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The Curious Case of Al…

May 4, 2012 Leave a comment

In 110 plate appearances this season, Albert Pujols – the greatest slugging first baseman since perhaps Lou Gherig – has a whopping zero home runs. Unless you live under a rock, you probably already knew that. I mean, there have been thousands of words spilled over this pandemic all week. It’s as though the sky is falling. Seriously, repeat after me people:

Small Sample Size.

That’s right, weird things happen in April. Actually, weird things happen at any point in a baseball season, it’s just that those weird things are so glaringly obvious in April when they can’t dissolve into 300 productive at bats. Should the Angels be concerned about Pujols? Absolutely, but their concerns should relate not to this year’s homerless streak, but rather to the way his offensive numbers have declined for three straight seasons. Drastically declined.

In 2009 Albert was coming off a seven year run in which his WAR had not dipped below 8.2 – or superduperstar level. He had hit .327/.443/.658 that year, with a .449 OBA. The year before he’d abused NL pitchers to the tune of a .357/.462/.653 line. He controlled the strike zone (16.4% BB rate) and he mashed the ball (.331 ISO – .250 is considered excellent!). He was the best hitter in baseball and the best player in baseball.

Over the following two seasons however, Pujols’ WAR dropped from 9.0 to 7.5 to 5.1. His OBP went from .443 to .414, to .366. His slugging from .658 to .596, to .541. Perhaps of greatest concern, his walk rate dropped from 16.4% to 14.7% to 9.4%. Those numbers represent a trend. Do they mean that Albert is washed up as a player? Of course not, a player with a .299/.366/.541 slash line is still exceptionally valuable, but these numbers do represent a large sample of evidence that Albert is declining as a player.

Of course, this is information that the Angels knew five months ago, and if it didn’t bother them then, it shouldn’t suddenly bother them after 110 at bats. It should, however, have bothered them then. At 32 Pujols can reasonably expect to have another three seasons similar to the last two he just completed. Perhaps he’ll suffer a mild depreciation of his counting numbers; say, closer to 30 home runs than 40, but generally similar overall production. And those numbers are very good. They are all-star level numbers, but they aren’t numbers requisite with the best player in the game.

For 240 million over the following decade, the Angels weren’t hoping to acquire an all-star first baseman, they were looking for the best player in the game. Sure, they knew that the last two or three years of the deal would get ugly, but they also figured those decline years would be justified by these first few seasons of dominance. They weren’t alone either; before the season started, ESPN counted down the top 500 players in baseball for this season. They crowned Pujols #1.

Was there good cause to do so? Obviously, but there was also good cause not to. For starters, Pujols plays the least important defensive position on the diamond. Sure, he plays it very well, but basically for him to be the best player in baseball, he has to provide 99% of that value with his bat.

It’s a truth of our sports media bubble – and (ahem) the bloggers who exist increasingly on the inside of that bubble – they are slow to identify changing trends. We take for granted that what was true yesteryear continues to be true today. From 2003-2009 Albert Pujols was the best hitter in baseball. And with the exception of that guy out in San Francisco, it wasn’t even really close. Albert’s 62 WAR over those seven seasons leads A-Rod by 12, and A-Rod leads the eternally underrated Chase Utley by 9. Of course, WAR includes defense. For his prime, Pujols also led baseball* in batting average (.337), OBP (.435), SLG (.640), and wOBA (.443). HR (295), and – not that one should care – RBIs (855) and Runs (841). He was a beast. And, he was the best player in baseball.

* (I excluded Bonds, who only played about half the seasons in that span, but had otherworldly rate stats. Seriously, I know he was hopped up on flax seed oil and I know he was an arse, but go back and look at that 2001-2004 stretch, it was insane. We will never see anything like that again.)

The last two seasons? Pujols was still awesome, but… He was 8th in WAR, 6th in wOBA, 7th in OBP, 4th in SLG. Sure, he was still second in HRs, but the rate stats show a depreciation of his skills. Not a huge depreciation, but enough to lower him from the Demi-Gods to the extremely gifted mortals. And that’s an important drop.

