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What Phillies can learn from Red Sox rebuild: Sign short-term deals, survive bad deals, keep players motivated

Oct 25, 2013, 1:44 PM EDT

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Last year, the Red Sox skidded to a 93-loss finish and, all things considered, one of the biggest underachievements in recent sports memory. This year, and after an 8-1 lathering of the Cardinals in Game 1, they’re three wins from a World Series crown. No matter the outcome, they’ve already capped a turnaround that’s nothing short of remarkable. Maybe among the best all-time. Maybe the best.

“How’d they do it?” ask Phillies fans, fresh off their team’s 89-loss snoozer? Good question.

The answer, besides the obvious like, you know, preaching getting on base and offering the clubhouse a non-lunatic manager: By keeping guys financially motivated. And despite some failure.

Vaunted as Boston’s offseason rebuild has been, it’s hard to overlook the most significant similarities between the deals: (a) none offers any guarantees beyond next-next year, (b) a few ended in magnificent disaster.

Here’s a reminder:

THE BAD

Joel Hanrahan, RP (acquired via trade on 12/26/12): Back to back All-Star Games for Pittsburgh despite absurd control issues in 2012 that resulted in baseball’s second-highest BB/9 among relievers that year, his age-31 season. For some reason, this was deemed worth a former No. 6 overall prospect and Mark Melancon, who posted a 1.39 ERA in 72 appearances out of what became baseball’s second best bullpen. And what did that deal, considered by some a coup for the Pirates, get for Boston? 7.1 innings, two blown saves, a 9.82 ERA, and one Tommy John surgery. Overall, less than good turnout.

Ryan Dempster, SP (two years, $26.5 million): Had decline written all over him, even before Texas traded for him at last year’s deadline and his ERA blew up like Will Smith’s face in “Hitch,” to a 5.09 down the stretch. And decline Dempster did: 4.57 ERA in 32 starts before getting yanked from the rotation in September before the final stretch. Tough to crush Boston for Dempster’s $13.25 million this year, given the comparable production vs. pay the Blue Jays, Nats and, yes, your Phillies got from Josh Johnson, Dan Haren and Jonathan Papelbon. And he did bean A-Rod. Still. Not so bueno on the whole.

THE GOOD(ish)

Mike Napoli, 1B/C (one year, $5 millIon): Original deal was three years, $39 million. Then Boston realized that the 31-year-old former Angel and Ranger was basically running on a replica of Bo Jackson’s hip. (Really.) This season, solid year. 4.0 WAR, seventh most among first basemen. 23 homers. Decent .842 OPS. All to temper his 32.4% strikeout rate, second-highest in baseball, Ended up getting great value, enhanced by his ability to let David Ortiz full-time DH. But remember, Boston was willing to pay a deal that would’ve carried AAV of $13M, Carlos Beltran’s 2013 earnings. Of the seven players at the position to post a better OPS, only Joey Votto would’ve earned more per year. Value, but only as a function of fortune.

Jonny Gomes, DH/OF (two years, $10 million): End of the day, any 11 year vet earning $5 million per is small potatoes. Still, Gomes’ .247/.344/.426 line tells you all you need to know: plate patience matters, especially for fringe guys. If he qualified, his 3.87 pitches per plate appearance would’ve only ranked 11th of 22 AL outfielders. But imagine what Gomes’ on-base percentage, on par with Ben Revere, who hit .305 this year, would’ve been without it. In short, valuing walks isn’t “Moneyball.” In 2013, it’s just “smart.”

THE GOOD

Koji Uehara, RP (one year, $4.5 million): Not much to say “nay” about here. 3.3 WAR, most among relievers. 11.22 K/9, best among relievers. 21 saves in 24 opportunities, after taking over for Andrew Bailey, who replaced the injured Joel Hanrahan. 2013 ALCS MVP. Had a $4.25 million 2014 option (55 appearances) vest mid-season. Even though he’ll be 39, don’t think Sawx fans are complaining.

Shane Victorino, RF (three years, $39 million): Oh, Shane. Tough for Phillie fans to swallow. Career-worst year in 2012 that somehow further slipped after he was traded to the Dodgers. Funny, though. Guy struggles heftily in not one, but two, over-paid, arguably bad clubhouses, goes to one with the proper chemistry and motivation and posts a career-high .294 average, solid .802 OPS and, best of all, 5.6 WAR, in the neighborhood of soon-to-(maybe?)-be $300 million man Robinson Cano, who played 38 more games.

Stephen Drew, SS (one year, $9.5 million): Posted the same 3.4 WAR as Milwaukee’s Jean Seguara, and a better OPS, despite not qualifying for the batting title. (WAR is a cumulative stat, so yeah, that’s impressive.) Not bad for a No. 8 hitter, where he batted for most of the season. On defense, average range, but a sure glove that was third-best at the position. Very, very  much worth the coin.

THE TRADE

Who could forget about The Trade, which shed $250 million in salaries through 2018 and three guys who, in their own words, even a half-year later, didn’t quite jell with the rest of the clubhouse: Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. For Phillies fans green with envy over their team’s bad contracts, consider, Ruben Amaro may have had the chance. Remember, trade actually centered on Los Angeles’ waiver claim of Gonzalez and Beckett. Two weeks earlier, the Dodgers put in a claim on Cliff Lee. Can we confirm that conversations between GM Ned Colletti and Amaro involved a similar megadeal, for, say, Lee, Ryan Howard (a buy-low move for a high-upside guy coming off injury that would’ve been perfect for the first base-needy and farm system-poor Dodgers) and Papelbon (Brandon League was soon to be an UFA, and, in the first year of a three year, $22.5 million deal, owner of a 5.30 ERA)? No. But you’d be foolish to disregard the coincidence.

