PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- It was perfectly aligned. Almost.
For the first time as a member of his new team, the Red Sox, Carl Crawford was set to play left field against his old team, the Rays. In an act of symmetry so perfect it was almost comical, former Red Sox star Manny Ramirez was in the starting lineup as the left fielder for the Rays.
“We’re going all the way with this,” chuckled Rays manager Joe Maddon before Thursday’s exhibition game.
The best laid plans…
A deluge swept across Southwest Florida in the morning prior to the game, soaking the outfield grass and leaving Ramirez a bit gun shy. He ended up getting scratched from the lineup, and so, there was no inning-to-inning juxtaposition of the two stars.
Nonetheless, the proximity of Crawford and Ramirez was fascinating for any number of reasons. Among them, there was this: The two stars are the only outfielders ever to receive contracts with an average annual value of $20 million or more. And their games could not be more different.
Ramirez was rewarded with his deals – an eight-year, $160 million contract from the Sox after the 2000 season, and a two-year, $45 million deal from the Dodgers after the 2008 campaign – solely on the basis of his ability to demolish a baseball. Both in his mechanics and his approach, he was among the best sluggers in the game – and, at times, one could make the claim that he was the best.
But Ramirez’ greatness began and ended in the batter’s box. He is not now and never was a good baserunner. His defense was, at best, average, and at times far short of that standard.
Didn’t matter. Few viewed either of his $20+ million deals as being terribly shocking at the time given his standing as one of the most productive sluggers in big league history. If someone was going to be paid that kind of coin, Ramirez seemed to fit the profile.
Indeed, Ramirez – who became the second player, just after Alex Rodriguez inked his 10-year, $252 million pact with the Rangers after the 2000 season, to sign a contract for $20+ million per year – helped define what a $20 million a year player should look like.
There now have been 14 deals with an average annual value of at least $20 million a year. Six of those contracts have gone to pitchers, while eight of those deals were signed by six position players (both Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez have inked two deals of at least $20 million).
Of those six players, four – Rodriguez, Ramirez, Ryan Howard and Mark Teixeira – had at least four 30-homer seasons at the time they signed their deals. A fifth player, Joe Mauer, was coming off a season in which he led the AL in batting average, OBP, slugging and OPS; he almost surely would have eclipsed 30 homers had he not missed the first month of that banner season with injury.
And then there is Crawford, who is coming off his career high of 19 homers. He is an undeniably different type of player from the other position players to reach the $20 million a year threshold.
Now, some remain adamant that Crawford will struggle to deliver value on the contract, and that his diverse skill set does not warrant the type of megadeal he received from the Red Sox. That view regarded Crawford’s deal as a byproduct of a marketplace that proved too desperate for an impact outfielder (see Werth, Jayson and Wells, Vernon).
Others, however, maintain that while Crawford is not the prototypical $20 million a year player, he nonetheless has a skill set to warrant the huge deal that he got.
“You have to embrace everything that he does. He’s not going to hit 25 homers, he’s not going to hit .325, he’s not going to drive in 110 runs,” said Maddon, who managed Crawford for the last five years. “But he’s going to hit around .300, he’s going to score over 100 runs. Power-wise, he still may fool some people one of these days. His defense is off the charts.
“When it comes to paying 20 million bucks, don’t just look at homers, don’t just look at batting average,” the Rays manager continued. “Why can’t we look at the complete player? Not only that, but how he goes about his business?
“He has all these different, really good tools. None jump like a $20 million player may exhibit one or two things. This guy does a lot of things well. More of a throwback kind of a player. He would have been one of the higher paid players in any generation, just because he does so many things well.”
Indeed, while Crawford is an outlier in terms of the skill set of the $20 million players, it is worth noting that before 2000, multidimensional players whose game resembled his proved pivotal in nudging the salary scale upward.
Within a week of each other, Kirby Puckett and Rickey Henderson signed baseball’s first deals of over $3 million per year after the 1989 season. At a time when both were viewed as the ultimate five-tool players, Barry Bonds (1992), Ken Griffey Jr. (1996) and Bonds again (’97) set new salary records.
But then, in the late-1990s, it was power that dictated record-setting contracts, whether a player could offer adequate defense or not. Albert Belle (’96) briefly possessed the biggest contract in big league history. So, too, did Mike Piazza (’98), Mo Vaughn (’98) and Carlos Delgado (2000) before Rodriguez set a new standard in 2000, broken only by himself.
So, in that sense, Crawford hearkens back to the value the game placed on well-rounded players prior to the mid-90s. And of course, there are reasons for that. Baseball is simply a different game – won and lost on different terms – than it was in the offseason when Rodriguez and Ramirez signed their landmark deals.
“[Ramirez] was getting paid to hit 40 [homers] and [drive in] 120. Other guys are going to get paid because they can do more: They can hit 20 home runs and drive in around the 90s. If you can steal bases and do all that, [you will get paid],” said Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis. “The game has changed in a lot of ways. Guys aren’t hitting homers the way they used to. It’s a different era. Eleven years [after Ramirez signed his Sox deal], everything is different.”
Some talent evaluators believe that the decline in performance enhancing drugs in the game in recent years has helped fuel a greater emphasis on run prevention, defense and well-rounded players. That emphasis, meanwhile, coincides with a time when teams are gaining an ever-increasing ability to quantify defense and, accordingly, a player’s complete value.
That being the case, it is worth noting that most of the position players in the group of $20 million players are elite defenders. While Ramirez and Ryan Howard are exceptions in that regard – and some players such as Adam Dunn saw their market value suppressed by perceived defensive limitations – four of the six position players to receive $20 million deals had Gold Gloves on their resumes and were viewed as elite defenders at their positions. Adrian Gonzalez and Albert Pujols will soon add to their ranks.
Though Crawford does not match the prototype of the $20 million a year player as it had existed, he fits a mold that is rare, and one that some consider ultimately just as valuable as the middle-of-the-order thumper.
Those who have watched him closely over the years suggest that there is simply no one in the majors right now who can match his defensive impact in left field thanks to phenomenal instincts, reads and exceptional speed. His speed and athleticism, they say, will allow him to age well, and to remain a multidimensional through the life of his contract, rather than a player who is suited solely for a DH role by the end of a deal.
Carl Crawford may not be Manny Ramirez. But he doesn’t necessarily need to be to deliver the kind of impact that he has provided to the Rays in recent years, and that the Sox are now betting aggressively that Crawford can deliver in Boston.
“He’s a Rickey Henderson-type player,” one agent said of Crawford. “He does so many different things. He’s that top of the order guy who can ultimately change a game.
“Manny changed the game in a different type of way. Manny was a tremendous offensive player who could change the game with one swing of the bat,” he continued. “Crawford’s the type of guy who sets up the Manny type of player, and he’s such a tremendous defensive player that, maybe he doesn’t have the same impact offensively, but his all-around game has tremendous impact.”