Ben Cherington, fiscal disciplinarian.
OK, it's not even Thanksgiving yet, but so far, so good, right? Cherington told us time and time again during his press conference hours after the Dodgers spent a quarter of a billion dollars to build the Red Sox a lifeboat that change has arrived, the days of reckless spending over. Lesson learned.
We can debate the merits of spending $26 million on a 37-year-old designated hitter coming off of a serious Achilles injury or giving $6.2 million to a 35-year-old career backup catcher, but these are not paralyzing moves by any reasonable standard. Nope, so far there has really been only one test of Cherington's discipline this offseason, and he passed. The Blue Jays got weak in the knees instead, spending well over $100 million to basically bring in three guys who played a role in the Marlins winning 69 games (sound familiar?) last season.
Now, does having Jose Reyes on your roster make your team better in 2013? Of course, provided he's healthy, which he was in 2012 (he played 160 games last season, 126 in 2011, 133 in 2010 and 36 in 2009), this is a terrific player. If Reyes had one year left on his contract at the $10 million he'll make next season he'd be exactly the kind of player the Sox should go after (and that of course is why Josh Johnson on his own made sense -- he's on the books for just one year at $13.7 millon). But Reyes is set to make $82 million between 2014-17 (plus a $22 million club option or $4 million buyout in 2018). Reyes will be 34 years old at the end of the 2017 season. Quick, name me a shortstop with zero power that has ever been worth anything close to $20 million a season in his 30s.
There is nothing in baseball history to suggest that the trade for Reyes will be anything but a lousy long-term investment for the Blue Jays. Sure, it's a quick splash, you win the AL East headline battle for November 2012. But what good will that do for you in, say, July of 2016?
Ben Cherington knows this. He has to, he was around for (and played a role in) the construction of a roster that needed the Los Angeles bailout to get this second chance. The Sox can miss on Ortiz for two years, or David Ross for $6 million. What can't happen is what happened over the last half-decade or so, collecting trophies because they were out there to be collected.
And that's exactly why the Red Sox should get nowhere near Josh Hamilton this offseason.
Can we all agree that some owner is going to spend at least $140 million on Hamilton? It's inevitable, right now there is an argument that the market will be dry at that price and the Sox might be able to sweep in late and get him for three years and $75 million. I just don't see it, that's showing way too much faith in the other owners and general managers out there, at least one will be happy to ignore history to placate the fans for a couple of years. It won't be early in the process -- Hamilton is for many reasons a tricky case -- but frustration at failed attempts to land other guys plus an itchy fan base will lead to someone jumping at the best player on the market.
And Hamilton is clearly that -- this is one of the 10 best players in baseball. MVP two years ago, 43 homers, 128 RBIs, .577 slugging percentage (second in the AL) last year. He has all the bona fides and would obviously fit perfectly in the middle of any lineup in baseball, certainly with the Sox.
(Though there is this with Hamilton: In 376 career home games he has hit 94 home runs with an OPS of .967. In 361 career road games he's hit 67 home runs with an OPS of .858.)
Let's put aside the personal stuff with Hamilton -- and that alone is a screaming red flag -- and assume he'd be incident-free over the five, six or seven years of his contract. It still would be a mistake to sign him -- this isn't about Josh Hamilton and his personal battles, it's about giving long-term contracts for huge money to guys in their 30s. It doesn't work.
Hamilton will be 32 years old in May. We can debate where exactly he is in his prime, but it's closer to the end than the middle of it. There's a history of players getting the kind of deal Hamilton is looking for at his age, and there's seems to be a consistent result.
Ryan Howard signed a five-year, $125 million extension in April 2010 (he was 30 years old at the time). The year prior he he was third in MVP voting, had an OPS of .931. In each of the first three seasons of this contract his slugging, OBP and batting average have decreased each year and he played just 71 games in 2012 following two surgeries on his Achilles tendon. Think he'll be worth the $95 million he's owed over the next four years?
Jason Bay was 31 years old when he signed with the Mets for four years and $66 million in December 2009. Here's the return for that investment: Bay played in a total of 288 games, hit 26 home runs with 124 RBIs, slugged .369 and had an OPS of .687. The Mets -- owned by Fred Wilpon, who you might've heard has had some financial difficulties -- bought out Bay for $21 million a couple of weeks ago. The Mets are paying Bay to leave. And I know there's a belief by some in the media that Bay would have been productive if he had stayed in Boston, but that's a reach at best. Why, exactly, would he have been healthier in Boston?