Look, Pujols is going to hit a home run soon. Probably this weekend. And when does, he’s probably going to go on a run where he hits a bunch. He’s a really good hitter, and streaks are the nature of baseball. April just doesn’t represent a large enough sample size to tell you that Albert’s done. But, that also doesn’t mean that the games in April don’t count, they do. What Albert’s done, or not done, through 26 games does represent actual production, actual value. If Albert matches his exact 2011 numbers from May onward, his final season line will read:

.291/.348/.457 with 36 2B, 30 HR, and 56 BB.

That’s a solid player. When you add in his excellent base running and superb defense, it’s a borderline all-star, but is a borderline all-star what the Angels where hoping for when they gave him a 240 million ten year contract?

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Fat Jokes and Twitter-Baiting…

April 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Tony Kornheiser, of PTI fame, has repeatedly said that the reason he’s not on Twitter – other than being too old to know how to use the google machine – is that he knows two minutes in he’d say something stupid that would end up ruining his career. For all its greatness, Twitter is a medium that leads people to shoot from the proverbial hip, when perhaps they should take a moment to exhale.

Jays catcher JP Arencibia found himself embroiled in a little controversy this morning, when he responded to a baiting tweet by calling his combatant fat. Eric Mirlis, a sports talk show host was the subject of this tweet from the Jays embattled catcher,

@themirl please have one more donut, looks like u need it!

Most of the commentary around Arencibia’s tweet, including from the Getting Blanked guys here, has taken the stance that Arencibia was in the wrong for making a fat joke about the guy. And, I guess they are right, he probably should have simply exhaled, remembered that he’s a young, attractive (cough-at least according to my wife – cough), wealthy baseball player. Early season struggles or not, his life is pretty good. So, you’d like to think that JP would be above reacting to Twitter riff-raff goading him, plus a joke about the guy’s weight does probably cross some sort of line, but here’s my question, why in the world was a professional sports pundit tweeting to Arencibia to denigrate his play anyhow?

Scary bad stat line: @jparencibia9 ranked behind guys like Mike Morse and V-Mart so far this season…and they have not played.

You could say that this is an innocuous tweet, and that fat jokes are in bad taste, and yes, Arencibia is a professional athlete who should be above such petty repartees, but isn’t that exactly what the guy was looking for? Why else was he tweeting @ Arencibia? What’s the upside? In reading Eric Mirlis’ twitter feed, it seems that after his comment, he’s been lambasted by Arencibia fans, to which he’s responded with comments like,

Respect is a two way way street.

and,

It is about accountability. There is none on Twitter.

Mirlis is right, it is about accountability and respect. he showed neither when he chose to include Arencibia in his tweet. He’s certainly justified in posing the question to his radio listeners and he is probably justified in tweeting the question, but doesn’t including Arencibia in the tweet cross into some form of baiting? I understand that athletes are paid a lot of money, and thus have to accept some backlash and criticism as part of the job, but do they need to have that criticism rubbed directly into their face? Twitter – and the internet in general – breeds this kind of vitriol, both Mirlis’ baiting and Arencibia’s retort, but does that mean that like Mr Tony we need to just avoid it all together? Shouldn’t there be some sort of decorum required? If not from the casual (trolling) fan, then from the professionals?

Of course, as a talk show host, perhaps this is the level of decorum that Mirlis subscribes to,

To @jparencibia9 and his fans who think they are funny…my show is on this Sunday night at 10. Call in and come get me. I’m right here.

After all, as he himself says,

The down side of Twitter…even the bottom feeders can use it.

I’m sure Arencibia is thinking the same thing.

Baseball’s Parity Problem…

April 17, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote this about six weeks ago and never published it, because I was planning on changing the name of my blog and was waiting to do that first. One thing led to another, and, well… I’m still planning on changing the name of my blog (my wife has informed me that it’s beyond acceptable levels of sport-nerdom), just, you know, tomorrow…

Anyhow, while this isn’t exactly topical anymore, it still largely applies and since it’s written it might as well be read:

Jayson Stark, who’s a wonderful writer, despite not spelling his name properly, wrote an interesting piece earlier this week (cough-in February-cough) in which he polled several league executives to determine how many teams had the potential to win the World Series this season.

Now, lets deal with the question first, before getting to the results. The question, how many teams, going into the season, have even the slightest hope of winning the World Series, could really be rephrased, “how many teams have a chance to make the playoffs this year?” As we’ve seen the last two seasons with the Giants and the Cardinals popping champagne in November, you don’t have to be the best team, because once you reach the playoffs, it’s anyone’s game.

