Tuesday, April 9, 2013

An elaborate hypothetical: Revisiting the two Adrian Gonzalez trades

The Adrian Gonzalez era in Boston was a tumultuous, abbreviated affair, lasting only 628 calendar days and only 386 regular season days. Sadly, those regular season days were the only games Gonzalez played, as the Sox missed the playoffs in brutal fashion in 2011 and clearly were headed nowhere in 2012. Following that disastrous finish to 2011 and several months in to the ugly 2012 season, the Red Sox managed to unload Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford on to the Dodgers, while acquiring two elite arms in Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster, along with two fringe-MLB players in Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus, both of whom are now in the Pirates system. In under two years, Gonzalez had gone from savior to scapegoat, impending free agent to owner of one of the richest contracts in baseball, from Theo Epstein as his general manager to newcomer Ben Cherington, and from the west coast to the east coast and back again. Now that the smoke has cleared a bit from the terrible 2012 that precipitated the events, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at both Gonzalez trades, as well as the contracts that were key to getting the deal done from the Red Sox's perspective, and see how the Adrian Gonzalez era affected the team.

The Original Deal
The original trade for Adrian Gonzalez with the Padres was an on again, off again affair. The Red Sox and the Padres had a deal in place, but the Red Sox wanted a negotiating window in order to secure an extension, as Gonzalez was set to become a free agent following the 2011 season. The Red Sox and Gonzalez were unable to reach an agreement during this initial negotiating window, and the trade seemingly had fallen apart. However, eventually the Red Sox and Gonzalez reached a deal, and the trade was officially completed on December 6, 2010. The Red Sox and Gonzalez eventually agreed to a 7 year, $154 million extension, but postponed announcing it until after Opening Day due to MLB luxury tax implications. It was the 9th richest deal in baseball history at the time. The Red Sox had finally found their impact bat to replace Manny Ramirez. Despite playing in a cavernous stadium and surrounded by a weak lineup, Gonzalez put up spectacular numbers, averaging 34 home runs and 105 RBI with a .900 OPS. On the road, he was putting up video game numbers; he hit almost two thirds of his home runs on the road, and his OPS was over .100 higher. Put him in Fenway Park, and he would be peppering balls off or over the Green Monster.

The cost for Gonzalez was high, but not astronomical. The Red Sox sent three of their top 10 prospects to the Padres - polished righty Casey Kelly, who had good stuff and an excellent feel for pitching, but who struggled in AA after being aggressively promoted; breakout first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who was coming off  a 25 home run season split between A+ and AA; and toolsy outfielder Reymond Fuentes, whose youth and athleticism made up for his lack of production in the minors to that point. With an aging core, a lack of depth in the upper levels of the minor leagues, and David Ortiz coming off a mediocre season and one season removed from his terrible 2009, the Red Sox were clearly in win-now mode and were going to make a run at getting back to the World Series for the first time since 2007.

Evaluating the Original Deal
We now have over two years of perspective to look back on the original Gonzalez deal, and it seems to grade out favorably for the Red Sox. Despite the team's struggles at the end of 2011 and in 2012, Gonzalez was a good player overall, even factoring in his subpar 2012. Casey Kelly had to undergo Tommy John surgery this spring, and won't pitch until next spring training at the earliest. While he remains likely to be a major league pitcher, he does not have the stuff to be a frontline pitcher. Reymond Fuentes is no longer much of a prospect after continuing to struggle to translate his tools to production; Fuentes was not ranked by Baseball America, Fangraphs, or Baseball Prospectus when reviewing the Padres' minor league systems. The prize of the deal appears to be Anthony Rizzo, who will be starting as a major league first basemen; unfortunately for the Padres, he'll be doing it for the Theo Epstein run Chicago Cubs. Following a disappointing showing for the Padres at the major league level in 2011, Rizzo was traded to the Cubs for pitching prospect Andrew Cashner, in a rare prospect for prospect deal. Then San Diego GM Jed Hoyer, who had since become the GM for the Cubs, admitted to rushing Rizzo, but a bit more time in the minors seems to have paid off for Rizzo. Rizzo hit 15 home runs for the Cubs in half a season of playing time in 2012, and now is their starting first baseman. Sadly for the Padres, Cashner is now a reliever, and after all was said and done, they have very, very little to show from trading away their best player since Tony Gwynn.

The Out of Nowhere Signing
Days after the Gonzalez deal was completed, the Red Sox made another massive move, signing left fielder Carl Crawford to a seven year, $142 million deal. It was a totally unexpected move, but was well received by analysts and the fanbase alike, and the Red Sox were anointed the favorites in the AL East, and even the AL as a whole.

Opportunities Missed
The cost of the Gonzalez trade and spending $20 million per year on Carl Crawford was that third baseman Adrian Beltre, who led the team in WAR in 2010, was no longer part of the plan for the future. Beltre had signed a one year "pillow contract" in order to reestablish his value, and it worked like a charm. He signed a five year, $96 million deal with the Texas Rangers. Despite being in his 30s, Beltre has continued to produce at an elite level both with his glove and his bat, averaging just under six wins above replacement in his two seasons in Texas, and eaisly outproducing both Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Beltre was also a great clubhouse presence, so long as you didn't touch his head.

