Jon Lester will win the popularity contest in his contract dance with the Red Sox, but will the Sox succumb to fan pressure or will they continue with their current business philosophy?
Polls show that Red Sox fans want Lester re-signed. Yet they don’t seem to like long-term contracts. Not many were upset that the Sox passed on shelling out $153 million over seven years for game-changing center fielder/leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury because they sold the public on Jackie Bradley Jr. being a suitable replacement.
Defensively, that was true. Offensively, not so much. But it’s only the first year.
The effect of being without Ellsbury is undeniable — losing a top table-setter who amassed a WAR of 5.7 last season, compared with Bradley’s 1.5 this season.
Red Sox fans seem to like watching youngsters come up from the farm system. If they’re good. And yet they want the team to go all out to sign Lester, who is 30. So, will those same fans promise not to gripe if Lester begins to falter over the length of his next contract?
The Red Sox showed us a glimpse of their thinking with the four-year, $70 million offer to Lester in spring training. They are likely to improve on that, but by how much? And if Lester gets to free agency, there’s probably a slim chance he’ll return to Boston, because other teams, who don’t yet share Boston’s philosophy on contracts, will offer six- or seven-year deals.
Some, like the Yankees, will because they have to. They don’t have a development system cranking out top lefthanded starters. There are no guarantees the Red Sox do either, but they have more options than the Yankees.
The Red Sox’ philosophy these days was expressed perfectly in a Bloomberg Business Week article earlier this year in which John Henry, who owns both the Red Sox and the Globe, said in response to a study that suggested big money is wasted on players 30 and over, “To me, the most important thing this study shows is that virtually all of the underpaid players are under 30 and virtually all the overpaid players are over 30. Yet teams continue to extravagantly overpay for players above the age of 30.”
And when comparing the Yankees and Red Sox, “It is a wildly different approach,” Henry said. “We haven’t participated in this latest feeding frenzy of bidding up stars.”
The Yankees have their own example of a post-30 pitcher gone bad — CC Sabathia. He was a horse, one of the best pitchers in the game, until he hit 32. His decline began in 2013, when he went 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA. He was terrible to start 2014 (3-4. 5.28) and then broke down. Now he’s out for the year.
The Red Sox got into the feeding frenzy, especially during the Theo Epstein era, when they acquired, among others, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, John Lackey, and Josh Beckett.
The Red Sox wanted a righthanded hitter at the time but got Crawford, a lefthanded hitter. Gonzalez was long coveted and performed well for the Sox, but his clubhouse manner didn’t fit.
The Red Sox did sign Dustin Pedroia to an eight-year, $110 million deal, but the average annual value was so slanted toward the team, and Pedroia so wanted to stay in Boston, that it was a no-brainer to go long term.
So after passing on Ellsbury (and really the first player they passed on was Jonathan Papelbon), will the Red Sox make an exception on Lester? If they do, you’d have to question whether they really have a philosophy.
While you can’t be inflexible and you have to have a replacement in mind, you have to stick to your guns whether you lose the popularity contest or not.
“If that’s your philosophy you can’t make exceptions or it will be viewed as a joke,” said one American League general manager. “If you vary from it, that sends a weak message to the baseball community, agents etc., when it comes with dealing with other players. I think the players themselves need to know where you stand as an organization, and if you keep deviating that sends the wrong message.”
The Red Sox may very well have enough faith in their youngsters to let Lester go. Maybe they wait for top prospect Henry Owens or fill in with second-tier starters. Lester is a top-tier pitcher. Unless the team assumes a contract — such as that of Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee — that’s more palatable, the chances of getting a No. 1 pitcher for less than five years seem remote.
Lester and Max Scherzer will be at the top of the heap in free agency. Scherzer should get the bigger payday, but Lester won’t be far behind. The Red Sox could make bids on Justin Masterson or James Shields, but could they obtain either under the parameters of their philosophy?
Or maybe the Red Sox aren’t worried about losing Lester.
They may go into 2015 feeling that between Clay Buchholz, Lackey, Felix Doubront, Brandon Workman, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Brian Johnson, Owens, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, and Steven Wright they have enough pitching to move on to the next generation of homegrown talent.
