After jettisoning the bulk of their long-term payroll to Los Angeles last summer, it really seemed like the Red Sox were ready to cut their losses and try something different. Huge contracts to Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Adrian Gonzalez were all seemingly failing at once. Crawford had been nothing but hurt during his brief Boston tenure, Beckett’s performance was wildly volatile from season to season, and Gonzalez forgot how to take a pitch somewhere between San Diego and the northeast. The Sox seemed ready to clean house and construct their team in a way that would work over the long haul.
Well, that’s how things seemed, anyway. A recent flurry of free agent signings show that maybe the team didn’t understand flaunting their financial resources wouldn’t necessarily translate to wins if done in the wrong way, and it’s puzzling that the Sox are headed back in a similar direction. A team that should have been concerned with filling holes relatively cheaply and developing young talent has instead once again turned to the ugly free agent market, and it’s hard to tell whether GM Ben Cherington really believes this plan will work or ownership simply demands big, veteran names to give the public a perception of immediate contention.
Whatever the case, I can’t imagine there are a whole lot of Sox fans out there pleased with the direction the team has decided to take. Sure, there’s plenty of money off the books with the previously mentioned trio now donning Dodger uniforms. But, at the time, the move seemed like a signal that the team wanted to start with a clean slate, not muddle up that very clean slate with more regrettable signings.
The Red Sox decided to answer their terrible 2012 with a few free agent signings, chiefly among them outfielder Shane Victorino and catcher/first baseman/DH Mike Napoli. Both players received three-year, $39 million deals that don’t make a whole lot of sense for the club. Victorino is coming off the worst season of his career, and the only guarantee he offers is good work defensively and on the basepaths. At the plate, his overall numbers are falling and he simply can’t hit right-handers. Given that the majority of pitchers are in fact right-handed, this poses a huge problem. In 2011, Victorino posted a .906 OPS against lefties but just a .629 OPS against righties. Since 472 of his 666 PA came against right-handers, Victorino’s overall numbers suffered immensely.
Napoli offers very formidable power, and he can certainly draw a walk, but there are other aspects of his game that leave a lot to be desired. His batting average is traditionally low thanks to high strikeout rates and a lack of speed; normally it’s good to have players who don’t depend on average for their OBP to be respectable, but Napoli’s can sink down around the Mendoza line if he’s not careful. This wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if he could actually catch as he has in the past, but Napoli doesn’t seem likely to get much time behind the dish. He’s dealt with injuries, he’s getting older, and he was never exactly Johnny Bench back there in the first place.
These moves aren’t going to make Boston the team to beat in the competitive AL East. There are too many other organizations making better decisions and thus sporting better rosters. The Yankees are largely unchanged from their solid season in 2012, and even if they’re aging there is a lot of talent on that roster. The Rays are always consistently good, and the nucleus there will be competitive so long as the holes in the lineup are filled in some capacity. The Blue Jays managed to get a blockbuster deal done with the Marlins and have supplemented the talent they already had with a whole lot more. Even the Orioles are better than they have been in recent years and coming off a rare playoff berth. If the Red Sox want to contend, they aren’t going to do it with injury risks, veterans past their prime, and desperation moves. Then again, shouldn’t they already know that?