The Former Hero
The 2007 postseason cemented Josh Beckett's reputation as a clutch postseason performer. He was spectacular in his four starts, allowing only four earned runs in 30 innings, while striking out 35. His 2008 and 2009 seasons were not as strong, but he maintained an elite WHIP throughout. Unfortunately, everything fell apart in an injury abbreviated 2010. With free agency looming following the season, the Red Sox signed him to a four year, $68 million extension. In 2011, Beckett seemed to return to form with a 2.93 ERA, but his 2012 would be something else entirely.

The Summer of Discontent
I won't get into the details of the 2012 season too much, but it is important to recognize just how horribly things went. They opened 0-3, then 1-5. Bobby Valentine called out Kevin Youkilis, who was a major clubhouse figure and one of the hardest workers on the team, for not working hard enough.  It took them six tries when they were at .500 to get a winning record, before finally going to 25-24 on May 29. At the end of June they were 41-36, only to lose seven of the next nine games to limp into the All Star Break at 43-43. Will Middlebrooks, one of the few bright spots to the season broke his wrist August 11, to cap off a 3-8 slide. Carl Crawford underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow on August 23rd, finishing the worst season of his career and one that had been plagued by injury issues.  Josh Beckett put up a 5.23 ERA in 21 starts, while refusing to apologize or acknowledge his role in the infamous and likely overblowBut the real coup de grace was on August 23rd, when the Red Sox lost to the Angels in extra innings despite leading 6-0 after two innings, and 9-8 in the 6th, and 11-9 entering the 9th, thanks in large part to malcontent and bullpen arsonist Alfredo Aceves giving up five runs in an inning plus. By the next day, the Red Sox would be headed in a completely different direction.

Blowing It All Up
News of the deal first started to break on August 24th, when Adrian Gonzalez was held out of the lineup for the series opener against the Royals. Supposedly a massive deal was in place with the Dodgers, sending Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to Los Angeles. Deals this big are rare in August, as players have to clear waivers in order to be traded. If a team places a player on waivers and another team claims them, the original team can just let the player go, along with his contract, to the claiming team. If no one claims them, then they cannot be traded until the season is over. With about $140 million worth of guaranteed salary left of their deals, Carl Crawford, who was facing a year long recovery from elbow surgery, and Josh Beckett, with his ERA north of 5.00, cleared waivers easily, unfortunately, thanks to the contracts associated with them, they were less than worthless on the trade market. Adrian Gonzalez, on the other hand, was claimed by the Dodgers. Despite Gonzalez having the worst season of his career and with almost $150 million remaining on his new extension, there wasn't really any expectation that he would be traded. Teams place players on waivers all the time, in part just to gauge potential interest in them. Gonzalez was claimed by the Dodgers, meaning that no team in the American League put in a claim and that no team with a worse record than the Dodgers in the National League put in a claim either. This was a minor miracle, especially given that teams will often put in claims on players just to block potential deals. Perhaps no one thought the Red Sox could really trade Gonzalez. Perhaps no other teams wanted to take the risk that they'd be stuck with such a large contract. Either way, everything fell into place for Ben Cherington and the Red Sox.

The Boston Herald first broke the story (now behind a paywall), and other media outlets quickly followed suit in reporting that the Red Sox were able to dump the bad contracts of Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, at the expense of Adrian Gonzalez. Not only that, but the Red Sox were receiving real prospects in return, primarily in the form of starting pitching prospects Allen Webster and Rubby de la Rosa. The Red Sox also sent cash to the Dodgers; normally $11 million is a lot to be included in a trade, but when you're shedding $285 million worth of salaries in the process, $11 million is a drop in the bucket.

Somehow the Red Sox cleared two contracts that were considered to be worthless.

Somehow, the Red Sox ended up sending less than half as much cash in their trade which cleared $285 million worth of salary than the Angels needed to send this spring ($28.1 million) to cover the remaining $42 million on Vernon Wells' deal.

And, most importantly, somehow the Red Sox acquired two starting pitching prospects who were in the upper minors and have front of the rotation upside.

God Bless Ned Colletti and the new Dodgers ownership.

In one move, Ben Cherington completely remade the franchise and set on the rocky road to rebuilding a successful team. Gone were the oversized free agents of the twilight of the Theo Epstein era. Gone was the playoff MVP of the last World Series team.

The Pieces Coming Back
In many ways, the players sent to the Red Sox are ancillary parts of the evaluation of the deal. They do, however, have the ability to turn the deal from a good one to an absolute fleecing. As I mentioned above, both Webster and de la Rosa have top of the rotation stuff. Both sit in the mid to upper 90s, with Rubby complementing his fastball with a devastating slider and Webster adding a slider to his heavy sinking fastball. As with just about any pitching prospect, there are major question marks surrounding them. Rubby de la Rosa is coming off of Tommy John surgery, and many scouts believe that both will end up in the bullpen, because of their slight builds and health issues. Only time will tell how they develop and what their roles will be, but as they are already in the upper minors, appearances this season or next are not out of the question.

Summing It All Up
In the end, it really comes down to this simple question: Would you trade the 2010 versions of Anthony Rizzo, Casey Kelly, and Reymond Fuentes for the 2012 versions of Allen Webster and Rubby de la Rosa? I think the answer is yes, but it is hard to say knowing that Rizzo will develop into a starter at first, but Kelly is facing Tommy John surgery. What if I threw in $250 million worth of financial flexibility? Not much of a question anymore, is it? Of course, to make it all work you need $250 million in bad contracts to begin with. For what it is worth, the architect of the $250 million worth of bad contracts agrees.

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