I heard the news when I woke up this morning to go to work: Carl Crawford will spend the next seven years in a Boston Red Sox uniform, for which he will be paid an annual salary slightly in excess of $20 million per year.
I have a number of thoughts on this—I was, after all, quite clear that I believed Crawford was not a good fit for the Red Sox—but the club apparently believes that he can be productive in Fenway Park, and when Bill James is one of the guys on your advisory staff, you give them the benefit of the doubt.
Anyway, here are some thoughts on the Red Sox’s new left fielder, on the team in general and on where they might go from here:
1. Does Crawford Make the Red Sox the Favorites To Win the AL East?
First things first. We’re not adding Crawford to a garden-variety 89-win team that finished third. The reality is that we’re retooling what was a 100-win team that got decimated by injuries that held it to 89 wins. The trade for Adrian Gonzalez effectively replaces the loss of Adrian Beltre. Beltre had a Hall of Famer’s season in 2010, the type of year that might have won him an MVP if the Red Sox had won 100 games. The deal, and presumed extension, to A-Gon assures the team of maintaining that outstanding production for years to come, but it’s a wash as far as projecting 2011. A-Gon’s typical contribution in a season (in terms of wins) is about the same as what Beltre did this year.
If everyone stays healthy, I don't think the Red Sox needed Crawford to win the division. He certainly has the potential to make that task a lot easier. But he needs to do something first...
2. Crawford May Have To Make Adjustments to his Game To Be the Best Player He Can Be in Boston
My entire concern about signing Crawford is the fact, rarely mentioned in the media, that he has performed poorly in Fenway Park. His slash line is 275/301/406, with four home runs and nine walks in 338 career plate appearances. Needless to say, if he hits that way in Fenway going forward, he might as well change his last name to Steinbrenner. There are some caveats, though:
a) Crawford has hit much better in Fenway recently. Since the 2008 ALCS, he has played 21 games in Boston, with a slash line of 348/382/506, and 11 stolen bases in as many attempts. He hasn’t hit any home runs, but if he hits .348, he doesn’t have to.
I also wonder if the team doesn’t have access to some data I don’t. It’s possible that Crawford’s numbers in Fenway are only poor because he hits .038 against Jon Lester or something like that. If that were the case, then the problem would be solved since he would never have to bat against Lester now.
b) Crawford will almost certainly age well. Contrary to popular belief, players with speed as a central skill last a long time if they maintain that speed beyond the age of 25. Rickey Henderson was an effective player well into his 40s. Brett Butler had his last good season at 38. Bill Bruton was (allegedly) 38 when he retired, still playing effectively. Richie Ashburn was playing great at 35 when the ’62 Mets drove him out of the game. Al Bumbry and Dave Lopes kept swiping bases until they were pushing 40. And the most similar player in all of baseball history to Crawford through age 29 had an OPS+ of 137 at the age of 37. You’re probably heard of the guy. Fellow by the name of Clemente. He’s one of two Hall of Famers on the list of best comps, the other being the No. 2 guy, Sam Crawford (no relation). The other eight players were all standouts. Tim Raines will be a Hall of Famer someday, Johnny Damon might be. Sherry Magee, No. 3 on the list behind Crawford, was better than a lot of Hall of Famers he played against. Ben Chapman might be there if he hadn’t been a racist.
c) A lot of the concerns about Crawford could also apply to Beltre, who quickly learned how to turn Boston’s park and lineup to his advantage and became one of a bajillion players to lead the American League in doubles while hitting .320 for the Sox.
I have always believed that placing a free swinger in the middle of a group of patient hitters who work deep into the count (like the Red Sox) is a smart move, because pitchers approach the Red Sox with a “strike one” mentality. So they throw a lot of get-it-over fastballs to get ahead in, or even, the count. But the aggressive hitter gets these offerings and he crunches them. What Beltre did attacking those first-pitch strikes and pitches on hitter’s counts in 2010 was frightening. Well, now the Red Sox have Crawford. All he does is hit .344 with power on the first pitch, and roughly .400 with power when he gets ahead in the count.
3. I Don’t Think the Red Sox Are Done Dealing Yet
With Crawford in the fold, the team has too many outfielders. They’ve indicated they would like to send Ryan Kalish to Triple-A for more experience, which is probably a good move, although I think he can play in the majors now. He’ll probably take J.D. Drew’s spot in 2012.
But the acquisition of Crawford makes Jacoby Ellsbury superfluous. Since the team can’t trade Drew or Mike Cameron without eating a ton of money, and they now have a $20 million left fielder, Ellsbury is prime trade bait more than ever.
As an arbitration-eligible player, he’s probably due for a salary of about $4-5 million in 2011. This makes him a reasonable option for any team that isn’t in absolute bargain-basement mode.
Don’t be surprised if he becomes part of another deal, sometime between now and June.
4. The Supposed Aversion of the Red Sox to Long-Term Contracts Was Overrated
The Red Sox are averse to signing players to bad contracts. Long-term deals aren’t necessarily bad contracts. More than two decades ago, Bill James effectively penned “Free Agency for Dummies” in one of his Baseball Abstracts. He pointed out that a lot of free agents are signed for what they did in the past, and may not produce as well going forward because they are older. But if you sign great players, you’ll still get value. James used Reggie Jackson as his example: If you sign Reggie Jackson and he loses a step due to age, you’re OK because he’s Reggie Jackson. He lost a step no one else had; hence, he’s still a very good player. Alex Rodriguez is the modern example. He’s lost a step, so now all the Yankees have is one of the best third basemen in baseball, rather than the best player in baseball.
Taking this back to the Red Sox, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are so much better, and with a breadth of skills, than the typical player that you have to believe they will still be good players seven years from now. Secure in that knowledge, the Red Sox are going to pay them. They won’t pay that to a one-dimensional slugger who strikes out 160 times (see Bay, Jason) or a soon-to-be DH with a 122 OPS+ (see Martinez, Victor), but they’ll pay for the real deal.
5. Red Sox Fans Officially Have No Right To Complain
The team has just committed roughly $300 million to heist a couple of star players from small-market clubs; one for three prospects they’re not ever going to need, and the other as a straight purchase. (I'm assuming that the Sox will give A-Gon a 7/154 extension after Opening Day.) I’ve thought for years that any whining about the Yankees was uncalled for; I don’t like the Yankees, but I’m honest enough to admit my team is doing the same things. We’re not “like” the Yankees—we’re Red Sox Nation, not Bandwagoner Nation, and our team doesn’t play in a billion-dollar monument to greed. But when it comes to players, we’ve got no reason to gripe when the Yankees buy a star player. We do it, too.
So let's just do it better.