On Nov. 25, the Red Sox held a pair of beaming press conferences with Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, acquired at a cost of $183 million for a total of nine years in an attempt to plug two of the black holes that dragged the team’s 2014 season into oblivion.
Six months later, the duo has been more part of the problem than a solution in a season that, to date, has been worse than its predecessor.
Among 167 positional regulars across Major League Baseball, taking into account their offensive, defensive, and baserunning impact, Sandoval ranks 154th (14th worst) in FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement while Ramirez ranks 161st (7th worst). Combined, the duo has been worth 0.9 runs less than replacement-level players.
This story feels like it’s been played out before. As much as the challenging transitions of Ramirez and Sandoval – along with Rick Porcello (5 years, $95 million commitment; 0.5 WAR) and Rusney Castillo (7 years, $72.5 million; -0.2 WAR) – have hammered the 2015 Red Sox, they seem like part of a broader pattern that has constrained the Sox roster in different ways for much of the last five to 10 years.
Over the last 10 years, dating to the winter of 2005-06, the Red Sox have issued 11 contracts of four or more years to players who didn’t spend the previous season in their organization. That’s the most of any team in baseball – including the Yankees, who have issued 10 such contracts – in that time.
There’s still time for Porcello and Sandoval and Ramirez to change drastically the view of the returns that the Sox have gotten on those longer-term deals. But for now, the team has typically realized returns that ranged from adequate to limited to spectacular failures, as if paying retail prices for diamonds while getting cubic zirconia in return.
Since that 2005-06 offseason, there have been 102 total contracts in baseball of four or more years conferred upon players who were changing organizations – either through free agency (including players from other countries), extensions signed immediately after trades, or the posting process from other professional leagues. (Long-term deals for players who had already been under team control are not included, since the teams presumably would have far more information about players they already knew.) Every team except the Rockies has added at least one such player to a deal of four or more years in the last decade.
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On average, the cost of a win from that group has been $7.1 million. The Sox have paid an average price to date of $8.9 million per win, a mark that ranks 16th in the majors in that time but sixth among the eight teams that have added five or more such players – behind the Rangers ($4.1 million per win), Dodgers ($5.3 million), Cubs ($6.5 million), Yankees ($6.5 million), and Mets ($7.5 million), ahead of only the Angels ($9.9 million) and Mariners ($10.2 million).
Why? Why do the Red Sox seemingly encounter such a challenge when it comes to getting return on their investments, in a way that has not necessarily been the case for the Rangers or Dodgers or even the Yankees, all of whom have done relatively well in terms of the value gleaned from players brought into their organizations with long-term deals?
First, there was and is at least some expectation of transitional challenges for players who join the Red Sox.
“Every environment is going to have some newness to it,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “The first time you experience something it’s going to be new to you. … It’s going to be different than anything they’ve experienced in the past.”
Perhaps Sandoval and Ramirez and Porcello will find their footing as they begin to feel more at home in Boston. But that initial transition can deliver a bit of culture shock.
“I have played in quite a few organizations now, and it’s different playing here, good and bad,” said ex-Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes, now with the Braves. “This is Title Town. You’re expected to win. It’s tough to run World Series or bust from Opening Day, but that’s how the Sox are. Sometimes it’s a little too much for some people.”
Carl Crawford comes to mind as a player who started poorly in his first month in Boston and never seemed to recover from the discomfort of the scrutiny. It is, of course, also worth noting that while he’s been a considerably better player since being traded to the Dodgers, he’s never returned to his All-Star standard with the Rays.
In the case of Crawford, Sox officials acknowledge they looked past some concerns about how he’d adapt to Boston on the assumption that they had a clubhouse infrastructure to put him at ease. In retrospect, they lamented cutting a corner in their decision-making. As appealing as some players’ skill sets might be, there are some who simply might not be able to play under a microscope.
“There are players who are born to play in certain markets and there are players who aren’t,” said Shane Victorino, who noted his love of the fan expectations and demands in both Boston and Philadelphia, and the level of accountability needed in both markets. “To each their own. Some have been blessed to cope with it, others haven’t.”
Victorino and Gomes described the need for public accountability in Boston as a separator for some players, something that differentiates Boston from other markets where it is easier to hide from criticism. The shock of Boston – perhaps in combination with self-imposed pressure to live up to a major deal – certainly can be a contributor, albeit an unmeasurable one, to disappointing returns.
The Sox may have also, in some instances, proceeded with long-term deals despite glaring medical risks. That was the case with John Lackey, though of course the team’s addition of a clause that would grant a team option at the big league minimum if he needed Tommy John surgery has had the effect of making his contract a solid one in terms of the cost of a Win Above Replacement. The team also committed for numerous years to a pair of players (Daisuke Matsuzaka and J.D. Drew) who came with considerable medical risk, Drew because of his history of missing time, Matsuzaka because he was a pitcher.
More recently, the team took a calculated gamble on a player with no major league track record (Castillo) and another on a player with makeup questions who was getting ready to switch positions (Ramirez).
Perhaps that’s the inherent nature of free agency – virtually everyone comes with risks. It just seems that, among the teams that have most frequently been willing to take those risks, the Sox have been burned more often than some of their competitors.
Still, there are exceptions. Adrian Gonzalez has offered considerable return to the $160 million that the Red Sox committed to him when they acquired him from the Padres. Remarkably, Lackey’s been so good in the back half of his contract that he’s been worth what he’s received; he also played a pivotal role in a 2013 title. For all of the things that he wasn’t, Drew’s elite defense combined with bursts of production made him a player with solid returns on his $70 million deal. And, for all his faults, Matsuzaka made an important contribution to a championship team.
The last 10 months of players added on long-term deals, however, have yet to deliver anything close to the production expected when they signed their deals.
Sandoval, Ramirez, Porcello, and Castillo have years to prove that the Red Sox were right to sign them to the deals that they did, that the calculated risks could and will pay off.
But at least at this point in 2015, the early returns on their big-ticket items have been disastrous. Four newcomers who are making a combined salary this year (using average annual value for Sandoval, Ramirez, and Castillo, and Porcello’s 2015 salary of $12.5 million) of roughly $64 million have delivered a combined WAR that is negative.
That is a hard – and expensive – formula through which to achieve success.
A note on methodology
It’s far from perfect. While the dollar figures of contracts from 10 years ago are combined with those from today in an effort to offer a composite image, the figures aren’t adjusted for inflation.
Also, for the purposes of this examination, average annual values of the player’s entire commitment to his new club are used. So, for instance: Porcello is treated as having a five-year, $95 million deal because that’s the total commitment the Sox made to him, even though, for MLB payroll purposes used to calculate the luxury tax, he’s under contract this year for just one year at $12.5 million.
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