With a few possible trade targets perhaps on the fringes.

Sandoval and Ramirez don’t really seem to fit the (very speculative) Cherington Value System we talked about. For starters, hey, those are really long deals! After two offseasons of one-, two-, and three-year contracts, Boston is suddenly on the hook for four- and five-year contracts. Neither player generally gets a lot of public credit for being a clubhouse god—of course, we don’t actually know anything, but Ramirez has periodically been sniped at by teammates or bosses, while Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper was on the radio recently worrying that Sandoval needs to feel loved, and could struggle going through a slump in a new city where he’s seen primarily as expensive. (But really, truly: We don't know.) Neither is a buy-low guy, in the Victorino or Uehara mold. Neither fits the make-him-work approach that we associate with the classic Red Sox hitter.

And now look at that list of options again and ask whether any of that matters. You could apply the Cherington Value System to that group, but it won’t get you very far. If Boston is confident, through its 10 to 15 character reference calls, that Chris Johnson is better able to handle Boston’s culture than Pablo Sandoval, does that make him better than Sandoval? Of course not. If Stephen Drew is available on a two-year deal but Hanley Ramirez requires four, does that mean Drew makes them better? Of course not. The Value System applies on the edges; it separates two somewhat similar options into slightly more desirable and slightly less desirable. But Pablo Sandoval and Alberto Callaspo and Will Middlebrooks aren’t somewhat similar. The difference between them doesn’t come down to which one is 26 and which is 28 and which is 32; or which is round and which is long; or which has loft to his swing or which might have more positional flexibility or which is a beast in the weight room or which fits into a clubhouse better. The difference is that one is super good, and the others aren’t.

Here’s how an NL front office exec put it to me once:

“You’re making it too complicated. The potential list of available players who fit your needs is going to be a pretty small population pool. Of those, you can prioritize based on talent, fit, makeup, etc., and you make the best decision when you factor everything into the decision. At the end of the day, talent wins.”

(I'll note also that Farhan Zaidi made a similar point at a BP ballpark event this summer, referring to people seeing greater significance than they should in every Oakland move.)

Faced with this, Boston went out and got the best two players available, and added them to their team, because they could afford to. When you put it that way: Why not?

***

Why not? no. 1: Chase Headley (or some similar player who might have been theoretically available at a better price). Headley and Sandoval have been comparable hitters within any reasonable timeline, with Sandoval holding the slight edge overall and Headley holding the clear edge looking at road performance only. Sandoval is younger; he also has the unique body type that might concern you. Defensive metrics disagree in both players’ cases, with FRAA and DRS in particularly splitting on Headley, and with Sandoval’s performance particularly seeming to fluctuate from year to year. Sandoval was regularly replaced on defense around 35 times this year. Doesn’t really matter for the point I'm making; assume for now that they’re close, and assume Headley is going to come cheaper, and that on a per-win basis Headley is the batter deal. Isn’t this where the Red Sox’ discipline should kick in?

The problem is that a team’s options aren’t just limited to the small number of players available. Even among the players who are available, only a subset are necessarily attainable. Had the Red Sox decided that they could let Sandoval sign in San Diego, they couldn’t guarantee that they could get Headley, or anybody else; maybe the Yankees sign him. Maybe the Giants sign him. Maybe suddenly he’s only willing to sign a four-year deal. Maybe he’s still mulling retirement or Japan. There’s an underrated aspect to actually completing a deal and guaranteeing that spot will be filled. A team can’t take it for granted.

Why not? no. 2: The Red Sox didn’t need to sign Ramirez—or, if they did sign him, they could have put him at third and then they wouldn’t need to sign Sandoval. Why commit $40 million in 2018 to fill positions that are already filled?

It’s true. Xander Bogaerts was free. He’ll make a half million dollars next year and, for all we know, might end up the better player as soon as next April. And if Ramirez ends up in the outfield, he’ll join a crowded group that certainly doesn’t need more bodies to fill in the corners. Another way of looking at it, though, is that Bogaerts hit .203/.236/.320 over the final four months of the season, and was (by DRS) the third-worst defensive shortstop in baseball last year. We all wish him well, but it’s probably not a bad idea to have a plan B for the worst player in your lineup.

And another ‘nother way of looking at it is that, if the trade market is anything like efficient, the Red Sox ought to be able to get as much value by trading their surplus parts as they would have by playing them. Maybe the trade market isn’t efficient—maybe there’s a transaction fee on every move—but you’d assume that Cherington has a rough idea of what sorts of players he’ll be able to add in trade with the roster he had, and that it’s part of the math the Red Sox did.

