In the early months of last season, shortly after the Red Sox signed Adrian Gonzalez to a long-term deal that locked him up through 2018 and Clay Buchholz to a deal that could keep him in Boston through 2017, a team official took stock of the fact that the team had a defined core locked up for the long term.
Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro, Kevin Youkilis, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Carl Crawford and Jarrod Saltamacchia all were either signed to multi-year deals or wouldn’t become eligible for free agency until after at least 2012. With Daniel Bard representing a natural successor to Jonathan Papelbon, and with a rotation filled with pitchers under long-term deals (Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka) that would run through at least 2012, it seemed as if the Sox had set up their roster to contend for years to come.
And so, the official was asked, what to make of all of the long-term deals and the fact that the roster had been largely set not just for 2011 but beyond?
“If we are as a team as we thought we’d be, it’s very helpful. And if we stink,” the official mused, “it’s extra bad.”
Back then, it was a laughing matter. After all, the Sox’ contract commitments seemed to represent an asset. The team owned the best record in the American League, and seemed ready to steamroll its way to the postseason.
And then last September happened, and now the first four months of 2012 have happened, and the Red Sox -- after losing, 5-3, to the Rangers on Wednesday, their fifth loss in six games -- are 49-50 in 2012 and 56-70 (.444) dating to the final month of last season.
The Red Sox aren’t just on the outer fringes of contention this year, clinging to what are becoming dwindling hopes of leapfrogging roughly half of the American League over the season’s final two months to make the playoffs. They also find themselves in a bit of a box for the long-term, with most of their positions and starting rotation spots already accounted for not just this year but into 2013 and in many cases beyond.
As such, barring a startling improvement in the team’s play down the stretch this year, the Sox may find themselves confronting a dramatic roster overhaul this offseason.
In all likelihood, now is not the time for the Sox to confront the hard realities of their long-term roster inflexibility -- though it is worth noting that the team already did so to some degree in peeling Kevin Youkilis (who had an option for 2013) off the roster and committing to Will Middlebrooks. Whereas Youkilis had a big league-ready replacement whom the Sox hoped could give them roughly equivalent production, the same cannot be said for the other positions occupied by players on long-term deals.
The Sox don’t have ready mid-year replacements in the minor leagues for players like Gonzalez or Pedroia or their starting pitchers. As such, it’s nearly impossible to envision the team strip-mining its roster at the trade deadline that is now just five days away.
But at a certain point, if the Sox miss the playoffs for a third straight year, then the team will have to figure out a reconfiguration strategy. Especially if the season continues to proceed in fits and starts and to reveal a team that is no better than mediocre, the Sox may feel compelled to change its long-term mix during the offseason, even if it means selling low on some players, and particularly members of the pitching staff, at a time when potential trade partners will have greater financial flexibility than they currently possess.
There is a widespread sense that the organization is underachieving. It exists among players and it exists among team officials. And if that underachievement nets a third straight October without baseball, then it becomes nearly impossible to continue to commit to the same core that keeps falling short, which is why there’s the potential for this coming offseason to feature some wild addition-by-subtraction trade scenarios.
More immediately, where does that leave the Sox with the distance to the trade deadline soon to be measured in hours rather than days?
At this point, given the fact that this postseason appears increasingly to be a longshot scenario, it’s difficult to justify parting with prospects who can help for the long haul in order to make a run at this season. The Sox more likely need to resign themselves to the idea that their hopes for this year rest on players like Adrian Gonzalez and Jon Lester and Josh Beckett and Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury finding ways to perform at elite levels. If that doesn’t happen, then no single player acquired from elsewhere is capable of jumpstarting the team.
And while the team can’t simply give up on this season, it can embrace the idea that players on the roster who now qualify as rentals -- those with expiring contracts who become free agents at the end of the year -- are moveable pieces.
Both catcher Kelly Shoppach and starter Aaron Cook, for instance, are performing at high levels on their one-year contracts. In all likelihood, neither player factors into the organization’s plans beyond this year.
That being the case, the team would do well to sell relatively high on both, given that they would address positions of scarcity on the trade market, and the Sox have ready replacements available. Ryan Lavarnway’s minor league apprenticeship has accomplished just about everything for which the Sox could have hoped. Meanwhile, the team needs to see if Franklin Morales can become a potential long-term solution as a starting pitcher.
Unlike Cook, he’s under control for two more years beyond this one. And the glimpses of potential dominance that he offered were too compelling not to continue the experiment. At a time when teams are paying handsomely for the limited starting pitching on the market, one would imagine that there would be a respectable market for Cook, who has been consistently very good, with a 3.50 ERA despite having just three strikeouts in 36 innings, thanks to the rediscovery of his turbo sinker.
The Sox have to at least listen on Cody Ross given that he is signed only through this year, though the dropoff from him to anyone else as an everyday right fielder would make it difficult to suggest that the team wasn’t giving up on contention if he was traded.
Still, the Sox find themselves at a position where the value of improving their long-term fortunes is sneaking ahead of the potentially quixotic undertaking of trying to get better this year. The team has some big league players whose biggest value to the club may well be as a trade chip in order to improve the shape of the organization beyond 2012.
It’s a hard decision but one that can offer significant payoff, as the Sox demonstrated back in 1997. Then, the team took expendable players like Heathcliff Slocumb and Mike Stanley and turned them into franchise-changing chips. Slocumb went to the Mariners for Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe.
That sort of insane return is unlikely ever to be repeated, but the point remains: The Sox improved their foundation significantly by moving a player whose value (if one can call it that) resided almost entirely in the short term.
The Stanley deal might be a more realistic model for how the Sox can take a short-term asset and turn it into something valuable. The team traded Stanley to the Yankees that August for Jim Mecir and right-hander Tony Armas Jr. Armas ended up being flipped that offseason to the Expos as the second component of a package that netted Pedro Martinez.
The Red Sox are now in a position where they must be constantly mindful not just of a 2012 season that is slipping away but also of the long haul. There is a way for the team to get better (or at least not discernibly worse) in the short-term while improving its shape and direction going forward.
That’s probably not the vision that Red Sox President/CEO Larry Lucchino harbored when he talked about the importance of being “bold” at the trade deadline, but it’s the sort of approach that can get a Sox team that is now three seasons deep in disappointment to start setting itself back on the right direction.