BRADENTON, Fla. – Ordinarily, deals that involve the movement of superstars in exchange for prospects require years to analyze. Yet just 20 months after the Red Sox altered their dynamic at the 2008 trade deadline by acquiring Jason Bay and shipping away Manny Ramirez (and his remaining 2008 salary) and a pair of prospects, a near-final evaluation of the deal from Boston’s perspective is already possible.
That is because the book is likely closing – or at least entering a new chapter – on the two prospects whom the Sox included in the deal. The two minor leaguers whom the Sox sent to the Pirates as part of that deal have seen their careers head south with Pittsburgh.
For the Pirates – who retain the four prospects acquired in the deal – and the Dodgers – who still have Ramirez – the evaluation is somewhat more open ended. But for the Sox, the muted impact of the two minor leaguers they shipped to Pittsburgh, combined with the fact that Bay has now moved on in free agency, has made it possible to get a read on the total impact of the deal on Boston.
“Obviously, it worked out great for Jason and great for Boston,” Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington reflected on Friday, after watching the Pirates beat the Red Sox, 9-7, in an exhibition game. “It’s still a work in progress for us.”
Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, Huntington suggests that the Pirates now believe that they had a better deal on the table for Bay than the one that they ultimately swung. He also recognizes that his team might have received a greater haul than the four players (Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen from the Sox; Bryan Morris and Andy LaRoche from the Dodgers) whom it acquired had it waited until the offseason to deal Bay.
Clearly, had the Pirates elected either of those alternatives, it could have altered the shape of four or more franchises (Sox, Pirates, Dodgers, and whatever other team(s) involved in a deal for Bay). But hindsight is an imperfect science, and the “what if” game is an endless one.
“Until 10 minutes before the deadline, we’d made the decision to hold [Bay],” said Huntington. “I think if the rest of the industry had been able to predict that he was going to go do what he did in Boston, we’d have gotten a lot more for him.
“[But] at the time, we felt like we were getting a guy with a chance to be an everyday third baseman; a guy with a chance to be an everyday right fielder; a young, upside starting pitcher prospect; and a [guy with a] chance to be a closer. We felt pretty good about the return at that point. …
“As we look at other deals on the table, there was probably one other deal that we looked back on that in hindsight would have been a better deal. For the same information we had at that point in time, yes, we want a better return. But hindsight evaluations aren’t always fair. If we look at all the information we had, we still don’t feel like we missed anything big.”
The Pirates will need years to determine the final shape of their haul. On the other hand, there are several parts of the deal on which a final assessment is already possible.
THE STARS: BAY VS. MANNY
The Sox gave up Ramirez, money (the remained of Ramirez’ ’08 salary) and prospects Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen in order to import Bay.
Had the deal not been made, according to a team source, the Red Sox remained unsure of how they would proceed with the mercurial Ramirez. It was unknown whether bridges could possibly be rebuilt following his campaign to force an exit. The team hadn’t decided whether it would be worth exercising the $20 million option for the 2009 season. Had the team declined to do so because of a preference to part ways, it was likely but slightly short of certain whether it might offer him arbitration and roll the dice that he wouldn’t accept so that it could get a pair of draft picks.
Ramirez represented uncertainty. He might or might not quit on the 2008 season. He might or might not impact the club beyond the ’08 campaign, whether by remaining in Boston or offering a parting gift of draft picks.
Bay, on the other hand, represented more certainty in the team’s evaluations. At the time, the Sox considered Bay (hitting .282/.375/.519/.894 for the Pirates) to be a better player for the ’08 and ’09 seasons than Ramirez, who had a solid .299/.398/.529/.926 line, but who, at 36, appeared to be in a decline phase of his career.
The Sox thought that Bay would be a more reliable lineup presence than Ramirez, and that he would be a better teammate. Even with the money being sent to the Dodgers, Bay still represented a relative financial bargain, given that he had a relatively modest $7.5 million salary for 2009.
