TORONTO — As the Red Sox wrestle with the question of what — or whether — to pay Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia represents a reason to be cautious with handing out another long-term contract.
It was a year ago Thursday that the Red Sox held a press conference on the field at Fenway Park to announce that Pedroia had agreed to an eight-year, $110 million extension.
It was hailed as a brilliant move by the Red Sox because it locked Pedroia up at an average annual value of only $13.75 million. Pedroia embraced the idea of long-term security for his family and the idea of playing out his career with the Red Sox. It was a win for all concerned.
The deal looked even better in December when the Seattle Mariners signed Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal. Cano was statistically a better offensive player than Pedroia but they were comparable in many ways and Pedroia is a year younger.
That Cano received $10.25 million more per year made the Red Sox look prescient for locking up Pedroia when they did. Cano was better but he certainly wasn’t that much better.
Now, a year later, Pedroia’s deal isn’t quite so shiny.
Through Tuesday, Pedroia had hit .278 with a .723 OPS over 157 games since the day he signed his contract. In the 957 games he played previously, Pedroia hit .303 with an .828 OPS.
Pedroia once averaged a home run every 39.4 at-bats. He has seven in his last 644 at-bats.
Pedroia’s slugging percentage in 2010 was .493. It has dropped each year since, to .474, .449, .415, and now to .364. That’s a 25 percent decrease in less than four seasons.
Pedroia is hitting .269 this year with a .700 OPS. Based on an OPS+ of 96, he is a slightly below average offensive player.
Even Fenway Park, long suited for Pedroia’s swing, isn’t a safe haven anymore. He has hit worse at home (.256/.317/.351) than on the road (.283/.359/.380) this season.
Pedroia is 12th among major league second basemen in OPS this season and 10th in on-base percentage. His slugging percentage ranks 16th and he is tied for eighth in runs.
A player who stole 112 bases in 141 attempts from 2008-13 has two steals in eight attempts this season.
“I think in some cases I’m trying to do too much,” Pedroia said Wednesday before the Red Sox played the Blue Jays. “I know what it’s been and I know I’m going to be better. My numbers will get to where they’re supposed to be.”
Pedroia’s defense remains outstanding. He is second in the majors among second basemen in runs saved and first in UZR. That props up his WAR and by that measure Pedroia ranks ninth at his position.
But Pedroia was once in the discussion with Cano for being the best at his position. Now, in the American League alone, you can argue that Cano, Ian Kinsler, and Jose Altuve are ahead of Pedroia.
There are valid reasons for this. Pedroia played all of last season with a torn ligament in his left thumb that hampered his swing and sapped his power. He had surgery once the season was over.
Pedroia injured his left wrist on April 4 this season during a play at second base and was out of the lineup for two games later that month after receiving an injection.
The guess here is that Pedroia has been playing without complaint with another injury that will require surgery after the season.
“My wrist is fine,” Pedroia said. But that’s what he said about his thumb last season.
Pedroia turns 31 next month and it’s reasonable to believe he can be an offensive force again, particularly if he can stay healthy.
While you can’t measure a player’s will, Pedroia’s personality suggests he will do all he can to regain his form and probably will.
Plenty of Hall of Fame-level players had statistical dips in their careers and that could be what the last calendar year represents for Pedroia. Last season, Pedroia was fourth among second basemen in OPS.
If Pedroia hits .280 with a .750 OPS by the end of the season, it would not be a surprise. He’s the kind of player who can extend a hot streak for weeks. Pedroia is still a very valuable player to the Sox in ways tangible and intangible.
But given his statistical trends and the sure decline caused by aging, how will Pedroia look in 2018 when the Red Sox pay him $16 million? Or $40 million for the three years after that?
It’s easy to criticize the Red Sox for not just paying Lester. But it’s reasonable to understand their caution, too.
Still, the Red Sox should move forcefully to keep Lester off the free agent market. The value of a front-line lefthanded starter who can handle a market such as Boston is far greater than that of most any second baseman.
Pitching is the engine that fuels championships and Lester is worth the investment. The Red Sox would be foolish to let Lester walk away to one of their rivals. If Pedroia was worth keeping, so is Lester.
But a year ago, there was not a peep of protest about Pedroia getting $110 million. It made complete sense and the Red Sox were hailed as visionaries.
Now the cracks are showing and it’s an illustration that there are risks in any deal, even for a player such as Pedroia.