Mike Cameron was designated for assignment earlier today by the Boston Red Sox, and his spot on the 25-man roster taken over by Yamaico Navarro. This likely marks the end of his time in Boston, as he will either accept an assignment to the minors, be traded, or be outright released in the next 10 days. It's a shame it had to end this way, too, as the Cameron signing was one of many well-reasoned moves from the 2010 off-season that just didn't pan out as expected.
Two years of Mike Cameron for $15.5 million was supposed to be an outright steal. It was expected he would be a three- or four-win player for at least one more season, a rate that would have paid for the entirety of the contract alone. Here was a 37-year-old center fielder who still could range and track down balls in center field, and could still hit plenty for the position. He was expected to be a better center fielder defensively than Jacoby Ellsbury, who in turn was meant to play in a corner, where his instincts and speed play better than in center. It was a two birds with one stone kind of thing, as the team had just witnessed Jason Bay: The Left Field Chronicles for a year-and-a-half, and of course, Manny Ramirez before that. It was time to bring some defense to that part of the Sox outfield.
Things didn't work out that way, though. Cameron was hurt early in 2010, and was limited to 180 plate appearances and 48 games. The fact he played that many was astounding, as he was visibly held back by what turned out to be a double sports hernia that required a nearly four-hour surgery to fix. As I said back in Baseball Prospectus 2011, though, the Red Sox were dealing with so many injuries that it got to the point where, "the best replacement for an injured Mike Cameron was an injured Mike Cameron."
Taking one for the team like that may have cost him in 2011, as he has just not looked right. He looked... old. Whereas last year he looked like a man playing through pain, this year he just looks like he has aged too much to help out the way Boston needs. The inconsistent playing time and the bench role may have contributed to this, as Cameron, a bench player, was not given constant playing time to get himself right, but you can't ignore that the beginning of the end in 2011 started by continuing to play in 2010.
For that $15.5 million that was meant to be a steal, the Red Sox got exactly one half-season of play, 81 games, and 285 plate appearances, wherein Cameron hit .219/.285/.352 and played sub-standard defense for his reputation and previous abilities. Theo Epstein went out of his way to say in his press conference today that blame for the Cameron contract was on him, but that's a bit harsh. The process and reasoning for signing him for two years at the rate he received was sound, but the injury risk we all knew existed for a center fielder with as many miles on him as Cameron ended up overtaking the positive and destroying what could have been a successful contract for both parties. The signing was certainly a risk -- probably why the money was as low as it was -- but it was a worthwhile one given his history and Boston's needs.
It's tough to say where Cameron will end up now. Were he to accept an assignment to Pawtucket, he may end up getting the at-bats he could not in the majors, and work himself back to an acceptable level. He may be traded, but given he was designated rather than dealt today, it's hard to say the chances of that happening are high. It's likely that the 10 days run out with no trade, and Cameron refuses an assignment on the grounds that he can sign on somewhere else for the league minimum, with Boston picking up the rest of the tab. There are teams out there who may be able to afford the risk of Mike Cameron, but it's clear at this point, with Josh Reddick continuing to play well, that the Red Sox are no longer one of those teams.
Regardless of what happens now, no one can take away what Cameron has achieved in the majors. He has been an above-average hitter both for his position and in general for his career, and is one of the better defensive center fielders of his generation. He made just one All-Star team, with the 2001 Mariners, but that's the kind of season he put up all of the time, regardless of where it was he was playing. Cameron is no all-time great or anything, but for a guy to come up at age-22 and possibly exit at age-38 with almost nothing but high-quality baseball in between merits recognition.