What is this team that will be introduced at Fenway Park on Friday? What were the Red Sox thinking when they put it together?
Yes, they’re once again off to a stinktastic start. For the second straight year, the Red Sox are retreating from a season-opening six-game roadtrip, this time facing a 3.5 game hole in the division (contrasted with the five-game deficit -- to the Orioles, no less -- they faced six games into last year, and the four games they were giving away to the Yankees and Blue Jays).
Last year, the poor start was viewed suspiciously, but the Sox were still viewed as having as much talent as any team in baseball. This year, there is greater skepticism about the team after a half-dozen contests.
That is unsurprising given the car-wreck that concluded the 2011 season and the ongoing feeling of unsettled transition. That sense started with Terry Francona’s departure at the start of the offseason and continued straight through to the doorstep of the regular season, with the surprise injury to closer Andrew Bailey.
In between, from the standpoint of perception, the 2012 Sox came to be defined by what is gone: Francona. Jonathan Papelbon. Marco Scutaro. Jason Varitek. Tim Wakefield. Bailey. J.D. Drew. (OK, fine, maybe not Drew -- the most quickly forgotten five-year starter in Red Sox history.)
Perhaps that focus was a function of an offseason that bore little resemblance to any other in recent Red Sox memory.
REWIND TO … THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS
The Red Sox have been nothing if not ambitious, a team that made what felt like one huge move after another in almost every offseason over the better part of a decade. A thumbnail sketch:
2002-03: Traded for Todd Walker, Jeremy Giambi; claimed Kevin Millar, Bronson Arroyo; signed David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Mike Timlin, Ramiro Mendoza
2003-04: Traded for Curt Schilling; signed Keith Foulke
2004-05: Signed Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement, David Wells
2005-06: Traded for Josh Beckett, Coco Crisp
2006-07: Signed J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo; acquired Daisuke Matsuzaka
2008-09: Signed John Smoltz, Brad Penny
2009-10: Signed John Lackey, Adrian Beltre, Mike Cameron
2010-11: Traded for Adrian Gonzalez; signed Carl Crawford, Bobby Jenks
Not all of those deals worked out -- in fact, plenty of them didn’t -- but virtually every offseason, the Red Sox were described rightly as one of the most aggressive teams of the offseason. The lone exception was in the 2007-08 offseason, when the team’s only major moves of the winter were the re-signings of Mike Lowell and Curt Schilling after both had played a key role in the team’s second World Series title in four years.
Still, shortly after they committed $300 million to Gonzalez and Crawford (one year after investing $82.5 million in Lackey), the Red Sox suggested that they were not planning to make such huge contracts a staple of their offseasons. In length and size, the team suggested, those three deals were more likely exceptions than the norm.
“You couldn’t do it every year,” CEO/President Larry Lucchino said during this spring training. “It’s not right to expect that every year there’s going to be those kinds of blockbuster moves.”
WHAT THEY HAD AND WHAT THEY NEEDED IN THE 2011-12 OFFSEASON
Meanwhile, despite the dismal end of the 2011 season, in which a single, dizzying month saw the team plummet from the best record in the American League to missing the playoffs, the Sox still felt they had an exceptional nucleus.
It was not merely that they had invested to the point where another mega-contract was unrealistic. The team also felt that prioritizing a superstar was not a necessity.
“We had three guys in the top 10 of MVP voting last year. I don’t think there are many teams that had three guys in the top 10 of MVP voting that don’t make the playoffs,” said Sox GM Ben Cherington. “So from a roster construction standpoint, we did feel we needed to add some things to make the roster function better, but we didn’t feel we needed to add a superstar.”
The Sox, of course, had Jacoby Ellsbury (2nd), Adrian Gonzalez (7th) and Dustin Pedroia (9th) in the top 10 of American League MVP voting a year ago. In the past, such an accumulation almost guaranteed a place in October.
Since 1969, when the playoff format expanded to four teams, there have been 52 teams with three players who finished in the top 10 in MVP voting. The 2011 Sox became the third to miss the postseason, and the first in the wild card era. Moreover, the other two teams to miss the postseason (the 1985 Mets and 1977 Red Sox) during the past 43 seasons both lost their divisions to teams that had four top-10 MVP candidates.
In other words, the Sox had the sort of core that almost never misses the postseason. And those three players weren’t (and aren’t) isolated in their impact on the club. They were buttressed by other All-Star-caliber players as the Sox constructed their roster.
The likes of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, David Ortiz and potentially Kevin Youkilis (depending on his recovery from surgery) and Carl Crawford (assuming 2011 was an aberration) all represented (and represent) potentially well-above-average contributors at their positions. The Sox looked at the talent already on their roster (rather than that coming off of it) and saw a team with the most important components of a championship contender.
The Sox made their biggest commitments for 2012 (and beyond) before and during the 2011 season with Gonzalez, Crawford, Jenks and Clay Buchholz. When David Ortiz accepted salary arbitration, the Sox recognized that their payroll was ready to blow past the $190 million mark (as calculated for luxury tax purposes) for 2012. They considered such levels to be more than reasonable for the construction of a champion.
“Our payroll is going to be well north of $190 million,” said Lucchino. “That’s a very large payroll, compared to everybody in baseball except the Yankees, and they’re in another planet.”
A BAD PAY-FOR-PLAY EQUATION (OR, WHAT’S REALLY MISSING)
It’s not the size of investment that deserves the most scrutiny when it comes to the Red Sox roster. It’s the return.
