Among the many, many moves that the Red Sox made in the offseason, none was scrutinized with quite the same sense of incredulity as the team's decision to sign free agent outfielder Shane Victorino to a three-year, $39 million deal. Why on earth, many wondered, would the Sox sign a 32-year-old coming off the worst year of his career to such a contract?
The outfielder's performance in a single game on Monday does not offer a sufficient explanation, but Victorino's impactful all-around game in the Sox' 6-3 victory certainly commanded notice. He went 3-for-3 (three singles) while getting hit by a pitch, scoring twice and executing a sacrifice bunt. Defensively, his contributions were even more significant, as he had a second-inning outfield assist and then a game-saving grab on which he chased down a bases-loaded, two-out liner for the third out.
His defense in the Red Sox' 6-3 victory proved game-changing -- something that the Red Sox very much had in mind when they signed the two-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove center fielder to patrol right field.
"When [Red Sox GM Ben Cherington] put this outfield together, knowing we needed another center fielder to play right in our home ballpark, it’s paid off already this season on the road, multiple times. Tonight was a key moment," Red Sox manager John Farrell told reporters in reference to Victorino's over-the-shoulder grab of a potential three-run smash. "Typically when you have balls that are not finished off or a play not finished off in the outfield, it can be a little glaring. The fact is, we’ve got the range of three center fielders in the outfield. It’s played a lot into our pitching success and our overall team success, there’s no question about it."
On a night when the Red Sox beat an Indians team that was the runner-up in the Victorino sweepstakes, it's worth revisiting the factors that led the Sox to target Victorino -- particularly given that Cleveland ended up signing both Nick Swisher (four years, $56 million) and Michael Bourn (four years, $48 million), two of the players who represented free agent alternatives to the Sox' right fielder.
This was an offseason that was unusually deep in available outfielders. The free agent market featured Victorino, Bourn, Swisher (capable of playing first base or right), Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Angel Pagan and Torii Hunter. Players like Denard Span, Ben Revere and Justin Upton all ended up being dealt. So why did the Red Sox end up with Victorino as their clear choice from that group?
At the start of the offseason, the team identified a few elements that would lead to the eventual acquisition of Victorino:
1. As Farrell suggested, the team wanted to find a player who was, in essence, the equivalent of a second center fielder in right field.
2. The team wanted to limit the risk it assumed in free agent contracts by signing players who would take fewer years (even if that meant being more aggressive than the rest of the market in terms of average annual value).
3. The club wanted to maximize its prospect/draft pick inventory.
4. The Sox wanted someone who was a good fit for the market, who would embrace the challenge of helping to turn around a prominent organization that had fallen on difficult times.
Victorino hit all of the check marks.
A CENTER FIELDER IN RIGHT FIELD
The Red Sox felt that improved outfield defense -- particularly given the enormous expanse of right field in Fenway Park -- could prove a difference-maker in terms of the team's run prevention. The team had seen the effect of having J.D. Drew flanking the likes of Gold Glove-caliber defenders in center field in Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury, and it had seen the effect of not having an above-average right fielder.
The difference was considerable. The team knew the direction in which it wanted to go. Barring the ability to acquire a player with middle-of-the-order offense (Giancarlo Stanton or Justin Upton, for instance), the team wanted to land a right fielder who could offer game-changing defense. Of course, the market featured a number of quality defensive outfielders -- whether the two Twins (Span, Revere) who were available in trades, Bourn, Pagan, B.J. Upton and Victorino. That suggested potential opportunity, though in the case of the free agents, it would also require a player willing to make the move from center to right.
Victorino -- whose range has declined slightly from its Gold Glove peak in center, but who still takes excellent routes and features a strong throwing arm, thus allowing him to grade as a clearly above-average right fielder -- was open to making the shift. Check.
FEWER YEARS, MORE DOLLARS
Victorino could have signed a four-year, $43 million deal with the Indians. The Red Sox were more comfortable signing a player to three years than four, however, and so they were willing to pay a premium in terms of salary to convince a player to sign for a shorter term.
The switch-hitter was amenable to doing just that. Of all the outfielders mentioned above, only Hunter signed a contract for a shorter term, reaching a two-year, $26 million agreement with the Tigers. While the Sox had interest in Hunter, the veteran made clear his preference to sign with Detroit early in the process; he was never really a consideration for the Sox, and so there was no compare-and-contrast exercise to be performed between Hunter and Victorino.
As for the other free agents, Hamilton and Upton both got five-year deals, while Pagan, Bourn and Swisher received four-year contracts. A three-year deal for Victorino? Check.
PROSPECT/DRAFT PICK COST
This element proved a central one in Victorino's rise as the top choice by the Red Sox.
There were scenarios in which the Sox would have parted with prospects to gain a potential star in the middle of their lineup. Early in the offseason, the Sox (like virtually any team in the majors) would have been interested in discussing a trade for Marlins slugger Stanton, but Miami never made him available in talks with the Sox. The team was intrigued by the possibility of exploring a deal with the Diamondbacks for Justin Upton, but it became apparent early that it was going to be difficult to match up with Arizona.
