There’s a reason why Derek Jeter is still in pinstripes.
Sure, he’s good, but the Yankees could do better. Alex Rodriguez could be moved back to shortstop. The Yankees could have signed Chone Figgins to man third base, for example, or pushed Mark Teixeira back to the hot corner.
It’s called nostalgia.
For a game that respects its history as much as baseball does, it’s not all that surprising that teams are usually willing to overpay for a beloved veteran whose career is waning instead of using the roster space to develop a prospect or try out a cheap sleeper. It builds morale in the clubhouse, makes the fans happy, and sets up a heartwarming story to be told ad nauseum if the team makes the playoffs.
Even Oakland GM Billy Beane—notorious for his emphasis on objective statistics and his belief in change for change’s sake (if you wait until you need to shake things up, you’ll make a bad deal out of desperation)—has a sentimental side, as evidenced by his seemingly endless patience with his overpaid, never-healthy third baseman, Eric Chavez.
However, one team has consistently demonstrated an alarming lack of nostalgia over the past several years: the Boston Red Sox.
The much-discussed Mike Lowell trade, already infamous before it's even finalized, is just the latest in a series of moves in which GM Theo Epstein has demonstrated his lack of concern for sentimentality.
Lowell has been the subject of a surprising amount of trade speculation this off-season, with many Red Sox fans opining that he isn’t good enough to hold down the hot corner at Fenway.
While his normally sterling defense took a dip in 2009, he put up impressive numbers offensively, hitting .290 with 17 homers and an OPS just above his career mark of .810. He may not be as good as his Yankees counterpart, but that’s certainly strong production from a fairly shallow position.
And, of course, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Lowell has emerged as a terrific clubhouse leader in his four years in Boston, and was named World Series MVP in 2007.
None of that seems to matter to Epstein, who apparently prefers to have defensive stalwart Adrian Beltre (21.0 UZR/150 in 2009) man the hot corner. Epstein likes Beltre’s glove so much that he’s willing to overlook his weak bat (.683 OPS in 2009) and pay $9 million to get Lowell out of the picture.
Whether Beltre is a better option than Lowell is another story, but you can bet that the intangible qualities aren’t big factors in Boston’s decision.
This is a recurring theme. Look back a year-and-a-half ago, when the Red Sox shipped Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles and got Jason Bay in return. It wasn’t the player that mattered, it was the production.
As long as he had a solid bat to stick in left field, it didn’t matter who it was (though Bay’s numbers through the end of the year weren’t as good as Manny’s had been).
To be fair, Ramirez had created a bad situation for himself, and he made it clear he wanted out of Boston. But the deal sent a dehumanizing message about the team—even man who had anchored the lineup for eight years could be easily replaced.
Next, look back four years earlier, when Epstein traded away fan favorite Nomar Garciaparra for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, both of whom left town after the season. While losing Garciaparra was a shock for many Red Sox fans, it wasn’t the first they had heard of it; rumors had spread before the 2004 season that the star shortstop would be dealt for Magglio Ordonez in the aftermath of the proposed Alex Rodriguez trade.
Even this offseason, Lowell is not the only important Boston player to be disenfranchised. Manager Terry Francona’s request that Epstein get him another pitcher was a subtle jab at Tim Wakefield, a 2009 All-Star who has never earned the respect he deserves in his 15 years with the Red Sox.
Epstein has even marginalized the team captain, catcher Jason Varitek. After the acquisition of Victor Martinez cost him his starting job at midseason, rumors have swept through the blogosphere that the Red Sox were looking for a new backup backstop too.
Now, Boston is on the verge of acquiring prospect Max Ramirez as the return for Lowell. What does that say about Varitek’s future with the Red Sox?
From a purely baseball standpoint, Epstein’s pragmatism seems like a commendable attribute. He doesn’t waste time with players who can’t contribute, no matter what they’ve done in the past.
But it doesn’t reflect well on the organization. Lowell’s departure leaves the team in need of a new leader, and losing him can’t be good for the team’s morale.
Not to mention that the fans don’t take these things well. It’s easier for perennial contenders like the Red Sox to maintain their popularity despite losing familiar faces than it is for, say, the Indians after losing Martinez and Cliff Lee, But many people will stop showing up at the games if they don’t recognize the players.
Heed this warning, fellow Faithful: Don’t get too attached to Adrian Beltre.