The Red Sox opened the year with nine players on the disabled list. Nine.
It’s a staggering total that means that the Sox have an enormous chunk of their payroll dedicated to players who are unable to take the field.
The nine players who are currently unable to contribute to the major league club will earn a combined $58.1 million (as calculated for luxury tax purposes) this season. That’s more than 30 percent of the Sox’ payroll as of this moment that is going towards players on the DL.
“It’s very high. I think we may have the highest amount of money dedicated to the disabled list as of the start of the year,” CEO Larry Lucchino said about the amount of money currently being spent on injured players. “That’s really unfortunate, but we really hope that will change as we get several of those guys back.”
Of course, the $58.1 million figure is misleading, since the Sox will soon have some of those nine players ready to play again in the leagues. The percentage of the payroll dedicated to the disabled list will most likely decline, perhaps starting soon.
Left-hander Andrew Miller ($1.04 million) is already on a rehab assignment, as is Rich Hill ($725,000). The expectation is that outfielder Carl Crawford ($20.3 million) will be back at some point in the not-too-distant future, perhaps sometime this month.
Daisuke Matsuzaka ($8.7 million) could be back in June, Bailey ($3.9 million) could be pitching in August, perhaps Ryan Kalish ($483,000) will be able to help at some point.
But John Lackey’s forthcoming season on the disabled list not only left the Sox in search of a starter but also left them with $16.5 million (as calculated for AAV purposes) that will result in no on-field return. It remains to be seen if Bobby Jenks will throw another pitch in a Red Sox uniform.
The fact that the Sox have significant money tied up in players who have not, and in some cases won’t, play for them this year represented a major limitation in terms of what the Sox could do to address their needs this winter.
THE SUPPORTING CAST
And so, with what they believed to be a strong core and a significant chunk of their payroll tied up in players whose contributions will be limited this year by injury, the Sox found themselves in a bit of a box in terms of rounding out their roster, particularly when Ortiz accepted salary arbitration.
The Sox were in a position of some comfort with regards to the top of their roster, but needed to find the complementary players who would be able to bolster the nucleus with those couple of wins that proved so elusive last year.
Bailey ($3.9 million) was the most expensive addition in an offseason that also saw the Sox trade for right-fielder Ryan Sweeney and Mark Melancon and sign outfielder Cody Ross, backup catcher Kelly Shoppach and infielder Nick Punto while adding Vicente Padilla and Aaron Cook on minor league deals.
The idea was to identify either shortcomings (the need for a right-fielder, for instance) and redundancies (the Marco Scutaro/Jed Lowrie/Mike Aviles trio) and either address deficiencies or identify complementary players. It wasn’t the grand, ambitious scale of two nine-figure contracts, but the Sox felt that meaningful moves did not require the delivery of a billboard-sized check.
“We knew we had some major needs last year, and there were major opportunities [in the 2010-11 offseason]. The same things didn’t present themselves, in our minds, to a compelling degree,” said Lucchino. “But we made a number of moves. You have to understand our philosophy. The Joes matter. The depth of a franchise roster is really critical to success. You can’t get stars every year. That’s a formula that hasn’t proven to be successful.”
In fact, the best offseason that the Sox have enjoyed under the current ownership group -- and perhaps in their history -- was the one in 2002-03, when first-year GM Theo Epstein inherited what he considered a championship-caliber core and went about rounding it out with the acquisition of several little-heralded players (David Ortiz had been released; Bill Mueller’s OBP was barely noticed during a forgettable stop in Chicago; Kevin Millar was on his way to Japan; Bronson Arroyo was waived) who were on the cusp of the greatest years of their careers.
In all likelihood, that model is unlikely to be replicated. The market is drastically different now than it was in Epstein’s first year, when several teams still gave little credence to on-base percentage, let alone other increasingly conventional measures (or ideas) like WHIP and BABIP and FIP and WAR.
“The environment is a lot different,” said Cherington said this spring, in contemplating his first offseason as GM to that of his predecessor. “That offseason, Theo did an incredible job of finding undervalued players that offseason and guys who complemented the core that was already here, but it was a different time in terms of finding that kind of player.
“The non-tender market is much different than it was back then. Teams are further along in identifying value where it is, where it’s not. We tried to hit on some guys that we thought would be good complements to the roster and who we felt were undervalued, but it’s a different exercise than eight or nine years ago.”
Still, the principle remained the same. Cherington inherited what he considered a robust core, offering the biggest building blocks needed to construct a playoff-caliber club. The gaps -- both those that were addressed by transactions and those that weren’t -- were less glaring than the foundation pieces.
MEET THE 2012 RED SOX, THE SAME (IN SOME RESPECTS) AS THE 2011 RED SOX
That is the process that led to the construction of the 2012 Red Sox team that will be introduced to its home crowd on Friday. The Red Sox front office felt comfortable betting on the notion that the end of 2011 represented a mind-boggling confluence of circumstances that would be almost impossible to replicate.
They bet on the idea that the ending of 2011 did not accurately reflect the level of talent on the roster, and that the path back to the playoffs for the first time in three years would be paved not by more marquee names but instead by improving the supporting cast. They bet on the idea that the core itself would continue to be laden with superstar-level talent.
Whether that bet pays off remains to be seen. The initial returns have yet to soothe the nerves of a still-stunned fan base.
But there is time -- 96.3 percent of the season, to be exact -- for the Sox to show whether those bets were well-placed or ill-advised. That process truly will commence on Friday, as the players settle into their baseball home and, they hope, what their team is meant to become.