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What the Hell Are the Red Sox Doing?

While the rest of the American League elite is reloading, all seems too quiet at Fenway Park

Nine point four two. We’re years past the point of obsessing over ERA, understanding that it’s a flawed stat subject to the whims of defense, league, and park effects, that other metrics offer a clearer picture of a pitcher’s value. But in the offseason following the worst September collapse in baseball history, where a regime change offered the promise of a fresh start but instead brought little more than a couple of relief pitchers, that number slaps you in the face. When your team trades its starting shortstop for a soft-tossing right-hander who posted a 9.42 ERA in Triple-A last season, there’s only one question left to be asked:

What the hell are the Red Sox doing?

Boston’s trade of Marco Scutaro to the Rockies for Clay Mortensen makes no sense as a stand-alone deal. The erstwhile Red Sox shortstop is coming off the second-best season of his career, hitting a robust .299/.358/.423 (the average MLB shortstop hit .263/.317/.380 last season). FanGraphs rated Scutaro as roughly average with the glove and on the basepaths, netting out 2.9 Wins Above Replacement (2 WAR is average for an everyday player). That strong performance came one year after Scutaro posted 2.4 WAR for the 2010 Red Sox. Given that he made about $6 million a year for those two seasons, that the average cost for 1 Win Above Replacement fell between $4 million and $5 million, and that Scutaro would have made $6 million on a team option in 2012, the Red Sox gave up a player who had been a good bargain. You can argue that a 36-year-old shortstop is a risky proposition and that Scutaro’s injuries are a real concern, and still end up with a player who’s better than anyone out there on the open market, or any of the in-house options available to the Red Sox.

Meanwhile, Mortensen is a right-handed pitcher with a high-80s fastball who has been traded three times in the past two and a half years. He did follow up that nightmarish 9.42 ERA at Triple-A last year with a surprising 3.86 mark in 58 big league frames, though in both cases his defense-independent pitching suggested a number well over 5.00. Mortensen struggles to make batters swing and miss, he walks too many batters for someone with iffy strikeout rates, and when hitters do lift the ball against his oft-used sinker, it often leaves the park. If everything breaks right for him, he could be a 12th man on a pitching staff.

The terribly kept secret here is that flipping Scutaro saves the Red Sox a chunk of money that can be used to get help elsewhere. Roy Oswalt has been cited as the leading candidate for a pitching staff that struggled behind Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and the oft-injured Clay Buchholz last year (the Red Sox finished 22nd in ERA and 20th in FIP in 2011). How much would the Red Sox stand to gain if they sign Oswalt to be their no. 4 starter? Here’s what ESPN Insider’s Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system sees for Oswalt, compared to the man he’d likely replace:

ROY OSWALT: 11-7, 3.96 ERA, 152.1 IP, 157 H, 14 HR, 38 BB, 102 K, 111 ERA+, 2.6 WAR

ALFREDO ACEVES: 8-7, 4.48 ERA, 140.2 IP, 146 H, 16 HR, 49 BB, 90 K, 98 ERA+, 1.5 WAR

Even with some pessimism attached to Oswalt over his advancing age, nagging back problems, and a switch to the loaded AL East, ZiPS still sees plenty of value in signing him, especially if it’s a one-year deal worth around $10 million (or less), as has been speculated in many circles. There’s a compounding effect in play, too, where signing Oswalt could strengthen both the rotation and the bullpen. Fresh off a monster 2011 performance as Boston’s long man, Aceves gets a big projection for 2012 if Oswalt pushes him to the pen, with 71 innings, a 3.28 ERA, and 1.7 WAR. ZiPS isn’t a big fan of Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla, or Carlos Silva, the three scrap-heap starters the Sox nabbed to theoretically compete for the no. 4, with Daniel Bard ticketed for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Meanwhile, ZiPS projected Scutaro to post 2.3 WAR in 2012 were he to remain Boston’s everyday shortstop, vs. 1.7 WAR for a time-share consisting of decent-bat/lousy-glove Mike Aviles and slick-fielding banjo hitter Nick Punto. So if this essentially amounts to a Scutaro-for-Oswalt trade, the Sox could conceivably gain a game or two in the standings.

To find out exactly how much money Boston figured to save for its Oswalt fund, WEEI.com’s Alex Speier broke down the impact of dumping Scutaro for a right-handed Lenny DiNardo. There’s some complicated math involved, but if you take Scutaro’s $6 million salary, then add the money the Sox stood to lose via the luxury tax, you get $7.67 million.1 The Boston Globe‘s Nick Cafardo offers his own sober analysis, noting that the Yankees struck gold on Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia last year, and that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being careful how you spend your money. Some hoser made a similar argument not once, but twice about the Yankees’ frugal offseason.

None of this explains why a team with a cash cow of a ballpark like Fenway, a money-minting machine like NESN, and many other lucrative revenue streams would need to trade a perfectly capable starting shortstop for a perfectly capable doorstop. The Red Sox claimed the Rockies were the only team willing to absorb all of Scutaro’s salary, which is why they consummated the deal. As if sweating the final few million should have been the top priority in a Scutaro trade, and not, say, getting a real prospect in return.