And, of course, opportunities to make the playoffs are going to be a little better this year than they’ve been in the past, which must be considered in the equation, but still if you read Stark’s article, the executives he spoke with identified an astounding 19 different teams capable of winning the World Series. They unanimously identified 12 as being contenders – and Boston wasn’t one of the 12.

For all the caterwauling about how baseball needs a salary cap and how only the rich can win, we are truly in an era of almost universal parity. Even without the second wild card, you have to believe that more than 15 teams can at least play the “IF” game (ie. “IF Colby Rasmus remembers how to hit a ball, IF Brandon Morrow learns to pitch with runners on base, IF Kyle Drabek or Brett Cecil can tap into their potential…). Despite what those polled thought, the Red Sox are certainly title contenders, as are – obviously – the Yanks and Rays. If everything broke right, as it did for the Rays in 2008, then the Jays could sneak in. That’s four. The AL central has the front-running Tigers and with a few breaks, the Indians could squeak into contention. So, now we’re at six. Out West there’s only two options, the two time AL champion Rangers and the reloaded Angels will both beat the snot out of the Mariners and A’s. So, now we’re at eight from the AL alone.

The NL has even greater parity. The East has four teams who are reasonable picks to play in October (sorry Mets fans…). Even after losing Pujols and Fielder, the Cardinals and Brewers shouldn’t surprise anyone by winning the central, neither should the Reds. That’s seven NL teams and 15 overall. And the NL West? Well, everybody’s aboard the Diamondbacks bandwagon, but the year before that everyone was championing the Giants and Rockies, and despite their ownership mess, the Dodgers boast the best position player and pitcher in the league. So, that’s everyone out West except the Padres. Four more teams, giving us an absurd 11 teams in the 16 team NL with playoff hopes.

All told, that means that only fans of 11 teams enter the 2012 season dreaming of the 2013 season. What does that mean? It means that absurd payroll discrepancies or not, parity is not a problem in baseball.

Don’t believe me?

In the twelve years since the turn of the century, 15 teams have played in the World Series. That’s half of baseball. And an astounding nine of those fifteen teams have scheduled a parade in the week following the series. What about all those leagues with more stringent salary caps? Well the lordly NFL, for all its wonderful parity, has seen a similar 15 teams in the Super Bowl – however with two more teams, that’s a slightly lower percentage of the league – and they’ve only crowned eight different champions. The NBA, which due to the nature of the sport, is perhaps the least capable of having true parity, has sent 11 teams to the championship, with only six different winners. Only the NHL can match MLB’s record of contestants throughout the early part of this century, matching MLB with 15 Stanley Cup combatants, and nine different teams drinking from the Cup.

Of course, the NHL crowned their 15 and 9 in one fewer season than baseball. That’s because hockey lost an entire year of their sport to a lockout that ensured the owners could implement a hard cap… So, yeah. All things being equal, I’ll take my sport, sans salary cap, with 12 full seasons of play, 15 different teams in the World Series, and 9 different champions.

Parity Indeed!

No Fielder for Jays…

January 25, 2012 1 comment

All offseason, Jays fans have practically been charging up to Rogers Center with pitchforks, clamouring that the team and general manager Alex Anthopoulos should be opening Roger’s wallet and laying down some serious coin for the likes of Prince Fielder (and to a lesser extent Yu Darvish). They’ve taken to message boards, they’ve clogged talk radio with calls, and they’ve even started an online petition demanding that the Jays start spending money or lose what few fans they still have. It’s seemed silly and asinine to me all offseason, and in light of yesterday’s news that super agent Scott Boras had procured his rotund client, Fielder, a 214 million, 9 year contract, it seems particularly obtuse.

Do the Jays need a player at first base who can actually, you know, hit? Absolutely, of course they do, but Fielder was not the options. In signing the offspring of Cecil, the Jays would have paid 214 million for a player who can’t field, can’t run, and may well eat Jose Bautista. Fielder is a phenomenal hitter; he is a 5 win player at his best and that’s all bat, but he has three or four more years in his prime and then he’s going to begin a decline. You want to be paying a 35 year old Prince Fielder, with his body type, 25 million a year?

