Think these Red Sox games are meaningless? Think again. The team's offseason -- and its road map to reload -- could well depend on the outcome of the remaining 11 games in a season in which the Sox have long since been eliminated.
The Red Sox' recent "hot streak" has come with an unexpected consequence. After they seemingly cemented themselves in position to pick as high as sixth in the next draft, a few wins in Toronto and Tampa Bay have them at a bizarre crossroads.
Thursday night's dramatic 7-4 walkoff meltdown against the Rays represented a somewhat bitter pill for players and other members of the organization to swallow, of course, but it could be of considerable benefit to the team in the long term. After all, entering play on Thursday, the Sox had the 10th worst record in baseball. At 68-82 (.4533), they were almost indiscernibly "ahead" of the 67-81 (.4527) Royals.
The consequence of that difference of six-hundredths of a percentage point? Because the Pirates are locked in to pick No. 9 overall in next year's draft due to their failure to sign Stanford right-hander Mark Appel*, the Sox entered the day with the 10th-worst record in the majors -- an achievement that would leave them in line for the No. 11 overall pick in the draft.
However, Kansas City beat the White Sox on Thursday while the Sox blew apart at the seams in the ninth inning in Tampa Bay. That, in turn, improved the Royals' record to one game "better" than the Sox -- which, in turn, pushed the Sox back into the 10th pick in the draft.
Sound trivial? It's not. The implications, in fact, are potentially monumental. Most members of the Sox braintrust are monitoring vigilantly whether or not the team will have a top-10 pick in the draft.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington (in a conversation for "Down on the Farm" that will air on WEEI 93.7 FM and WEEI.com on Saturday at 8:30 am**) said that he's monitoring regularly where the Sox stand in the 2013 draft, but "not quite every day. Maybe others in the office check it every day. I do check it from time to time because it is a factor, it will be a factor in exactly where we end up [in the offseason]."
Suffice it to say that the significance of a top-10 pick extends beyond just the draft order.
The top 10 picks in the draft are "protected," meaning that a team need not forfeit such a pick if signing a free agent who receives a one-year qualifying offer (roughly $13 million) from the team with whom he spent all of 2012. Picks outside of the top 10 are not protected.
Say the Red Sox wanted to sign Josh Hamilton, a player who is certain to receive a one-year qualifying offer from the Rangers. If the Sox had the No. 10 pick in the first round of the 2013 draft, the selection would be protected. And so, the Sox only would give up their second-round selection -- a spot that likely would fall somewhere around the No. 45 overall selection in the draft -- for signing Hamilton.
But, if the Sox are sitting at the No. 11 spot in the draft, the pick is unprotected. Signing a free agent like Hamilton would cost the Sox the No. 11 overall pick.
The talent drop-off of picking No. 10 compared to, say, No. 45, would be considerable. The 48 players taken at the No. 10 overall spot have combined for 43 All-Star seasons. The next player who was taken at the No. 45 spot in the draft and earns an All-Star berth will be the first.
But the impact wouldn't necessary be felt just in the absence of a first-round pick.
Further complicating matters, the value of the top draft picks is potentially far more vast than just the pick. After all, each pick in the draft comes with a recommended slot figure that is used to define how much a team can spend on its overall draft without incurring penalties.
In 2012, for instance, the No. 10 overall pick came with a recommended slot bonus of $2.7 million. If a player taken at that spot is willing to sign for, say, $2 million, then the remaining $700,000 can be conferred without penalty upon a pick (or picks) in the later rounds as a means of scooping up players who sign in the draft for signability reasons. The Sox, for instance, were able to reallocate money from some of their draft picks to sign fourth-rounder Ty Buttrey for $1.3 million.
Put another way: The Sox are going to be in a position where there's no way that they will want to part with their first-round pick. In all likelihood, they will end up with their lowest pick in the draft since either 1994 (when they used the No. 12 overall pick on Nomar Garciaparra) or 1993 (when they tabbed Trot Nixon with the No. 7 pick). It is almost impossible to imagine the team passing on an opportunity for such a player in order to sign anyone in this year's free agent class.
"I think we've always been a little bit allergic to that," Cherington said of signing a free agent who would require sacrificing a first-round pick. "We have done it on occasion. We tended to do it in years when we had additional compensation picks coming back the other way, where we could kind of even it out to some extent.
"There's only so many lottery tickets you get. Each pick in the draft, every part of the spending pool you have is in some ways a lottery ticket. In order to hit big and bring impact talent into the organization, you've got to hit on some of those lottery tickets. The more you have, the better chance you have to hit on them.
"We want to increase our chances in any way possible to get the most we can out of the draft. That extends to the international market also. And so, we're certainly going to be calculated and cautious in giving up any advantage there. There very well may be times when it's justified to do that, to sign a free agent and give up a pick. It just depends on the circumstance, the player involved and where we are as a team."
Multiple major league sources have suggested that the Sox are unlikely to get involved in the Hamilton sweepstakes. The team just shed players (in Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford) who are going to be paid handsomely in their post-prime years. Hamilton is on the wrong side of the 30 line, with a lengthy injury history, for a long-term commitment.
Still, there are other players in whom the Sox might have interest as free agents but who might receive qualifying offers from their current teams. Among them:
OF Michael Bourn (Braves)
RHP Edwin Jackson (Nationals)
RHP Hiroki Kuroda (Yankees)
1B Adam LaRoche (Nationals)
RHP Kyle Lohse (Cardinals)
C/1B Mike Napoli (Rangers)
1B/OF Nick Swisher (Yankees)
OF B.J. Upton (Rays)
If those players get qualifying offers, the Sox' willingness to pursue them literally could hinge on whether or not the Sox finish the year with one of the worst nine records -- and hence one of the top-10 picks -- in baseball.
"What we do know is that we're going to be picking up higher than we have in a while and we've got to take advantage of that in next year's draft," Cherington said. "Certainly, there's a difference between having a protected pick and not having one in terms of the level of how aggressive you are in going after certain free agents. That's certainly part of the calculus in terms of who to go after -- what you're giving up. If it's just money, it's one thing. If it's money plus a pick, it's another thing.
"There's no doubt that that will be factored in. It won't be the only factor, but it will be factored in," he continued. "The last thing we want to do is be picking that high, because obviously it's a reflection of what our major league team has done, but it is what it is this year and we've got to take full advantage of it."
The best way for the Sox to take the fullest advantage of their first losing season in 15 years? A spiral that would continue to push them up in the draft pecking order, something that would not only offer the shot at elite prospects but also maximize the team's flexibility in the free agent market.
It's not exactly the slogan that will fill up the stands during the final Fenway homestand ("Root, root, root against the home team!"), but nonetheless, the circumstances facing the Red Sox highlight an easily overlooked reality: These games matter -- just not, perhaps, for more customary reasons in September.
* The fact that the Pirates will have one of just 10 protected picks due to their failure to sign Appel is problematic. That is not to say that the Pirates' pick should not be protected, but instead points to the fact that a team with the 10th-worst record in the majors will be badly -- and perhaps unfairly -- punished by another team's failure to sign its pick. It would take only a slight modification of the CBA to protect the picks of the teams that finish the previous season with the 10 worst records in baseball, rather than providing protection just to the teams picking in the top 10.
** Cherington's discussion of the state of the Red Sox farm system, and the challenges created by the new collective bargaining agreement to the maintenance of a productive farm system, will air in "Down on the Farm" on Saturday from 8:30-9 a.m. on WEEI 93.7 FM and WEEI.com.