Preliminary trade talks went nowhere, suggesting that the team couldn't build its offseason strategy around the possibility of such a trade. After all, waiting for a deal to materialize could leave the Sox in a position where they were either left to sign a player whom they hadn't targeted or one who didn't hit one (or more) of the other decision-making criteria. Moreover, with so many needs to address in the offseason (first base, two outfield spots, shortstop, starting pitcher), there was considerable advantage to being able to address needs early so that the team could move forward in addressing its other vacancies.
The Twins were willing to move quickly in deals involving Span and Revere, but in the case of Span, who was dealt for high-ceiling right-hander Alex Meyer, the Sox wouldn't have wanted to part with an equivalent prospect (Matt Barnes) given their commitment to building high-ceiling, homegrown pitching inventory. With Revere, Minnesota needed to have a young, controllable major league-ready starter in a deal; the only pitcher in the Sox organization who would fit that description, Felix Doubront, represented a key component of the team's 2013 plans rather than surplus inventory who could be dealt.
Hunter did not receive a one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer from the Angels, meaning that he wouldn't cost the team that signed him a draft pick. But, because he made the decision to sign with Detroit, he wasn't really an option for the Sox. Pagan, likewise, would not have cost a draft pick, but he ended up re-signing with the Giants.
The other available free agents -- Bourn, B.J. Upton, Swisher, Hamilton -- all received the qualifying offers from their former teams, meaning that if the Sox were to sign any of them, they'd have to give up their second-round draft pick. The Sox attached considerable value to both the pick and the bonus pool allocation that comes along with it.
For that reason, even though some of the free agents (most prominently Bourn, and to a lesser degree, Upton, who got a five-year, $75 million deal from the Braves) ended up receiving fewer years and a lower salary than the Sox expected at the start of the offseason, team officials still insist that their preference was and is Victorino.
As a player who was traded in the middle of 2012, Victorino was not eligible for a qualifying offer from the team with whom he finished last season (the Dodgers). Thus, in signing him rather than trading for another outfielder or signing one of the other free agents, the Sox could preserve their complete minor league prospect inventory, while also preserving their entire future inventory in the form of their draft picks.
UP TO THE CHALLENGE
A player like Pagan might also have fit the description that the Sox saw in Victorino. However, while the Sox had positive reports about Pagan as a player, he never signaled an obvious willingness to leave San Francisco.
Victorino, on the other hand, made clear at an early stage in the process that he would love to be a part of restoring the Red Sox to their former glory, of helping to rebuild the team on the field while being a positive clubhouse force. He'd thrived in one of the most highly scrutinized baseball markets in the country in Philadelphia, helping to turn the Phillies into a World Series winner and perennial contender while being one of the outspoken faces of the franchise.
The 32-year-old expressed considerable enthusiasm for the possibility of facing whatever scrutiny the Sox might incur as they tried to shed the baggage of three straight years of disappointment.
"That feels great, to be felt that way about -- especially a franchise like this that, in recent years had a lot of success but the last couple of years have been down years," Victorino said. "Think about the Red Sox, you think about everything with the history -- Ted Williams, Yastrzemski, all the tradition behind this team, that makes it special. To put on this uniform, be part of that tradition, part of that culture and part of that change is definitely special."
BUT COULD HE HIT?
So, Victorino fit all of the theoretical preferences of the Sox. Still, before signing him, the Sox had to make a decision about whether his career-worst 2012 campaign -- in which he struggled to a .255 average, .321 OBP and .383 slugging mark with the Phillies and Dodgers -- represented an aberration or an indicator of significant decline.
Ultimately, the team felt that his strong track record should account for more than one bad year in which Victorino admittedly placed pressure on himself while contemplating his impending free agency. After all, prior to his struggles of a year ago, Victorino had been among the most consistent outfielders in the game.
He'd produced five straight years in which he was healthy enough to have at least 500 plate appearances while producing an OPS of at least .750. He was one of just nine outfielders to have five such seasons during the six-year stretch from 2007-2012, joining: Hunter (6 such season), Matt Holliday (6), Curtis Granderson (6), Andre Ethier (6), Ryan Braun (5), Alfonso Soriano (5), Nick Markakis (5) and Swisher (5).
Victorino's consistency, in terms of the ability to stay healthy and produce, placed him in fairly select company. There was more substance to the track record than to the one down year. While it's certainly possible that 2012 represented the start of a decline for a core member of several very good Phillies teams, the Sox also felt that there was a good chance that, based on the steadiness of his prior performance, he would rebound, if not all the way to his 2007-11 peak than to something closer to that than his 2012 struggles.
And so, Victorino emerged as the priority for the Sox, explaining why they moved aggressively to sign him when his market crystallized during the winter meetings.
The early returns? So far, so good. He's been the everyday No. 2 hitter for the Red Sox, offering steady contributions offensively (a .333 average and .403 OBP, albeit with a meager .352 slugging mark) and excellent defense in right as well as a player capable of making an impact on the bases. He's been an important component to a team that is off to its best start in years, and in the very early stages of 2013, providing exactly what the Red Sox hoped they were getting when they signed him.