I think any sane person, or at least any person who isn’t a fan of the Tigers, would prety resoundingly say, no!

And before the proprietors of that lovely Jays-Fielder site try to argue that the Jays should have locked up the burly first baseman earlier in the offseason when the price was lower, uhmmm… no, no, no. That’s not how Boras operates. While fans may revile him, Scott Boras is the best at what he does and it’s not even particularly close. If you are a player and you want to maximize your earning potential, you sign with Boras. And in the year of your free agency, he releases a Dostoevskyian brochure that lists your accolades and makes the case that you’re Babe Ruth, Lou Gherig, and Marie Currie all rolled up into one. He then waits, and waits, and waits.

He waits until every other prominent player at your position has signed. Then he waits a little more. He waits until the season is almost upon us, and teams are looking at their roster, and the roster’s of their opponents, and thinking, damn I might be missing… then he starts to pit one team against another, and he always, always talks about that mystery team. After Pujols took the Angels’ money, much was made of how Boras wouldn’t be able to get Fielder a big contract. The big money/market teams were out: the Yankees had Teixeira, the Red Sox Gonzalez, the Angels Pujols, the Dodgers and Mets are in financial disarray, the Cubs and White Sox are rebuilding. There was Texas, but they jumped in on Darvish. So, who was left? The Nationals? The Orioles? Maybe the Mariners? Or, maybe, a 214 million, 9 year deal with the Tigers.

Bam.

Done.

That’s why you hire Scott Boras, and that’s -whatever you might want to think about him because he’s the agent of your team’s best player – why he’s the best.

So, it would be stupid for Jays fans to be upset that Anthopoulos didn’t sign Fielder. He’s a lousy fielder who will probably be a DH in the next four years. And, while I love making snarky comments about his size, because of that size, he’s also a strong candidate to age quickly. Nine years, a lot can change in nine years. The history of 7+ year contracts is not good. Go to Cots’ MLB contracts, look at the highest total contracts, look at the names, think about how those deals ended up. Think about how the Yankees felt about Giambi near the end, or how the Cubs feel about Soriano, or how the Rockies felt about Mike Hampton, or about – as great as Johan Santana was – whether the Mets still want to pay him 60 million dollars. Go to that site and look at three of the 100 million contracts handed out last year and ask yourself how quickly opinions about Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth changed. You think Prince Fielder is good? He’s not even one of the three best first basemen in baseball. Joe Mauer was one of the three best players in baseball. Now? Who knows.

So yes Jays fans, Alex Anthopoulos didn’t make a big push for Fielder, but that doesn’t mean that Jays’ management aren’t serious about winning. It might just mean that they’re a little smarter about it than the you.

Fans of Birds and why they’re Dumb…

December 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Sports fans are morons.  I say that fully admitting that I’m one of them, and with the realization that it’s a somewhat polarising and subversive statement.  Obviously the fans who are empowered in their rightouesness would argue that it’s just me that’s a moron, but seriously, we’re dumb.  It is, after all, in the nature of fandom.  We’re fanatics and thus cannot always see the forrest for the trees.  Depending on our personal inclination, we think that either everyone on our team is the second coming of Mickey Mantle, or that they’re the second coming of Mickey Mouse.  It’s what makes Laker fans think that a deal of Andruw Bynum and Luke Walton will get them Dwight Howard.

I assume that it has always been so for fans, but the good old interweb just exacerbates the problem of fandom, giving people hidden perches from which to spout obnoxious nonsense (again, I firmly acknowledge the pot calling the kettle nature of this post).  As an example of what I mean, look no further than this week’s reaction to Albert Pujols leaving his “hometown” team to sign with the LA Angels.  The reaction by Cardinal fans was akin to if Pujols had burned the city down and pissed on the ashes.

Actually, what he did was make a life decision.  A life decision that he’s perfectly entitled to make.  Lets be clear about something Cardinal fans, Albert Pujols isn’t FROM St. Louis.  He didn’t choose to live there, nor did he owe the town anything.  As a result of drafting him, the Cardinals and their fans received 11 phenomenal years of baseball.  Eleven years that rank among the two best career starts in league history (guess the only player to have more WAR in his first 11 years?).  Eleven years that included ten top five MVP finishes.  Yes, I said TEN, and the only year he missed out on the top 5, he finished 9th.  He hit 445 home runs.  He won five out of six fielding bible awards (and yes, only one Gold Glove, but that speaks more to absentee selection process of that award than Pujols’ fielding ability), and he was the leader of a team that won 7 division titles, three pennants, and – oh yeah – two world series.

