Baseball's trade deadline is July 31. You can make trades in August, too, of course, but then the players have to go through waivers and the whole thing gets complicated and difficult. The end result is almost nothing really big ever happens in August.
That is, until a year ago last season. Sunday, Aug. 25 marks the one-year anniversary of "The Nick Punto Deal," an ironic name for the huge trade between the Dodgers and the Red Sox. The deal sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett, who had combined for 11 All Star appearances in their careers and were cumulatively due a quarter billion dollars in future salary, to Los Angeles. The Dodgers also received $10 million from the Red Sox. And, of course, Nick Punto!
Boston's haul -- two well-regarded pitching prospects, a Triple-A utility infielder, a minor league outfielder who didn't merit a roster spot, and a month and a half of James Loney, then the remains of a major league first baseman -- wasn't nothing, but for the big names they gave up, on the face of it, it sounded laughable.
The whole thing was hard to fathom even as it happened. Here's a list of its most surprising elements:
- Josh Beckett was traded!
- Carl Crawford was traded!
- Adrian Gonzalez was traded!
- The Dodgers assumed all but $10 million of the $262.5 million due in salaries!
- The Dodgers gave up not one but two good pitching prospects!
- The deal happened in August! No deals that big happen in August!
- The Dodgers assumed the most money in future salary obligations of any trade ever!
We've had a year to digest this deal, to work it over in our minds. One of the great things about baseball trades is that the players involved (usually) keep playing baseball, and so the way we think about a given trade is always evolving. Let's look at how things have progressed since then.
When the deal was made, the Dodgers were in second place in the National League West, two games behind the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants, and a half game behind the Cardinals for the second Wild Card. While the deal was obviously for the long term -- nobody adds a quarter billion dollars in future salaries on the hope that they can pick up two games on the Wild Card leader -- the Dodgers did hope that making the trade in August, as opposed to the off-season, would push them into the playoffs. It didn't. Any pushing was in the wrong direction, as the Dodgers went 17-18 after the trade, finishing eight games behind the Giants and two games out of the second Wild Card spot.
Still, the Dodgers now had Crawford, Beckett, and Gonzalez (and Punto!) going forward, and the 2013 playoffs were in their sights. Earlier this season that didn't seem very likely either, but then the Dodgers won a historic 43 out of 53 games to blow past Arizona and into first place where they currently sit.
As for how the big three helped, we'll start with Beckett: he didn't help at all. After just 43 1/3 poorly pitched innings this season he had shoulder surgery (quite possibly why those innings were poorly pitched) and will miss the remainder of the year. That puts the $15.75 million he'll get next season into an unfavorable light as well. A healthy and productive Beckett in 2014 is still possible, but 34-year-old pitchers coming off major shoulder surgery with recent histories of declining velocity and production aren't normally what those in the industry call "good bets." The upside for the Dodgers appears to be that Beckett's contract ends after next season.
That's called a segue, because when Carl Crawford joined the Dodgers he was injured. This, as we shall see, is sadly appropriate. Crawford was recovering from Tommy John surgery, and it was known at the time of the deal that he would miss the rest of the 2012 season. (As it turns out, Crawford picked a good one to miss; most Red Sox fans wish they'd missed it too.) Finally healthy at the beginning of this season, Crawford got off to a hot start, but a series of hamstring strains have limited his time and productivity on the field. In all, he's played in just 86 of the team's 125 games, a lot of missed time for a guy making $20 million a year. Injuries have been a big problem for Crawford since signing with Boston after the 2010 season, so it can't be encouraging to see him battling them again.
While he hasn't been as productive as hoped, Crawford is the type of player who can provide value through skills beyond just his bat -- defense, base-running -- so he can help the Dodgers even with an OPS around .750. Even so, given his recent performance and mounting injury concerns, you probably wouldn't sign Carl Crawford to a four-year, $82.5 million deal, which is what the Dodgers will be paying him. That doesn't mean he can't help them win games though. Unlike Beckett, Crawford can still be an asset, if an over-paid one.
The key to the deal for Los Angeles all along, however, was acquiring Adrian Gonzalez. The Red Sox weren't looking to deal Gonzalez -- doing so was the cost of getting rid of Crawford and Beckett. He isn't the masher he was in San Diego when he regularly posted a .900 OPS, but the run environment in the league has changed since then, so even though the numbers are smaller, Gonzalez's current .797 OPS is still 23 percent above league average. He's a very productive hitter and a valuable defensive first baseman.