The Sox were also fairly certain that they would offer Bay arbitration, confident that they would be happy either to retain the outfielder or to receive a pair of draft picks should he leave. As such, they felt they would be in no worse a position with respect to draft picks than they would have been with Ramirez, and they might actually be in a better place.
Ramirez, who played out his ’08 deal before signing a two-year, $45 million to stay in L.A., has put up big numbers with the Dodgers. He ranks second in the majors (to Albert Pujols in each category) in average (.327), OBP (.442), slugging (.605) and OPS (1.047) since joining the Dodgers at the 2008 trade deadline.
Bay's totals with the Red Sox were somewhat more modest, as he hit .274/.380/.534/.914. Yet while Ramirez put up the gaudier totals, one could make a case that Bay contributed more to his club.
First, because Ramirez was hit with a 50-game suspension for taking a performance enhancing substance last season, he played roughly a quarter of a season less than Bay. Bay played in 200 games for the Sox, while Ramirez participated in 157 for the Dodgers.
Secondly, for Ramirez, there was the thorny issue of before and after. In his first 80 games with the Dodgers, he was a force who could rival any other in the game, hitting .380/.490/.710/1.200. Yet after getting hit with his drug suspension, Ramirez was more pedestrian, hitting .269/.389/.492/.881 – numbers that were worse than Bay’s.
That, in turn, offers a case for the idea that the Sox received an upgrade in Bay. Certainly, the Sox never seemed to regret the deal, especially since they made the playoffs in both of Bay’s season.
At the same time, while Ramirez’ suspension was an embarrassment to the Dodgers, his impact in helping the franchise to reach the postseason in ’08 was immense, and Los Angeles has been in the playoffs in each of his two years.
With regards to the stars involved in the trade, then, it would appear that neither the Dodgers nor Sox had any complaints about making the deal.
THE RED SOX PROSPECTS
Brandon Moss was once regarded as one of the top positional prospects in the Red Sox system, an outfielder with significant raw power and above-average defensive skills as an outfield corner. When the Pirates acquired him, Huntington received a message from a trusted talent evaluator of another club.
“I actually had somebody whom I have a ton of respect for hand me a note after we traded for Brandon Moss that said that he would play in multiple All-Star games,” he said. “We weren’t the only ones that thought he had a chance to be a good player.”
But after being given the opportunity to play everyday in Pittsburgh, Moss failed to make good on that promise. He has hit .232/.300/.381/.681 in two seasons with the Pirates. This spring, he was 0-for-22 with eight strikeouts until he lined a single against his former club in Friday’s game.
After knee surgery helped hamper his '09 performance, the 26-year-old seems to be lacking confidence in his offensive approach. At best, he now appears to be a big league fourth outfielder. But there are questions about whether he might achieve even that status.
Though Moss is out of options, there is a decent chance that the Pirates might attempt to send him through waivers in hopes of being able to sneak him into the minors. If they do so, they would be willingly taking a chance of losing him to another team, a reflection of his muted impact.
The Pirates thought that Craig Hansen had a chance to emerge as a closer or impact relief pitcher. Instead, he has barely pitched for them.
The right-hander has suffered from a nerve problem in his neck that has limited him to 21 appearances and 22 innings (during which he has hade a 6.95 ERA) for the Pirates. While he landed on the D.L. with the issue last April, the problem may have predated that. His future remains murky.
“Hansen’s gone through a fluke injury,” said Huntington. “We don’t know if he can come back from it or not. That’s a wild card in all of this.”
Hansen was designated for assignment during the offseason and went unclaimed by the other 29 clubs. He is currently in the Pirates' minor league camp trying to work his way back.
At the time of the deal, both Moss and Hansen were replaceable parts of the Red Sox farm system. Other prospects (such as reliever Daniel Bard and outfielder Josh Reddick) had surpassed them in organizational standing.