That’s pretty darn good folks.  That’s a career.  And, when his time came, when he was an unrestricted free agent, able to choose where he wanted to live, for whom he wanted to play, and how much money he wanted to play for, Albert picked what he suited him and his family.  You can scoff at the money, say that St. Louis’ offer was rich enough – and it was – but, 34 million is a pretty significant difference, however rich you are.  But, that’s beside the point, the point is that it’s his decision, a decision he earned by playing out his contract.

What smart fans would do, is say, “damn it’s hard to see him go, but thank you Albert for elven amazing years.”  What moron fans do, is burn his jersey, question his loyalty, and take to the internet to defile him and question his integrity.  Loyalty.  That great word that only works one way.  Guess what Card fans?  St. Louis actually isn’t Albert’s hometown, he’s not from there (is that a shot at LeBron?  I’m not even really sure), he doesn’t need to be loyal to there and hasn’t he been loyal enough already?  He did after all sign a below market deal with his last contract; a contract by the way that covered those two world series.

He could have left long ago.  Be thankful to what you got, be gracious and accept that this is his right. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to mourn, but don’t be ugly about your grief. I’m pretty sure every other franchise in baseball would be happy to have those 11 seasons from Albert and then lose him to another franchise for what will inevitably be his decline phase.

Of course, I started this by saying that fans are morons, not that Card fans are morons.  And, that’s because there’s another group of fans that right now are basically making asses of themselves.  And, unfortunately, they’re a fan base to which I firmly belong.  Last week Jays fans, desperate for the team to sabotage it’s longterm prospects by tying itself financially to the world’s largest vegan, started an online petition to “force” Rogers to sign Prince Fielder.

It’s actually kind of quaint if you think about it.  The group threatens Rogers, a telecommunications giant, with cable and internet cancellations if the coporartion doesn’t intercede with the baseball team and force Jays’ GM Alex Anthopoulos to sign the robust first baseman.  They do understand that it’s going to cost at least a 160 million (and possibly significantly more) to ink Fielder.  Seriously, that’s A LOT of cable subscriptions…  Anyhow, you can see the form here and, well, like I said, it’s sweet that they think this will actually work, but really it’s just dumb.

First of all, I know that each one of us armchair GMs know what’s best, but  – really?!? In his first couple years in charge, AA has taken one misstep: he traded Mike Naopli (5.6 WAR) to Texas for Frank Francisco (0.5 WAR), and while I didn’t like the deal at the time, it had solid foundation.  Otherwise, Anthopoulos has merely built one of the five worst farm systems into one of the five best; acquired Colby Rasmus, Yunel Escobar, and – best of all – Brett Lawrie; signed Jose Bautista to an under-market contract; and – oh yeah- convinced the Angels to take Vernon Wells’ entire contract.  I understand that you know what’s best for this franchise and that you think giving 150-200 million dollars to a guy who might weigh 350 pounds in five years and will be DHing in three is a solid plan, but don’t you think, that maybe, just maybe, Anthopoulos has earned the right to take a different path?

It’s like these fans don’t remember the Vernon Wells – Alex Rios era, or the Roger Clemens era?  Instead of following the prudent and meticulous path set forth by AA, they want to open up the vault for a kid named Prince.  Look, I get excited by the thought of Prince in the lineup.  A 3-4-5 of Bautista, Prince and Lawrie might be the best in baseball and he is an awesome hitter and buoyant personality, but why risk your one massive contract on a body that just doesn’t seem built for the long term.  While the Jays have money, their pockets aren’t quite at New York or Boston depth for eating mistakes.  Signing Prince seems great now, but ultimately it just doesn’t make sense, which is something AA understands and keeps articulating.

