The line of thinking seemed natural.
Padres All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez represents everything that could be on the Red Sox’ wish list. He is a slugger who can mash (40 homers in 2009) and control the strike zone (119 walks). He has produced middle-of-the-order numbers in OBP, slugging and homers while playing half his games in one of the worst offensive environments in baseball.
“He was kind of overshadowed by the ballpark. He’d be a superstar in a lot of other cities,” former teammate Scott Hairston said this summer. “I think he’d be an MVP candidate if he were in a different park.”
That claim might ring particularly true in Boston. Gonzalez has a great opposite-field stroke — evidenced once in a Caribbean Series game in which he stroked three homers to left field — that would suggest an ability to post huge numbers in Fenway Park.
Gonzalez also is a well-rounded player who is an above-average defender at first base. If the Sox were to acquire him — something they explored doing this year at the trade deadline — he would allow Kevin Youkilis to move to third, in one fell swoop giving the Sox a significant upgrade from their 2008 team in terms of defense (an area that Boston general manager Theo Epstein has labeled a top priority) and lineup production.
With the move of Jed Hoyer from being an assistant GM with the Sox to the general manager of the Padres, many suggested that the likelihood of a deal would only increase. Hoyer’s familiarity with the Sox farm system, it was suggested, could help to facilitate a deal.
It would seem premature to suggest that the GM meetings that begin today in Chicago will inevitably move the Sox and Padres closer to a Gonzalez deal. Familiarity between Hoyer and his former club, as Epstein pointed out, is a double-edged sword in any potential talks.
“He knows all my tricks, and I know his,” Epstein said last week. “It makes it easier to have discussions because the relationship is so good. But ultimately, it can be harder to make a deal because I think the way we’ve come to value players is pretty similar. When you value players the same way, sometimes it’s hard to make a deal than with an organization that emphasizes different attributes of players. If you have different evaluations, you can get a deal done quicker.”
One need look no further than the Sox’ history with the Diamondbacks since former Sox assistant GM Josh Byrnes took over as Arizona’s head of baseball operations. Here are all the major league transactions involving those two teams:
-- April 9, 2007 — Sox claimed J.D. Durbin off waivers from Arizona. (The Sox subsequently would make an unsuccessful attempt to pass Durbin through waivers; he was claimed by the Phillies.)
-- Aug. 31, 2006 — The Sox, desperate for a warm body to take the mound, received Kevin Jarvis as part of a conditional deal.
That’s it. The two teams have talked about other players — notably including the conversations about a possible Miguel Montero deal last offseason, when the Diamondbacks asked for Michael Bowden and the Sox balked — but they typically have viewed players too similarly to consummate a deal.
Stalemate is a natural outcome: the D-backs at times have been interested in the players whom the Sox value highly, uninterested in those whom the team is willing to move. The same might well prove true with Hoyer and the Padres — unless the Sox and Epstein become desperate to make a deal. And, of course, Epstein made clear last year that he feels the Sox should not operate according to a model in which they act out of desperation to acquire a player.
“It doesn’t work that way. In baseball, if you convince yourself you need a certain player, you’ve already lost,” Epstein said at last year’s GM meetings. “One player doesn’t have that much impact. It’s about building organizations. It’s not about adding players. There’s no player you can have to make up for an inherent weakness in the organization — a foundational weakness.
“You need to build the foundation up where you don’t need that one player. Yeah, you can pursue that player. He may be a great fit. But if it doesn’t work out or if the money gets ridiculous, you can turn to another player.”
Here are a few other factors working against a deal:
-- Gonzalez might have set some kind of record for the most team-friendly contract of the past 15 years. He is due $4.75 million for the coming year, with a $5.5 million no-brainer option for 2011.
That being the case, money isn’t a factor motivating the Padres to make a deal. In fact, it suggests a couple of things:
A) In theory, at least, it could make it more enticing for Gonzalez should the Padres approach him about an extension that would appeal to both sides. The salary bump from, say, $5 million a year to $12 million a year might have appeal, particularly if a long-term deal overrode Gonzalez’ option. (David Ortiz’ current four-year, $52 million deal — a below-market deal when he signed it in 2006 — overrode a team-friendly $7.75 million option for 2007.)
