Shane Victorino had an amazing year. He led all of baseball with 16 triples, stole bases at an 86 percent clip, and his .847 OPS from center field was the second best in the National League behind some guy named Matt Kemp. It was the sort of contract year that free-agents-to-be dream about -- but that’s the problem: It wasn’t one. Shane Victorino had his amazing year in 2011, but his contract didn’t expire until November 2012.
Victorino only hit seven triples in 2012. His .704 OPS in center field was 11th-best in the NL behind guys like Carlos Gomez and Michael Bourn, and when the Phillies, the team he won the World Series with in 2008, traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the middle of the year, he was moved into left field as the aforementioned Matt Kemp was still hitting the laces off the ball in center. Victorino continued to steal bases at an 86% clip, though. Small victories.
There’s no pat, easy reason to explain why Victorino cratered so hard, except to say that he was never as good as he hit in 2011 and that he’s probably not as bad as he hit in 2012. His career numbers put him around league-average with a bat, but he’s over 30 and he’s a speed-and-defense kind of guy, and those two things never really work together too well for too long.
All of which is to say that it ranged from a great to a monumental surprise for much of the baseball world when Victorino signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Boston Red Sox, putting his annual salary of $13 million right between fellow free-agent signees BJ Upton (Braves, $15 million a year for five years) and Angel Pagan (Giants, $10 million a year for four years). Both men had far better years at the plate last season than Victorino did, and both are younger and have more years on their deals accordingly. Nevertheless, it’s a huge win for Victorino, who some executives thought would have to take a one-year contract to try and rebuild his value.
The Victorino deal was the latest in a whirlwind of activity out of Boston. The Red Sox signed former Texas catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli to a nearly identical contract on Monday, and acquired ex-Oakland outfielder/designated hitter Jonny Gomes and catcher David Ross, formerly of Atlanta, in the days before the winter meetings began. The signings have all been made in the shadows of the departed Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett -- or more specifically, those of their contracts. The megadeal between Boston and Los Angeles was done to clear out what the Red Sox front office, media and fan base viewed as dead money overspent on underperforming players and give the Sox superior payroll flexibility going into the first offseason under the new CBA.
So far, the Sox have used that payroll flexibility to replace the $42 million owed to Gonzalez and Crawford next year with $36 million for Napoli, Victorino, Gomes and Ross -- Ross in particular is a bit of a mystifying signing, as Boston GM Ben Cherington insists that all three of Ross and current Boston catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnaway will contribute to the club in 2013. That mystery might have a solution as simple as “Ben Cherington, baseball executive, has every incentive not to be entirely truthful with the media.”
It’s not as if Gonzalez or Crawford had particularly healthy or productive years in 2012 -- much the opposite, in fact; that’s why they were replaced -- and the primary value of these new deals is that they don’t last until the end of time; none of them commit money beyond the end of the 2015 season. That’s a good thing for the Red Sox and Boston fans that care about things like payroll flexibility. But the reason these players were willing to sign smaller, more “reasonable” deals than Gonzalez and Crawford is because, well, they’re just not as good as Gonzalez and Crawford are, even taking into consideration that the Crawford deal was a massive disaster from the moment it was signed. Napoli is a guy with no defensive home, and he’s had trouble staying on the field the last few years; he built his brand off of a great 2011 and had to weather a disappointing 2012, much like Victorino. Gomes is also pretty terrible defensively, and needs a platoon partner because he can’t hit right-handed pitching. Ross has been a backup his entire career and is pushing 40. It’s an odd collection of flawed or specialty players being paid like well-rounded starters; they’d almost be more at home in a mid-2000s Baltimore Orioles half-hearted “reload” than the sort of operation the Red Sox have been running the last few years.
The difference between those Orioles and these Sox is that Peter Angelos was lending those Baltimore teams money from his law firm and personal accounts, and the Red Sox are one of the most profitable sports ventures in the history of the business -- a truly national, borderline international brand. One suspects they’re handing out these deals not because they think Shane Victorino is the long-term answer in center field (within hours of the Victorino deal breaking, every national reporter in the country began to report almost as one that Jacoby Ellsbury was being heavily shopped) or because Jonny Gomes is going to be anything more than a useful platoon guy signed to negligible money and years, but because they want to tread water without horribly offending their fanbase, and they’ve got the money to do so.
To believe otherwise is to believe that Ben Cherington does think Shane Victorino can stick in center for the next few years and that he, Gomes, Napoli, and Ross can contribute to the next good Red Sox team in 2013. That’s not impossible -- it’s hard to look at last year’s standings and declare anything “impossible” -- but considering how Toronto has turned over its roster, Baltimore might not be a pushover anymore and the Yankees and Rays are largely unchanged, it’s highly unlikely unless the Red Sox do something drastic. Something like signing Nick Swisher (which means lots of money, lots of years, and surrendering a draft pick) and trading for R.A. Dickey of the Mets.
In the minors right now the Boston Red Sox have a very talented young man named Jackie Bradley, Jr. Bradley, who was drafted out of the University of South Carolina in 2011 after being the Most Outstanding Player in the College World Series the year before, is a polished college bat with major-league ready center field defense, and even though he’s only 23 years old and hasn’t played above Double-A, scouts are essentially unanimous that he’s ready for a shot at the majors -- guys like him aren’t going to learn anything new at Triple-A. Before Victorino, it looked as if Boston was planning to deal Ellsbury at the deadline and bring Bradley up then -- but with Victorino, either Bradley’s blocked or Victorino has to move to a corner, where his bat doesn’t play near as well. It’s inconceivable that Boston has lost confidence in Bradley (no one else in baseball has, at any rate), so if Victorino is intended to be the starting center fielder in Boston for the immediate future, that means Jackie Bradley, Jr., is on his way out of town. And I hear the Mets could use outfielders. Dickey would be extremely costly, though -- Bradley wouldn’t be the only high-value piece on his way to Queens -- and though rumors from the winter meetings are generally worthless, the rumors are that talks between the two clubs about Dickey are preliminary at best and a deal is unlikely.
As it stands, Cherington has put $36 million on the books for next season without putting the team back in contention. He needs a starter or two and probably one more really good bat to do that, along with the usual caveats of good health and good luck. If they were trying to win now, it seems they should’ve gone after Josh Hamilton using the money they gave to Gomes and Victorino; if they were trying to build for the future, it seems they should’ve fast-tracked Bradley instead of potentially blocking him with a high-priced veteran who’s been known to get vocal when he thinks his spot in the outfield or the lineup is at risk.
The signings the Red Sox made instead haven’t cost them anything but other opportunities; if Boston acquires Dickey and a legitimate right fielder -- Cody Ross is an alternative, but if the Red Sox are serious about jumping right back into contention, they’ll want Swisher -- and things break right for them next year, they could be right back in the divisional hunt. The Red Sox are in the same boat as the Yankees, Phillies, Tigers and Angels: they can buy their way back into contention, if they’re smart about it.
At the end of the second day of the winter meetings, though, all they’ve done so far is lay groundwork -- and it’s hard to say for what.