FORT MYERS, Fla. – The announcement of Curt Schilling’s retirement brought into sharp relief the significance of the deal that made the pitcher a Red Sox. A compelling argument can be made that the trade that brought him to Boston from Arizona was the biggest in franchise history since the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
The individuals who collected a pair of World Series rings during Schilling’s four seasons in Boston acknowledge that the deal helped transform franchise history. The pitcher impacted the club on and off the field in ways that proved integral to breaking an 86-year title drought.
“I don’t know,” said catcher Jason Varitek, “if we’re standing where we’re at, having won two world championships, without Curt.”
The payoff was huge. The cost – aside from money – was shockingly minimal. In retrospect, it is absurd to think that the Sox were able to acquire Schilling, a man who served as a crucial contributor to two championships, in exchange for Jorge De La Rosa, Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon and Michael Goss.
That group has yet to produce a single All-Star season. The development isn’t even surprising, since none was viewed by the baseball community at the time of the deal as an elite prospect.
The names of Hanley Ramirez and Jon Lester surfaced during the negotiations. Yet the Red Sox were able to make one of the biggest acquisitions in franchise history while still holding onto their top prospects. How, exactly did it happen?
OUT OF DEVASTATION, AMBITION
For at least a day, life seemed to halt in New England following the brutal loss in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS to the Yankees. Five outs from reaching the World Series, the team endured one of the bitterest defeats in history. Even in the Red Sox’ front office, executives were permitted a 24-hour window of mourning and relative inactivity.
But the defeat on the doorstep of the World Series forged a resolve. Once Grady Little had been dispatched and a search for a new manager set in motion, the Sox wanted to find championship pitching to accompany a history-making offense.
The Sox evaluated the market for impact additions. The absence of a closer in ’03 had been well-documented, and the team was aggressively courting Keith Foulke to fill that role. A starter, someone who could join Pedro Martinez as a rotation pillar, remained on the agenda.
Initially, Schilling, who had one year remaining on his three-year, $32 million deal with the Diamondbacks wasn’t on their radar for a simple reason.
“He wasn’t really available,” explained G.M. Theo Epstein. “But we wanted to get pitching.
“It became clear by the G.M. meetings that he was going to be moved,” he continued. “He wasn’t the target immediately after (Game 7) or anything like that, but once it became clear he was going to be moved, he was an obvious target for anybody.”
Yet just because Schilling was a target, a pursuit seemed almost futile. Not only was there the question of what kind of package the Diamondbacks would demand for one of the top power pitchers of the last half-century, but there was also the issue of what Schilling himself might want – as well as what he didn’t want.
The pitcher, who could control his destiny thanks to a no-trade clause, had gone on record saying that Boston didn’t interest him. With the Diamondbacks in a cost-cutting mode, he had stated publicly a desire to join the Yankees or Phillies. Other clubs intrigued Schilling, but the Sox did not.
“It didn’t necessarily look like Boston was one of the stops where he would be traded,” said Epstein, “but we decided to find out for ourselves.”
ENGAGING THE SNAKES
There was dialogue with the Diamondbacks at the G.M. meetings in mid-November, but Arizona’s initial asking prices seemed so steep as to be considered prohibitive by the Sox. At that time, the Yankees were considered if not a certain destination, then something close to it.
But something happened. New York and Arizona were exchanging proposals. Several reports at the time suggested that New York was balking at Arizona’s demand of second baseman Alfonso Soriano and first baseman Nick Johnson. There was nonetheless an expectation in baseball that Schilling would end up in Pinstripes.
Somewhat to their surprise, however, roughly a week after the G.M. meetings, Sox officials were contacted by the Diamondbacks. Arizona’s decision makers seemed willing, almost eager, to make a deal with the Sox.
The parameters of the deal between the Diamondbacks and Sox were agreed upon quickly, in large part because Boston believed that it could make the deal with only minimal consequence to its player development infrastructure.
SHOPPING LISTS: BLUE-LIGHT SPECIAL ON AN ACE
According to multiple baseball sources, Arizona officials drew up two lists, each featuring four of Boston’s young players. If the Sox wanted to acquire Schilling they would have to agree to part with two players from each group.
“List A” featured left-handed pitchers Jorge De La Rosa and Casey Fossum, as well as shortstop Hanley Ramirez and catcher Kelly Shoppach. “List B” included left-handers Juan Cedeno and Jon Lester, right-hander Brandon Lyon and outfielder Michael Goss.
The reaction was immediate. Sox officials were exuberant that they could consummate a deal for an ace while keeping intact the top tier of talent in their system. The lists were organized in a way that made it easy for the team to acquire Schilling while keeping its best young players.
Of the players in List A, Ramirez was almost untouchable. Shoppach was a highly valued commodity, a potential starting catcher of the future.