B) If the Padres believe there is any chance that they can compete either this year or next, Gonzalez likely would be the cornerstone of their efforts. For a mid-market team, the combination of his contract and production is gold, something that gives the Padres an elite player while permitting them the flexibility to address other needs. Hoyer and the Padres would have to be either blown away by a package of immense major league talent or they would have to conclude that they will not be able to compete in the NL West over the next two seasons to be motivated to move Gonzalez.
-- The Padres might not need to write off contention over the next two years. The NL West is potentially a winnable division given the questions lording over the future of Dodgers ownership. The other teams in the division have solid talent bases, though the Giants lack hitting, the Rockies might have to move key parts because of their mid-market reality, and the Diamondbacks — despite several key components that helped them to the NLCS just two years ago — were a bad (70-92) team last year. The division can turn over quickly. If that is the case, the Padres may want to keep Gonzalez to try to make a run.
-- Unless the first baseman were to suffer an injury, the Padres could be reasonably confident that they could receive a package of significant value if they waited until the summer to deal Gonzalez. By virtue of his contract, Gonzalez will be attractive to both teams in contention and not in contention if he is put on the block this summer.
Teams that weren’t in contention talked with the Pirates about Jason Bay in ’08 and the Indians about Victor Martinez in ’09, hoping to capitalize on the players' services for a year and a half.
-- Now that the Sox have Martinez, their urgency to acquire Gonzalez might be diminished. Not only did the Sox add a middle-of-the-order hitter, but the team also added a player who likely needs to spend part of his time at first base to maximize productivity. Though not insurmountable, that creates the possibility of a more crowded lineup than even what the Sox featured down the stretch this year.
-- More broadly, it remains an open question whether the Sox will have the pieces to achieve a blockbuster. Their biggest opportunity to swing for the fences with a player who can impact the 2010 club may well have been this past summer.
Clay Buchholz was the centerpiece of all of the team’s forays into potentially huge deals during the summer, whether talking to the Blue Jays about Roy Halladay, the Padres about Gonzalez, the Mariners about Felix Hernandez or the Indians about a combined Cliff Lee/Victor Martinez deal.
With his performance down the stretch, Buchholz thrust himself more prominently into the Sox’ long-term plans. There were some voices in the organization that felt more strongly based on his work during the second half that the club should no longer consider parting with the young right-hander.
Especially given the possibility that the 2010 campaign could be Josh Beckett’s last as a Red Sox, the idea of having Buchholz paired with Jon Lester along with Daisuke Matsuzaka for the next three years could be a key ingredient of the team’s long-term planning.
Moreover, with Justin Masterson having been dealt to Cleveland in the Victor Martinez deal, the Sox are without another big-league ready chip to offer in a deal. Masterson was a perfect asset for this past summer’s trade market: someone with a big-league track record that suggested an ability to have a meaningful role, but someone who was expendable thanks to the emergence of Daniel Bard in the majors and Junichi Tazawa in the minors. There is a reason why Masterson, like Buchholz, was offered in virtually every blockbuster scenario this summer.
Now, with Masterson gone, the Sox would either have to give up more valuable prospects who are just now establishing themselves in the majors — Bard or Buchholz, for instance — or the team would have to move an even more established big leaguer to acquire big-league ready prospects from a third team, and swing those to the Padres as part of a Gonzalez package.
As Epstein pointed out following the season, he believes the strength of the minor league system is two or three years from making a big-league impact. It would be difficult for the Padres to sell the San Diego fan base on the idea that Gonzalez — who is from the area and is immensely popular — was going to be moved without getting a player who can play now in return.
None of that is to suggest that a deal for Gonzalez is impossible. Nonetheless, the same elements that make the first baseman appealing to the Sox — and nearly every other team — also make him appealing for the Padres to keep, or at least to deal on the teams that they dictate, rather than those proffered by any other club. And that fact likely will remain unchanged, even with Hoyer in San Diego.