There’s a difference between being shrewd with your money and just plain cheap. The Yankees waited out a loaded market for good-but-not-great starting pitchers, finally landing Hiroki Kuroda on a one-year deal. They doubled down by trading a very good but flawed young hitter for a very good though slightly vulnerable starting pitcher, thus addressing their biggest need. The Red Sox might also be on the verge of signing a solid veteran pitcher for one year after waiting out the market. But they also felt it necessary to dump a key player for nothing, just to find enough dough to (maybe) sign that pitcher they may or may not get. As if John Henry doesn’t have the wherewithal to do this anytime he pleases.

The Scutaro deal wasn’t the only perplexing move the Red Sox have made this offseason, nor even the first time they’ve ditched a would-be starting shortstop. Last month, Boston flipped Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland to the Astros for reliever Mark Melancon. Lowrie’s faults are no secret, starting with his own frequent injuries. But he’d also shown he could hit when healthy, and presented a reasonable Plan B were Scutaro to leave.2 Meanwhile, Melancon is … a relief pitcher. Granted, he’s been a pretty good relief pitcher, posting a 3.47 career FIP with a strikeout-to-walk rate of better than 2-to-1 and a gaudy 55.5 percent ground ball rate. Of course, most of that came after the Yankees traded him (and Jimmy Paredes) to the Astros at the 2010 trade deadline.

The good news for the Red Sox is that they get five years of team control.3 The bad news is, Melancon’s track record of success consists of a year-plus in the NL Central, plus solid minor league numbers from a ninth-round pick. Picking a name out of a hat, Frank Francisco was similarly productive for the past two years while pitching for the Rangers and Jays; he might have cost as much or more than the two years, $12 million the Mets ultimately gave him, but would not have cost Lowrie.4

In Cafardo’s piece, the author quotes new GM Ben Cherington and new manager Bobby Valentine discussing the many ways and many time frames in which a team can upgrade its roster. Perhaps by saving money now, the Sox also open the door to a key deadline deal, or to the Jacoby Ellsbury contract extension many Red Sox fans covet. And then there’s this: For all the question marks remaining on the roster, some of the leading projection systems still like the Sox; some love ‘em. Baseball Prospectus alum Clay Davenport has Boston winning 98 games and the AL East title by six games over the Yankees; the CAIRO prognosticator pegs the Sox for 94 wins and the AL East crown by the slimmest of margins; and ZiPS figures Boston for 89 wins and a neck-and-neck battle with the reloaded Angels for the AL wild card. Clearly Red Sox brass aren’t the only ones looking at the current roster and seeing good things — even great things.

But with Buchholz’s injury concerns, Bard’s inexperience as a starter, and Oswalt’s not-actually-here status, this year’s rotation looks as troubling as last year’s. Carl Crawford’s wrist could make year two of the $142 million experiment as ugly as year one. Aviles, Punto, and Iglesias might evoke memories of Julio Lugo sooner than Nomar, Cabrera, or even Scutaro himself. Kevin Youkilis’ health remains troubling, as does his fading range. And Ellsbury might be due for a bit of pullback, if Red Sox senior baseball ops adviser Bill James’ own Plexiglass Principle is to be believed. Shipping Scutaro, Lowrie, Reddick, and the rest out of town this offseason might amount to very little. But none of the players acquired in trade were commodities that couldn’t have been snagged by simply spending a few bucks. The Red Sox could have kept all or most of those players, inked Ross, Oswalt, a couple of capable relievers, and more, and been a better, deeper team once the dust settled.

It’s tough to look at this offseason and not think anything other than This Red Sox team could have and should have been better, if management hadn’t suddenly decided to start pinching pennies. And that’s where baseball’s new, stricter salary cap comes in. Go back and re-read Jayson Stark’s thorough take on the cap. Baseball euphemistically calls it the Competitive Balance Tax, as if its purpose is to level the playing field so that the Pirates, Royals, Yankees, and Red Sox can all see eye to eye.

This is, of course, prepostidiculous. On the margins, it can temporarily dissuade the Yanks and Sox (and maybe the Angels, Dodgers, and Mets in future seasons) from making that one last acquisition. But whatever minor gains poorer teams might reap are more than washed away by tighter restrictions on draft and international budgets, the lifeblood of small-revenue teams’ efforts to build from within. What the CBT really does is give a few owners the handy excuse they need to pocket more profits. Any kind of cap or drag on salaries is, first and foremost, an attempt by owners to claim a bigger piece of the revenue pie from players. Fairness and altruism have nothing to do with it.

So far this offseason, the Yankees have found a way to stash more of that cash, while also filling their biggest holes. The Red Sox have not.

Maybe this means Boston’s not done, that the pipe dreams of Hanley Ramirez, Gavin Floyd, and Izzy Alcantara martial arts lessons will all come true for the 2012 Red Sox. But right now, it’s tough to see beyond an owner who dropped £35 million for a colossal bust in one sport, $82.5 million for another in another, and $400-plus million for players ranging from so far, so good to good for a short while to oh no, what have I done, and finally decided, enough is enough.

And here’s the thing: Boston’s thrifty offseason plan, taken as a whole, might end up making at least a little baseball sense. The Rangers added Yu Darvish to a stacked roster. The Angels got Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. The Yankees finally have the pitching depth to match their terrifying lineup. The Rays might have their best offense in franchise history. And the Tigers just signed Prince Fielder. If baseball waits a year to add a second wild-card team, two or more very good teams will be going home early, and Boston may well be one of them. Maybe the answer is for the Sox to grab Oswalt, then stand pat from here, knowing Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, and other prizes could await in the next free-agent class.

For Red Sox fans, it might be $170 million worth of wait ’til next year.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, People

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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