Why not? no. 3: Even if they can afford to sign these two, every dollar they spend is a dollar they can’t spend elsewhere. Fair enough. If Sandoval and Ramirez suck, the Red Sox will regret this, and they might regret it especially because these two don't fit the supposed Cherington Value System. Very early, very unofficial PECOTA projections put these two at around five total wins for 2015. That number will go down the further out PECOTA goes. Even in this market, Forty million dollars is a lot to spend on five wins this year, and will be even more to spend on four wins (or whatever it ends up being) in 2016 and beyond.

If they don't suck, though, the Red Sox won't regret it. Nobody ever regrets having good players. Sandoval and Ramirez are both currently good players. The range between a good player's 10th percentile projection and his 90th percentile projection is the roughly the gap between an All-Star and replacement level filler.

Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to for a team with money and ambition. Are these two players going to be good? That’s the primary reason Carl Crawford and John Lackey and Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez were part of the losing Red Sox team: They weren’t as good as they were supposed to be.

Player 2011-2012 projected WARP Actual
Adrian Gonzalez 9.3 7.9
Carl Crawford 6.1 1
Josh Beckett 6.9 3.3
John Lackey 4.3 0.9

It's not my favorite pair of moves—they aren't two guys I love, and they don't immediately fix Boston's more significant (it seems) pitching problems. But ultimately we’ll judge the Sandoval and Ramirez deals on a much simpler question. Not “do these two players fit Boston’s latest archetype?” Not “are these two contracts a sign that Boston has become undisciplined?” Not even “what the heck are they going to do with all these players?” But rather: “Were they good?” PECOTA says ehhhhhh mayyybe. But that's the question that’s hardest to answer, and it’s the only one that ends up mattering very much. —Sam Miller

Fantasy Impact

Hanley Ramirez

I need a "diagonal up arrow" for this, since Ramirez will give back some of the Fenway bump by losing his shortstop eligibility in 2016. Yet all things considered, this is still a positive move for the former and now current Red Sox. Besides just ballpark, the 2015 Red Sox figure to have a more potent offense than the Dodgers did in 2014. And it's feasible that moving Ramirez to the outfield and letting him occasionally DH could keep him on the field more often, though that's speculative at best. If you're a Ramirez dynasty owner you're probably frustrated that he's moving out of the infield altogether, but every other contextual factor gets a bump with this move. He could threaten for 90 RBI and 90 runs hitting behind Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz and ahead of Sandoval and Mike Napoli. Remember, he'll retain his shortstop eligibility in redraft leagues next year, so be prepared to bid aggressively on draft day.

Pablo Sandoval

This is a more obvious win for Sandoval's fantasy value, as the pleasantly plump Panda goes from AT&T Park to Fenway. It's true that Fenway isn't as friendly for left-handers as it is for right-handers, and Sandoval spends the majority of his time hitting from the left side of the plate. Still, regardless of what park factor you look at when comparing Fenway to AT&T (with the exception of triples given up to right-handers, which is of dubious importance here), this is a net positive for Sandoval. Add in the lineup superiority, and he could challenge for some top-10 fantasy third base finishes over the next few years. If you own him in a dynasty league, smile, especially considering the Padres were involved in bidding for his services.

Yoenis Cespedes

You might be tempted to believe this impacts Cespedes' value, but it doesn't. He's going to play everyday somewhere; it's just less likely that's in Boston now. Since potential trade partners range from good for his fantasy value (Reds) to dear god please no (Padres), he's stuck in neutral.

Mookie Betts

The guess here is that Betts plays for the Red Sox everyday, but that's no longer certain. The Sox could enter the year with Ramirez, Rusney Castillo and Cespedes or Shane Victorino in the outfield, and that would put Betts back in Triple-A for the time being. That'd be a bummer for our purposes, and while I'd still classify it as unlikely, it's more likely now than it was yesterday.

Shane Victorino/Daniel Nava/Allen Craig/Jackie Bradley Jr.

Everyone listed above will either be in a different organization or on the bench come April. None is worth drafting in leagues shallower than 16 teams, but all should probably be retained in 20-plus team formats.

Will Middlebrooks/Garin Cecchini

It's time for Middlebrooks to get a fresh start elsewhere; it's not happening for him in Boston. Seeing Cecchini blocked is a bit of a bummer, but he could get dealt elsewhere and profile as a solid second-division starter.

Xander Bogaerts

This might seem counterintuitive, but I believe Bogaerts' value goes up slightly with these signings. He's locked in at shortstop now, with Sandoval manning third for the foreseeable future. Plus, he's going to be batting in a better lineup. I know there's going to be trade speculation, but Ramirez should've moved off of shortstop ages ago and it's tough to see the Sox selling low on Bogaerts. You can make the argument that Ramirez's presence means Bogaerts has less job security, but I still think his value gets a marginal bump. —Ben Carsley

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here
Ben Carsley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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