So, not only did the Sox dip solely into a minor league inventory of surplus players, but the team will now have the opportunity to replenish, since they will get two compensatory draft picks (the Nos. 36 and 57 overall) as a result of Bay's signing with the Mets.
THE DODGERS PROSPECTS
With Hansen and Moss both unlikely to play major roles with the Pirates, the value of the deal for Pittsburgh will be determined largely by what happens with Andy LaRoche and Bryan Morris. Whereas the verdict is largely in on the prospects whom the Sox dealt to Pittsburgh, that is not yet the case on the two players the Pirates received from the Dodgers.
LaRoche, 26, had an inconsistent 2009 campaign. For the year, he hit .258/.330/.401/.731. But he finished the year on a high note, hitting .313/.359/.552/.911 with five homers. He will be given the opportunity this coming season to try to prove that he can be an average or better starting corner infielder.
“If LaRoche blossoms this year and the power comes on,” said Huntington, “then we have five or six years of Andy LaRoche for a year and a half of Jason Bay, and it still works out to be a good trade for us.”
Morris, meanwhile, still embodies the player in the deal who could make the biggest impact for the Pirates. He had terrible numbers as a 22-year-old in A-ball last year (4-9, 5.57, 32 strikeouts and 34 walks in 72.2 innings), and the organization suspended the prospect in August for his lack of professionalism.
But Morris returned with a new attitude this spring, with a fastball that registered 93-96 mph, an above-average slider, a usable slider and the potential to add a changeup. He threw strikes in his spring appearances, and gave the Pirates hope that he can achieve the status of a mid-rotation starter.
“You look at what Jason did for Boston for a year and a half, and everyone feels like you need a superstar out of it. But six solid years of production for a year and a half, that’s OK,” said Huntington. “If Bryan Morris becomes a middle of the rotation starter, all of a sudden it is a great trade for us.”
THE DEAL IN RETROSPECT
The Red Sox, from a position of near-complete hindsight, would unquestionably make the deal again. In all likelihood – despite the discomfort engendered by Ramirez’ suspension after signing his extension – the Dodgers would do the same as well.
The Pirates operate from a different vantage point. Whereas the other team teams involved can evaluate the big league impact to date to determine the impact of the deal, Pittsburgh will still need years before it can figure out whether it improved the franchise by dealing Bay.
“There are times it doesn’t look very good. I understand that,” said Huntington. “Our portion of it is still being evaluated.”
Huntington and the Pittsburgh front office have reflected on the deal plenty of times, trying to figure out whether the processes used to make the trade were optimal,
“We’ve done it. We’ve gone back and asked what did we miss here? What did we not focus on correctly?” said Huntington. “We’ve got our systems in place, and that’s where the true evaluation has to be. What did we know at the time? What did we evaluate properly? What did we undervalue? What did we overvalue?”
Without going into detail Huntington acknowledges that there was a deal on the table that now seems like it was better, but it did have flaws, and “it’s not one that I lose sleep over and say, ‘How did we not take that?’”
He also said that the Pirates have wondered whether they should have held onto Bay until the offseason. Following the 2008 season, after all, the Rockies seemed to get a more prospect-rich haul for a comparable player in Matt Holliday, who netted closer Huston Street and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez (as well as starting prospect Greg Smith, who struggled in 2009).
Even so, while recognizing that there was a chance of a greater return after the 2008 campaign, the Pirates reflect on the fact that there was a chance that Bay’s value could have dropped in the final two months of the season.
“People forget how tough an ’07 he had. He was coming off the knee injury and he was coming off all sorts of questions,” said Huntington. “That was what we debated internally: are we better to run him out there in the second half of ’07 and compete with Matt Holliday, or gamble that we’re going to have him for a good value here?
“We’d made the decision to hold him. We really had. People don’t want to believe that, but we’d made the decision to hold him. But then the Boston-Dodgers thing sprung back to life, we got the players we wanted, and we move on.”