So, why don’t we just accept that he knows something about what he’s doing and leave him be?  Oh right, because we’re fans, and we’re morons…

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A King’s Ransom: Albert Pujols, The Angels, and a lot of Money…

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Boom… just like that the biggest dynamo in baseball’s winter free agent frenzy fell.  All week, as the threat of a hostile Miami takeover swirled, there remained rumors of a third team interested in St Louis slugger Albert Pujols.  Is it the Cubs?  The Rangers, the eerily quiet Yankees?  Nope, it was the Angels.  And damn, were they serious.

250 million serious.

Plus another 75 million for CJ Wilson.  That’s a big day of spending.  Not quite the Yankees dropping 423.5 on Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and AJ Burnett (and yes, I smiled as I wrote AJ Burnett there), but a big day of spending all the same.  More importantly, it’s a shot straight across the bow of two time defending AL West champion Rangers.  After all, Wilson was the Rangers’ ace this past season, a 6 win pitcher for a team that won the division by 10 games.  The swing of him alone would have made the Angels at least co-favourites going into next year.  When you then add in the greatest right handed hitter of the last 50 years, well, you have something going.

Which is good, because the Angels need big returns early on this investment.  That’s because as great as Pujols has been for the last decade, he’s almost certainly not going to be that great for the coming one.  He probably wont even be half as great.  The Angels are paying a King’s ransom for a man in the process of abdicating his throne.

Fangraphs’ dollar value section (which uses WAR to calculate a dollar value that a player provided a club in a single year), determined that over his last ten seasons with the Cardinals, Phat Al was worth 297 million, however that number was bouyed by seven seasons in which the firstbaseman posted a WAR over 8.  Over the last four seasons Albert’s WAR has gone from 9.1 to 9.0, to 7.5, to 5.1.  Now, 5.1 is still very, very good, but it makes Pujols more Mo Vaughn than Lou Gherig.

To put it in further perspective, Pujols’ 2011 WAR was tied for 26th in all of baseball: with Brett Gardner.  Lets pause so that that can sink in… TWENTY SIXTH… BRETT GARDNER.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Gardner more that most, but… are you going to pay him 25 million a year?  20?  15?  Maybe 12?

I know, Pujols’ numbers last year were anchored by a horrendous start.  He had a .755 OPS, with 9 home runs on June 1st and finished with a .906 OPS and 37 homers.  But at 32 years old, moving to a pitchers park, in the harder league, what’s the upside in Pujols’ numbers?  Does his WAR get back to 2010s 7.5?  Is that a best case scenario?  And where does it go from there?

As Jeff Passan tweeted earlier today, in the years before he turned 32, ARod hit .306, .389, .578 in 154 games per year.  In the years since?  .284, .375, .521 in 124 games per year.  It’s that last number that’s perhaps most important.  It’s hard to post large WAR if you aren’t on the field.    Pujols, like ARod when he signed his big deal, has been a bedrock of good health, never missing more than 19 games and averaging 155 per, but he’s entering a phase of life where the body starts to break.  Just look to ARod’s hip for evidence of the  capriciousness of the post 32 body.  Now, obviously the comparison isn’t perfect, because ARod plays a far more physically demanding position, but as someone whose 32 year old back is aching right now, I can tell you that Father time’s a bitch.  Seriously.  And that’s looking at the issue on THIS side of the deal.  What happens in 2017, when Pujols is 37?  Does he suddenly become a 25 million dollar DH?  Is his bat still worth 5 wins, or has it drooped to 3?  And that’s – gasp – only half way through the contract.  What happens in the second half of the deal?!?

After adding Wilson to incumbents Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana, the Angels may well have the best rotation in the AL, and with Pujols they finally have a serious bat in the middle of their order, so I can’t entirely fault them for essentially ensuring a spot in the playoffs for the over the next four years, but there will come a day when they rue this contract.  I hope for their sake it’s in 2020, not 2016.