One problem with younger pitchers is pitch limits, so the Sox would have to manage those.
There’s no easy solution. It seems once the talks get to free agency, Lester will be lost, because the length of contracts being offered won’t be compatible with what the Sox are trying to do.
That will not be a popular outcome.
Teams would line up to acquire Tulowitzki
Troy Tulowitzki, affectionately known as “Tulo” by his friends and fans, is probably the best all-around shortstop in baseball. Rockies ownership understands his value, but they haven’t been able to pull it together since 2007, when they lost the World Series in four games to the Red Sox.
Tulowitzki, who will turn 30 in October, has watched the great career of his idol, Derek Jeter, which has included five championships.
In his heart of hearts, Tulowitzki knows that’s probably not going to happen in Colorado. He would be the perfect replacement for Jeter. Oh, if the Yankees had anyone they could trade to pull that off, but they just don’t have enough bodies to make it worth it to the Rockies.
Tulowitzki is saying all the right things about his love of Colorado, but you wonder if the word “forever” is even in the vocabulary anymore.
Where would he fit?
Insert him in the lineup of his hometown Oakland Athletics. Make him a Tiger. You think Tulowitzki does damage at Coors Field, how about Camden Yards? The Mariners would kill for Tulowitzki. How about Tulowitzki at Fenway Park?
He signed a 10-year, $157.75 million deal that runs through 2020. After this year, there’s six years left at $118 million, and anyone would pay that for a player of Tulowitzki’s caliber.
Some of his career has been spent on the DL and in the trainer’s room, but when healthy he’s put up extreme numbers.
He leads the National League with a .342 average, and he has 21 home runs, a 1.041 OPS, and a .434 on-base percentage. He’s been the best player in the NL this season. If Colorado hadn’t dropped so badly in the standings, he would be a sure MVP candidate, and he likely still is.
Tulowitzki said ownership has not talked to him about his future or the direction of the team. It had better.
“They know how focused I am on the season and helping us win games,” he said. “Maybe that’s something for the offseason to sit down and see where they’re headed. With us not playing well, I knew these questions would come up. But my job is to go out there and help the Colorado Rockies win games. And in the offseason we’ll see where that brings.
“More than anything, I want to be a part of a winning organization. If they want to go in a different direction, they’ll have to talk to me about it and see where it goes.”
Tulowitzki, at 6 feet 3 inches, 215 pounds, always has heard he should switch positions. But he never believed it and doesn’t believe it now.
“It’s the only position I’ve ever known,” he said. “If it benefits me [physically] it doesn’t matter, because I’m hard-headed.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Any time a shortstop has to move to another position it’s agonizing. There’s a certain attachment and leadership that goes with that position. But in the end, it worked out fine for the Dodgers’ Dee Gordon, who made the National League All-Star team as a second baseman. “It was best for me,” he said. “All of the things that shortstop brings — the pressures especially — were let go. I was able to really concentrate on just playing baseball. I’m having a lot of fun now.”
2. The Tigers need to do three things between now and the end of the season: 1. Acquire a setup man who could move into the closer role if Joe Nathan fails; 2. Figure out shortstop. Either go with rookie Eugenio Suarez, who has played well, or not take the chance with a rookie at such an important position and seek a veteran; 3. Add a lefthanded bat. They have five righthanded-hitting outfielders. Lefthanded-hitting Andy Dirks is on the way back from the DL, but the Tigers may need someone more substantial.
3. Would the Red Sox ever try to land both Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee?
4. The consensus from the Astros’ staff is that the team could use a veteran presence in the lineup, and more importantly in the clubhouse. A Torii Hunter type to bring the young guys together and teach them how to win. Who that player is, remains to be seen. The Marlins, for instance, brought in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Casey McGehee for that purpose.
5. Matt Kemp intrigues a lot of teams in need of a righthanded bat, including the Red Sox, but with it would come Kemp’s attitude. Plus, the Dodgers don’t think he can play center field. GM Ned Colletti remains steadfast that despite the outfield logjam in LA, he’s reluctant to deal a righthanded bat.