Carlos Lee was 30 years old when the Astros spent $100 million on him in November 2006. He had hit at least 30 homers in each of the previous four seasons but reached that total only once in Houston. Lee was not a terrible player for the life of the deal -- he had an OPS of .817 in 815 games with the Astros -- but (except for that first season) he was never close to a $20 million-a-year player.
The Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano (at age 30) to an eight-year, $136 million contract after he hit 46 home runs and stole 41 bases in 2006 for the Nationals. In the five years before his signed with the Cubs, Soriano had four seasons with at least 30 homers, five with at least 30 stolen bases and four with a slugging percentage over .500. In the first six seasons of his contract he's had two 30-HR seasons, zero with 30 stolen bases and two with a plus-.500 slugging percentage.
You want more? Jason Giambi signed for $120 million at age 30 with the Yankees in 2002 and missed 237 games over eight seasons (and -- for reasons we know now -- never was the hitter he was his final two seasons in Oakland). Ken Griffey signed a $116.5 million deal with the Reds after being traded from Seattle in 2000 (yup, he was 30 years old). His time in Cincinnati was by no measure embarrassing -- there were good seasons -- but he just never seemed more than a pretty good leader singer of a Ken Griffey Jr. cover band:
40-homer seasons: Six with Seattle, one with Cincinnati;
Top 10 in MVP voting: Six with Seattle (and a win), none with Cincinnati;
Gold Gloves: 10 with Seattle, none with Cincinnati;
.600-plus slugging seasons: Five with Seattle, none with Cincinnati.
And, of course, the worst of them all -- Alex Rodriguez is 37 years old, has a total of 32 homers the last two seasons, has seen his slugging percentage (and OPS) drop each of the last six seasons, missed a combined 103 games the last two years and was benched for Eric Chavez (making $900,000 to be a more productive player than Rodriguez last season) in Game 5 of the ALDS. If Rodriguez were a free agent he'd probably be looking at a one-year, $8 million deal, maybe two years, $15 million. Instead, the Yankees owe him $114 million over the next five seasons. And that's not including the home run bonuses -- Rodriguez gets $6 million each for his his 660th, 714th, 755th, 762nd, and 763rd career homers. This is the worst part of the worst contract in baseball history, really. The Yankees really believe people care about his pursuit of Barry Bonds? One cheat chasing another? Do you have any idea how many home runs Rodriguez currently has? I didn't, had to look (it's 647). We all know about 714 and 755, right? If you asked 100 smart baseball fans how many career homers Bonds has, how many are getting it right (it's 762)? Steroids ruined stats forever in baseball, no one will care if Rodriguez limps his way to 763.
And with that we return to Hamilton (not to accuse him of PEDs, though it's always fair to harbor some suspicion). Josh Hamilton is older than any of those guys when they signed their deals. I'd give you the names of players who signed seven-figure deals in their 30s and were worth the money, but it has never happened. This isn't an anti-Hamilton stance, I'd be shocked if he isn't an MVP candidate the next couple of years, but his contract eventually will be an albatross for the team that signs him.
There may come a time in this offseason where the fans around here get a little impatient. Cherington and the Sox cannot give in to that, cannot give in to the temptation of what Hamilton could do for this lineup next year and the year after that. Don't think about NESN ratings and ticket sales and merchandise. None of that will help when Josh Hamilton is being paid $22 million in 2017 after playing 96 games with a .768 OPS in 2016.
Put it another way: The Red Sox can't put themselves in the position they were in last year, because what happened with the Dodgers will never happen again. Hamilton is the next test, and one that comes with an answer. We already know how it will end. What's past is prologue and all that stuff. Josh Hamilton would be a long-term mistake, and Cherington knows it.
We're about to find out if Ben Cherington, fiscal disciplinarian is fact or fiction. If you're a Sox fan, hope that Hamilton doesn't sign in Boston, because if he does it will show that the organization learned nothing over the last couple of years. And that's twice as terrifying as the thought of Hamilton in pinstripes.