 

Theo’s Credit Card Needs Clipping…

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

On September 1st, the Boston Red Sox were in first place in the AL East, a half game ahead of the New York Yankees and 8.5 ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays.  Alas for the Fenway faithful, the season doesn’t end on September 1st and, well, you know how things look now, on September 27th for those same Sox of Red.  If Boston’s collapse should culminate in their missing the playoffs, there will, of course, be thousands of words over the next few weeks calling for the heads of various members of the organization, whilst simultaneously casting blame; as one of the worst collapses in baseball history, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Ultimately though, I think it’s important to remember that this collapse is largely fluke.  By which I mean that if the Gods played this season over again a 100 times, the Sox probably only collapse like this the one time.  Part of this collapse is injury, part of it is just regression to the mean, and part is just the nature of baseball, but mostly it’s just obscurely bizarre.  For the lords of Fenway, it’s important for the Sox not to overreact to a strange situation.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you don’t sit back, assess and ask yourself, “where are we going?”  As a Jays fan I obviously hope that where the Sox are going is to a fourth place finish, but in reality, where they are going is to the free agent market.  Perhaps in search of a shortstop, maybe a starting pitcher (or three), some bullpen help, a corner outfielder, or even a third baseman might make some sense… There are concerns, probably not as many as September might have exhibited, but there are some.

The problem here, is that while asking where they are going, the Sox should also be asking, who’s going to get them there?  Because if their destination is the free agent market, I think it’s fair to ask whether Theo Epstein is the right man to drive that bus.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Theo Epstein is one of the top three or four GMs in all of baseball (behind, like everyone else, Andrew Friedman), but he does have a propensity to whiff on big money contracts.  And, not just whiff, but whiff horribly.  Like Carl Crawford flailing at a Justin Verlander fastball.  Just look at the current state of the Red Sox rotation, obviously they were expecting a better September from Josh Becket (1-2, 5.48) and John Lester (1-3, 5.96), and Clay Buchholz being healthy probably helps, but when the season started the Sox were spending 16 million on John Lackey and 10.33 on Dice-K.

That’s not the bad news.

When next season begins, the Sox will still be spending 16 million on Lackey and 10.33 on Dice-K.  That’s because they were both signed to big money long-term deals by a franchise that theoretically espouses big money long term deals (see Martinez; Pedro, Lowe, Derek; and Damon, Judas).  Lackey was given 82.5 million for five years and Dice-K was given 52 for 5, but of course Dice cost 50 million just for negotiation purposes, so… Ughhh…

And those two aren’t really the exceptions of Theo’s free agent dalliances.  Remember Edgar Renteria (40/4)?  What about Julio Lugo (36/4)?  Mike Cameron (15.5/2)?  Sock favorite John David Drew (70/5)?  And, perhaps most terrifying of all, what about… Carl Crawford (142/7)?  Doesn’t that contract send shivers up your spine?  I mean, I know that Crawford was a great player, but shouldn’t the Sox have given pause to the fact that he’d once only ever posted a WAR above 6?  And that so much of his WAR total was related to his sterling defense in left field, where the Sox won two titles with Manny Ramirez basically making daisy chains.  I know that defense is the new undervalued thang, but… surely there should have been some examination about whether Crawford’s offense was really worth 142 million and if not, did his defense with 81 games in left at Fenway really warrant making up the fiscal difference?

Now, I whole heartedly agree that it’s obnoxious (albeit fun) to use 20/20 hindsight to make yourself look smart and an organization dumb, but a lot of these moves were questioned at the time.  Drew?  Cameron?  Heck, even Lackey wasn’t the slam dunk some people thought.  And 142 for Crawford?  Well, that just seemed like a lot of money for a player the Yanks were comparing to Brett Gardner.

Theo’s done solid work drafting guys (Pedroia, Ellsbury, Lester, Buchholz, Papelbon, Bard, heck, even Lowrie) and it’s hard to argue with the trades that brought in Curt Schilling, Beckett and Mike Lowel, Victor Martinez, and Adrian Gonzalez, but right now, the only good free agent signing I can think of, was when the Sox gave Adrian Beltre 10 million to come and rebuild his value.

Ultimately, I think that Theo’s strengths as a GM outweigh his flaws, but if they miss the playoffs, while the deluge of misanthropy falls from Sox fans like bombs from the sky, the precocious GM had better take a long look at his history in Free Agency and determine where exactly it is that he’s going wrong.  Like their high payroll brethren in the Bronx, the Sox can afford to swing and miss on a few contracts, but Boston has about 70 million of dead weight on their payroll this year.

And while that might not be the exact reason they’ve had a September collapse for the ages, it isn’t exactly helping their cause to send John Lackey out to the mound every fifth day.

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