6. Word is the Blue Jays are in on everyone, from David Price to Hamels to Ben Zobrist and Chase Utley. “They’ve got their scouts looking at everyone, and [GM Alex] Anthopoulos is very active himself scouting,” said one AL special adviser.
7. Congratulations to colleague Dan Shaughnessy on being one of three finalists for the Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award. The other finalists are Tom Gage of the Detroit News and the late Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Updates on nine
1. Joaquin Benoit, RHP, Padres — One of the most sought-after relievers on the market. If you think about it, he’d be what the Tigers would be looking for, someone who could pitch late in games but not necessarily take Joe Nathan’s job (which is why they’re pursuing Joakim Soria, who could do both jobs). The Padres seem to be open for business, especially after dealing Huston Street to the Angels, but as one Padres official said, “We’re not giving [Benoit] away.”
2. Mike Yastrzemski, OF, Bowie Baysox — Wondering if little Yaz might be the Mookie Betts of the Orioles’ system? He’s jumped two levels this season and is now at Double A Bowie, where he started with a 4-for-5 game last week. Yastrzemski hit .306 and .312 at two Single A levels before being promoted. He also hit 10 homers at Delmarva. He is a fiery, high-energy player with some speed (17 steals).
3. Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies — The Phillies have been discouraged by what they’re hearing from other teams on Hamels. The Phillies consider him their biggest trade chip, but will hold on to him if they don’t get what they consider a fair deal. The Red Sox sent their top pitching scout, Eddie Bane, to watch Hamels before the break. The Phillies have scouted the Red Sox’ major and minor league teams all season. One major league source said if the Phillies get a taker on the full contract and they get three top prospects, he’s gone, and Hamels, according to another major league source, wouldn’t mind.
4. Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies — Right now it doesn’t appear that Utley is going anywhere because he can invoke his 10-5 rights and it looks as if he wants to remain in Philadelphia. But there’s time. And it hasn’t stopped teams such as the Blue Jays and Giants from taking their best shot, and they likely will through the end of the month.
5. Jonathan Papelbon, RHP, Phillies — The Dodgers already have some interesting personalities in their clubhouse, so adding one more probably isn’t a big deal. Papelbon has worn out his welcome in Philly, but he’s had a very good year. So the Dodgers, in need of a late-inning reliever, could partake. The Angels were also dabbling before acquiring Street.
6. David Price, LHP, Rays — Would Price ever sign with the Mariners long term? The Mariners don’t view it as an issue because they would have Price for the remainder of this year and next. The Cardinals have shown interest but would want a financial commitment, according to a major league source. Don’t rule out the Giants, who also have had interest in Ben Zobrist to solve their second base situation. The Rays, however, know they need top value in return, just as the Phillies would need for Hamels.
7. Chad Qualls, RHP, Astros — Qualls has resurrected his career and is now someone teams are asking about, according to a major league source. Also drawing interest is Houston lefthander Tony Sipp, whose career has been helter-skelter but his good times have been very good.
8. A.J. Pierzynski, C, free agent — The fascination with Pierzynski at this point would be as a lefthanded bat who could DH and catch occasionally. Pierzynski, who cleared waivers Friday, has told agent Steve Hilliard that he would like to continue playing.
9. Dan Uggla, 2B, free agent — Amazing how ugly the Uggla situation got. The Braves looked into other measures to relieve themselves from the financial obligation (about $20 million), according to a major league source, but were unable to do so. The process lasted for about a month. With no trade partner to be found, the Braves released the once-productive Uggla, whose career has declined rapidly. In spring training, Uggla was hitting much better after having Lasik surgery, but the good times didn’t last long. With such a need for righthanded power, teams inquired with agent Terry Bross just hours after Uggla was released.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Since 2002, David Ortiz is the only player with 13 20-homer seasons.” . . . Also, “At 35, amid a 17-year career, Adrian Beltre now has a .284 career batting average. In 2009, his career average was .270, and it has been rising each season since.” . . . And, “Since 2012, only Miguel Cabrera (204), Mike Trout (193), and Paul Goldschmidt (192) have more than 185 extra-base hits.” . . . Happy birthday on Monday to Gary Waslewski (73) and Dave Henderson (56).
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.