THE OTHER TRADE

Midseason deals often matter just as much, if not more, as those struck in the offseason. And credit the Red Sox: despite Peavy’s 4.28 ERA with the White Sox in the first half, and only marginally better 4.08 in Boston after, he provided security for a team parched for pitching depth, considering Clay Buccoltz’ health and Dempster’s stuff. He was a No. 4 ideally, a No. 3 in a pinch. Was he worth Jose Iglesias, the slick-fielding and average-reliant shortstop that went to Detroit? Maybe, considering Boston was higher on SS Xander Boegarts anyway. Maybe not. Still, the fact that they (a) addressed a position of need, (b) got production comparable to what Peavy had been doing pre-trade, (c) orchestrated the always tough three-team deal and (d) preyed on the desperation of not one, but two teams (Detroit needed to fill the void soon to be gashed by SS Jhonny Peralta’s 50-game PED ban, and Chicago just kind of sucks/needs to rebuild), it’s safe to call this a success.

JOHN LACKEY

Any time you can get a guy you’re paying $82.5 million over five years to bounce back from a career-high 6.41 ERA two years prior AND Tommy John surgery one year prior to win 10 games and post a 3.52 ERA as your No. 3 (and, given Buccoltz’ issues, often a No. 2), you’re got fortune on your side. Especially when your current management group wasn’t responsible for the signing, from 2009. The lesson: good luck never hurts.

THE TAKEAWAY

So, what’s there to learn in all of this?

(1) Don’t spend lots of money/prospects on one or two guys that you can spend on, like, 10. In baseball, deals not working out isn’t a risk. It’s an occupational hazard. Here, in what may be considered the greatest fixer upper in sports history, you’ll note that two of the seven deals (for $20 million in salary this year and some really, really good prospects) ended in utter catastrophe. A third, Napoli’s, could’ve been quite meh quite easily. For Phillies fans consumed by the big market mentality that, when it comes to free agency, your spending of a lot of money on tickets/jerseys/memorabilia should correspond to the front office’s spending of a lot of money on “marquee” names, no, the top prospect on the market probably isn’t worth it. Money — any money, let alone Howard/Pujols/Hamilton/Cano money — is often “bad money” by default. Especially since…

(2) Make sure your players, and front office execs, are properly motivated. Short-term deals create incentives. Urgency. Desperation. Sure, much can be said about Boston adding personalities, character, chemistry. But how much of that is the result of their individual financial situations? Give a guy bazillions of dollars over a decade, it’s impossible for him to be as motivated as he is with the carrot still dangling in front of him. He’s also likely to have more camaraderie with the guys around him, most of whom are in the same, disleveraged position. This doesn’t make athletes bad people, it makes them human. Which means the same incentives should work the same way on just about everybody.  Brief deals also helps cushion the blow of bad deals (which we just established are inevitable) and turn over the roster, which is especially great if you’ve got viable prospects up the pike like, say, Franco, Hernandez, Asche, Galvis. Giving such guys a clear path not only motivates them, seeing as they’re only months? weeks? days? from “the call,” it holds the front office and scouting department accountable. They have to find and cultivate talent, because sometime in the not too distant future, they’ll need to use it. (Like, say, this year’s other World Series participant.)

As for Victorino, pouncing on a high character guy coming off a dreadful year was savvy. It also shows how Boston executed the other part of this “give guys incentive” strategy. His motivation here wasn’t the money — he has what may be his last significant contract. It was restoring his reputation, something you have to wonder whether guys without the opportunity for a fresh start, and locked into five-year, gadzillion dollar deals, worry about. Especially when there are, like, 10 of them not worrying about it in the same room.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @MKH973 Catch him every Saturday from 12-2 on 97.3 ESPN-FM. 

  1. 33 - Oct 25, 2013 at 2:07 PM

    do the Cardinals next! Interesting rebuild there, with so much turnover between recent appearances. Two different paths to the same end.

    Reply
    • Matt Hammond - Oct 25, 2013 at 2:15 PM

      lol you got it. easier write, too.

      Reply
  2. Pete D - Oct 25, 2013 at 2:25 PM

    “Short-term deals create incentives.” Man, I swear I’ve heard that before. Oh yeah, that was from Pat Gillick, the guy who put the WS team over the top. Weird.

    Reply
  3. sfsu - Oct 25, 2013 at 2:46 PM

    Both Victorino and Werth outperformed their contracts this year. I got ripped on this site when I said 3/39 was a bargain for Victorino, and I got ripped when I said I would’ve rather paid Werth than Howard.

    They should’ve had an outfield of Victorino, Brown, and Mayberry/Schierholtz in 2013. The ONE thing RAJ does right (getting Schierholtz for Pence), he immediately invalidates by releasing Schierholtz. If it weren’t for Ryan Howard or Hunter Pence, the non-tender of Schierholtz would be his worst all-time move.

    Sure they still wouldn’t have made the playoffs…but they’d still have all 4 OFs heading into next year making a combined 17M or so.

    Reply
  4. Mike - Oct 25, 2013 at 4:05 PM

    Injuries were a huge part of the Red Sox finish last year; they almost never had their best players in the lineup together. That said, the front office did a great job adapting to a new era where lots of teams have money and smart GMs use advanced stats and avoid making huge mistakes. By looking for reasonable risk instead peeing themselves when a washed up name ::cough cough Papelbon:: becomes available, the Sox have a chance to retool each year and maintain success. That will not happen with RAJ and the idiotic old school mentality of this organization.

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