The Red Sox will hope to dump salary similar to the 2012 trade with the Dodgers, but that will be a challenge with the increase in analytical thinking.
The Boston Red Sox had one of the greatest disappointments to close the 2011 season, the classic September collapse that allowed for the Tampa Bay Rays to slip past them in the standings en route to the ALDS. Boston would have to deal with a different disappointment in 2012.
Jacoby Ellsbury, the 2011 runner-up for AL MVP, missed about half of the season to injury, ultimately only playing 74 games. David Ortiz only played 90 games. Bobby Valentine was a failure of a manager in Boston. The roster was beaming with talent, but a last-place finish seemed inevitable.
Come August, the Los Angeles Dodgers still showed their consistent interest in Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. He was in the first year of a seven-year contract extension. Carl Crawford was in year two of a seven-year contract, and Josh Beckett recently signed a 4-year, $68 million dollar contract. Nick Punto was also on Boston’s roster.
Ultimately, all four of those players were dealt to southern California. The four contracts totaled $270 million over the next six and a half seasons and L.A. picked up nearly all of it, $255 million. This was one of the larges blockbuster trades of the decade and re-shaped the next seven years for both deep-pocketed franchises.
The trade benefited the Red Sox in the short term as they were able to regroup after the last place 2012 season. Boston went from worst to first by re-investing the payroll saved into a series of short-term contracts (such as Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, David Ross, Koji Uehara, among others). This trade ultimately resulted in the 2013 title returning to Boston, and diminished payroll flexibility to the point that would have likely vetoed the 2018 World Series run.
This trade hurt the Dodgers short and long term. The players they acquired weren’t great, as all were on the wrong side of 30 and their best playing days were behind them. Gonzalez was solid in his Dodger tenure, garnering top-20 MVP finished in 2013, 2014, and 2015. He was worth the money he was being paid up until as recently as 2016 but suffered from injuries and lack of performance in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
Crawford was a bust in Boston and continued that trend with Los Angeles. Making over $20 million a year, he never played more than 120 games with the Dodgers, less than 100 in his final two seasons combined, and he averaged twelve stolen bases a season, nothing close to resembling his 50+ stolen base seasons with Tampa Bay.
Beckett was pretty bad for Los Angeles as well. He didn’t pitch in the final year of his contract and was overall 8-14 in his time with the Dodgers. He had a winless 2013 season that was mauled by injuries but he did toss a no-hitter in his final MLB season.
Punto had no impact with Los Angeles. He only played with them for the end of the 2012 season and 116 games in 2013.
At this time, teams didn’t take into consideration the fact that players decline as they age. Teams would often get stuck paying a player for what they did in the years prior rather than what they could expect in the years to come.
Take for example the Red Sox signing Crawford. The left-fielder was coming off of a fine season with a .851 OPS and 47 stolen bases. Boston got a good look at him as he played for the division rivals Tampa Bay Rays. He eventually inked a 7-year, $142 million dollar contract. Instead of posting the numbers he posted the years prior, the speedy lefty posted a sub-.700 OPS in his first, and only full year, in Boston.
Due to the lack of focus on analytics, teams didn’t take into account that players, especially players that rely heavily on their speed, (looking at you, Ellsbury) could face severe regression. If the Dodgers didn’t financially save the Red Sox in the middle of the 2012 season, there is a very real chance that nothing good would have come in this decade. Their hands would have been tied financially and the roster would be dominated by aging contracts for underperforming players.
Fast forward to today, nearly eight years later, and the Red Sox payroll parallels the conundrum of the 2012 season. They have many aging contracts on their team, specifically in the starting rotation. Chris Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi, and J.D. Martinez offer significantly more value than the 2012 players of Beckett, Gonzalez, and Crawford did, but analytics may get in the way of Boston’s plans to cut one of these players and trade them away.
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Teams don’t think the same as they did back in 2012. The Dodgers have shied away from their prior mistakes as they have not made a large free agent acquisition since their 2012 flop. Teams no longer overpay for aging players, as best represented by the likes of Crawford, Price, and most recently being examined, Ellsbury’s contract with the Bronx Bombers.
The Red Sox front office could really use a team that has the mentality, aggressiveness, and temptation that the Dodgers contained, but unfortunately in this new wave of thinking, a team like that is simply not out there.
While a trade that would consist of possibly Betts and Eovaldi (about $80 million over the next three years) or Betts and Price (about $123 million over the next 3 years) is nothing compared to the 2012 blockbuster (about $270 million over 6 years), this trade still seems unlikely.
Even with the value of the players being considerably higher (Betts, a year-in, year-out MVP candidate, and a starter that has been dominant at certain points in his career), teams would not take a deal like that. Front offices nowadays have the discipline to not overpay for players even if it means the chance to propel their teams into postseason contention.
As it currently stands, teams value farm systems and prospects much greater, and front offices generally don’t gear towards going all out into obtaining victory. Teams won’t be willing to take lots of money off of a team’s hands, especially for aging players such as members of Boston’s rotation – Sale, Price, Eovaldi, all entering the wrong side of 30.
Overall, with a revelation in the way teams think, partially because of the lessons learned from the 2012 Red Sox-Dodgers trade, no team will save Boston this season. John Henry better be willing to pony up the checkbook for the luxury tax because no team is willing to take on contracts of aging members of the Red Sox roster.