However, if you compare Gonzalez's line of .295/.343/.454 to the .257/.332/.434 that the average first baseman is hitting this season, you'll notice there isn't a huge difference. Of course, Gonzalez has the kind of track record that leads you to believe he could improve on those numbers -- but even if he doesn't, he's better than the average first baseman. The question is how much better. For someone due to make $106 million over the next five seasons, any slippage and Gonzalez's contract starts to look less and less like a bargain.
Los Angeles made the deal to get good fast. Players like Gonzalez and Crawford aren't available on the free agent market in the near future. By the time comparable players hit the market, their costs will be far beyond the money the Dodgers took on.
The Dodgers treated Boston's failed 2012 roster like a free agent market, buying up their assets while the value was low. The thing is, when you buy low you usually pay less -- but the Dodgers not only paid full price, they gave up young pitching to pay full price. Then again, that hardly seems to matter to a team with seemingly unlimited money. If Crawford turns back into the All Star he was in Tampa, wonderful; if not, they'll eat it and try to sign someone else who will. But the truth is everyone has a budget, even if that budget isn't in dollars but roster spots. Teams count on players to be productive, and when they aren't, those players have to be replaced. There's a cost to finding out that you have to replace them, and to replacing them -- a cost in procurement, a cost in roster spots, and a cost in cash.
But those are concerns for a later date. Right now, the Dodgers are winning. Yasiel Puig is homering, Clayton Kershaw is striking everyone out, and Vin Scully is calling everything magic. Whether Beckett or Crawford or Gonzalez had anything to do with it couldn't matter less.
The Red Sox side of this deal is both simpler and more complex. Simpler because while the Dodgers acquired players, the Red Sox acquired an absence of players, and in that sense there is less to analyze; more complex because the key to the deal for Boston isn't the deal itself but what they fill that resulting void with.
Speaking of voids, three of the five players the Red Sox received are forgettable. Minor league infielder Ivan De Jesus and minor league outfielder Jerry Sands were both throw-ins in an off-season deal with Pittsburgh. They are currently at Triple-A in the Pirates organization. James Loney played out the season in Boston badly and wasn't re-signed; he signed a one-year deal with the Rays, and in Tampa he's hitting just as well as Adrian Gonzalez.
Minor league pitchers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster have each seen limited time in Boston and alternated between brilliant and unwatchable, though the former has occurred solely at the Triple-A level. Both have great fastballs and at least one put-away pitch (Webster has more), but neither has the command necessary to get major league hitters out. Maybe they'll learn to command their pitches and both will be mid-rotation starters (which would be very good), maybe they'll learn to command one pitch and they'll be bullpen arms, and maybe they'll learn nothing and be nothing to the Red Sox.
None of those players figured into Boston's 2013 plans. Crawford, Beckett, and Gonzalez would have, but Boston didn't attempt to replace them each with a single signing. Shane Victorino was signed to play right field and, if Adrian Beltre charged into Jacoby Ellsbury's ribs again, center. Mike Napoli was signed to play first base and Stephen Drew to play shortstop. Ryan Dempster signed to take over Beckett's old fourth starter role, and Jonny Gomes signed as part of a left field platoon with Daniel Nava.
Adding all those players cost the Red Sox a shade under $46 million for this season. In comparison, Beckett, Gonzalez, and Crawford (and Punto!) will make $58 million this season. Boston spent some of the saved money elsewhere, re-signing David Ortiz to a two-year contract and giving Dustin Pedroia a long-term contract extension. In short, the trade allowed the Red Sox to spread their money around, to reduce the risk of long-term contracts, and to reallocate their resources on different players.
After the reported clubhouse shenanigans of 2012, the deal allowed the Red Sox to remake their roster. They removed alleged malcontents from the clubhouse without having to pay their salaries, and spent the money on players they hoped would be good clubhouse presences.
In the end both teams are in first place, having adopted different ways to reach that goal. The Dodgers have tried to bring in the best players they can possibly find, unconcerned about the long-term financial outlook. The Red Sox are going back to what worked in 2007, a slightly more fiscally conservative plan revolving around drafting and developing a team from within and supplementing those players with targeted short-term free agent signings.
This trade is wonderful because of its complexity. There are so many moving pieces, so many questions still to be answered. It's an oddly shaped prism that changes when you turn it or move it from dark to light. A year in, there are no losers yet, only winners. But the trade is still evolving.