Is there a chance contract negotiations become a distraction for Red Sox players?
FORT MYERS, Fla. – And so it begins.
On Wednesday, Chris Sale shared his thoughts about a possible long-term future in Boston that stretches beyond his eligibility for free agency this winter. (He loves Boston and made it clear he’s willing to talk, but to this point, there haven’t been conversations with the team.) On Thursday, Mookie Betts will encounter similar questions about his interest in a long-term deal. (To this point in his career, Betts has not shown any interest in discussing anything other than one-year deals.)
They won’t be the last.
Other members of the Red Sox who are within one to two years of free agency — a significant group that now includes Xander Bogaerts, Rick Porcello, and potentially J.D. Martinez (if he opts out) after 2019, and Jackie Bradley Jr. after 2020 — will encounter regular inquiries about their future.
Is there any chance such conversations could become a distraction?
“Not at all,” Sale said. “I think we have a very special group here. I think that obviously last year shows that.
“There’s a lot of honesty in that clubhouse. Good character. I think that even if I did start sliding towards that, somebody would get me back on track.
“I’ve got a job to do, and contract is not that. If I’m an agent or a GM, yeah, but I’m a baseball player. I play baseball. That’s where my focus lies.”
It’s certainly possible that the Red Sox clubhouse will remain focused on what transpires on the field, but history suggests that extension negotiations, or the lack thereof, can alter the environment surrounding a team.
Entering the 2004 season, the Red Sox had a few cornerstone players — Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, and Derek Lowe — entering their final years before free agency. Lowe, a resident of Fort Myers who was in Red Sox camp Wednesday to visit with the team, acknowledged that he devoted a lot of mental energy to questions about his future during a season in which he went 14-12 with a 5.42 ERA in 33 starts.
“I messed up,” said Lowe. “I really wanted to stay in Boston. They offered me a great deal right at the beginning [of 2004] and I turned it down.
“So I had a hard time with it all year, because you’re trying to get more money, get more years, but in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, ‘I probably should have taken the deal.’ So it was hard for me.”
Lowe said the free-agents-to-be didn’t discuss their negotiations with teammates. But he recalled his irritation when he got skipped in an April start that year, resulting in a 10-day layoff between outings that preceded a start in which he got hammered by the Yankees. After the loss, Lowe noted, “I can’t think of the last time Roy Halladay pitched after 11 days, and he’s the only guy who’s got more wins [over the past two seasons].”
On Wednesday, Lowe chuckled at the memory of that uncomfortable time.
“That’s the selfish side of you coming out,” said Lowe. “When I’m in the bullpen at the start of the playoffs and I’m like, ‘Now I really cost myself some money.’ It’s hard to go through it, especially when you’ve never gone through it. You think about all the money. It’s a human nature thing to do.”
Sometimes it’s not even the potential free agent whose performance suffers. In 2014, with the Red Sox coming off a World Series win, lefthander Jon Lester was approaching free agency. When the Red Sox presented an opening offer of four years and $70 million to Lester, the pitcher didn’t complain. He put his head down and dominated for the Red Sox, recording a 2.52 ERA in 21 starts.
But his teammates — chiefly the holdovers from the famously close-knit 2013 team that maintained incredible on-field focus en route to a championship — became irate about what they perceived as a lowball offer.
“Lester was always kind of a topic of conversation,” recalled a player on that team. “ ‘What’s going on?’ That was kind of always a thing . . . So there was a little bit of, not as much focus on the field.”
Dana LeVangie, the bullpen coach in 2013 and 2014 and now the pitching coach, said, “They were a pretty tight group, really tight group. It’s one of the reasons why we won in ’13. I wasn’t privy to those conversations [about Lester’s contract], but I think it’s fair to say that it brought some dissension amongst the team.”
No matter how good the clubhouse dynamic is in one year, there’s the potential for contract situations to change the outlook. Yet Lowe downplays the possibility that such conversations will hurt the 2019 Red Sox.
First, he noted, they appear too loaded and too focused on winning for contract talks to overshadow team goals.
“Obviously it’s the talk of this team because of all the free agents, the upcoming free agents, but I can’t see it being a problem,” said Lowe. “With losing teams, everyone starts thinking about themselves, and screw winning. But winning gets you paid.
“It’s easier when you’re on a winning team. I think it’s easier to keep your goals, like us in ’04, because of what happened in ’03.
“Obviously, with their talent level, they want to repeat. I think it’s harder with a losing team because everybody starts thinking about themselves.
“From what I understand, this clubhouse is all about the team. You also know in the back of your mind that your window is shrinking. But it’s the atmosphere created of team-first, individual-second, and they have it.”
Whereas the early struggles of the 2014 Red Sox and the fall from contention by July amplified the questions about Lester’s contract status, Lowe’s 2004 team proved capable of setting aside questions about the future to focus on the present — particularly after the blockbuster trade that sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs. That season serves as a testament to the fact that contract-status questions need not prevent teams from realizing their on-field ambitions.
“Exactly,” said Lowe. “The more you win, the more teams want you, so it benefits you to be on a winning team, which they are on.
“But,” he added, “time will tell.”