Fossum, who had been sought by several clubs the previous offseason, performed poorly during an injury-prone 2003. The stringy lefty went 6-5 with a 5.47 ERA, was relegated to the bullpen by the end of the year, and the projection for him had gone from a potential mid-rotation starter (or more) to a No. 5 starter or bullpen guy.
De La Rosa was a slightly steeper cost of business. At 22, he went 7-5 with a 2.98 ERA while striking out almost a batter an inning in Double-A and Triple-A.
Still, his ceiling was considered that of a No. 3 starter rather than an ace. Schilling, of course, was a bird-in-hand ace.
List B was even easier. Lester was regarded as a potential star after his first full professional season. Cedeno was left-handed, young and hard-throwing, and at 19, had posted impressive numbers in the South Atlantic League.
Lyon was found money, having been claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays the previous offseason. Though he had shown that he could be a bullpen contributor, a projected middle reliever was expendable. The Sox, after all, had already traded Lyon once as part of an abortive deal with the Pirates. (Pittsburgh returned Lyon in a second deal after suggesting that he was unhealthy at the time of the deal.)
And then there was Goss. His chief — and, arguably, lone — asset was speed.
“The fastest player in the Red Sox system,” Baseball America opined at the time, “he's also a very raw player who hasn't shown much outside of speed.”
With such an offer on the table, it took little time to finalize an agreement. Even in an incredibly active period for the front office, during which the courtship of Foulke and effort to hire a manager (by then, Terry Francona was close to dotting the i’s, a fact that Schilling cited as part of his new-found willingness to discuss the possibility of a deal to Boston), the Sox were ready to commit.
The four-player cost was a small price to pay for a pitcher with the potential to push the Sox over the top.
THE OUTCOME: OCTOBER GLORY
The rest happened quickly. The Sox sent the trio of Epstein, CEO Larry Lucchino and then-Assistant to the G.M. Jed Hoyer to Arizona to pitch the idea of creating history to Schilling.
Epstein and Hoyer negotiated through Thanksgiving – the first ever prepared by Shonda Schilling – while Lucchino was present for the beginning and end of the negotiations. Though there were points when all parties were pessimistic, the wisdom of a deal was ultimately too great to resist.
While Schilling had expressed his reluctance to call Fenway Park his home, that stance quickly softened.
“In the end, we didn’t really need to sell it,” said Epstein. “The Red Sox appealed to him because he likes the big stage. He likes the history of the game. He likes to be the center of attention. It was a good fit.”
That didn’t mean the negotiations were a foregone conclusion. All the same, in retrospect, it seems difficult to fathom that the two sides were ever going to let money get in the way of a deal.
If the Sox wanted to improve their rotation with a legitimate ace, there were few alternatives that winter. Only Javier Vazquez, a pitcher whom the Sox had tried unsuccessfully to pry from the Expos for years, and who would cost more in prospects than Schilling, was available as a hypothetical (but by no means certain) fall-back.
Certainly the Yankees were cognizant of that fact. The team was caught off guard by the fact that its foremost rival had positioned itself to acquire the prize of the offseason pitching class.
“I think in terms of our discussions with Arizona, they didn't get very far ultimately, because Boston had swooped in and made a deal to convince Curt to go to Boston,” Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman said in 2004. “I think that was something that was unanticipated, at least by me, when a player comes out publicly and says he won't go somewhere, I never expected really Boston to come out and try to make a play and convince him otherwise.”
Schilling (on the Big Show last week) said that the Yankees called multiple times during the three-day period of face-to-face negotiations between the Sox and the pitcher, promising to out-bid Boston.
But the pitcher had bought in to the idea that he faced a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in trying to bring a title to Boston. After four days of negotiations, a contract was reached. As a member of the Sox, Schilling made clear, in both his statements and his contract (which included an incentive clause premised on the Sox winning the World Series) that his arrival was a prelude to a title.
“The stage was perfect for him,” said Francona. “It was the right time in his career. Boston was looking for that last piece. He was looking for a way to pitch in a championship team. It was a great fit.”
In Schilling’s four years on the mound in Boston, he made good on his championship promise not once but twice. He did so under what amounted, at times, to extraordinary circumstances.
Though he became a different pitcher at different times – going from the prototypical power pitcher whose fastball touched 98 in the 2004 regular season to a finesse pitcher who lobbed kitchen sinks in the 2007 postseason – he never failed to position his club to win, particularly in the most meaningful games.
“It’s hard to live up to expectations when you’re part of a big trade. He delivered,” said Epstein. “He made a profound impact while he was here, helped us win two World Series and had some great seasons for us. For the career that he had and the games that he pitched when it mattered the most, you could really argue that he deserves to be remembered as one of the all-time greats. He did some of his best work with us. [He had a] great career, and had a huge impact on this franchise.”
It would be easy to say, of course, that such contributions were priceless. That fact makes it all the more remarkable that the Sox acquired a franchise-changing pitcher at a cost that, five years after the fact, seems so low.