In a time when the Sox are out to reduce long-term risk while taking gambles on short-term production, Shane Victorino may have been the best fit in an increasingly crazy free agent market.
Shane Victorino is a member of the Boston Red Sox, and if that makes you feel upset, you are not alone. If you don't know how to feel, you are not alone. If you are overjoyed...well, in that case you might be alone, but you should definitely try to spread that love around. Some people need it.
It's a deal that came about pretty suddenly, taking only about two hours to go from the first word of Boston's serious involvement to Alex Speier announcing it was done. As such, there's been more time spent freaking out about it than really thinking about it. Let's try and break this down, piece by piece.
1) Shane Victorino is not a bad player.
Unless you're someone who looks exclusively at the bat, there's plenty to like about Victorino in a vacuum. He's a strong defender, capable of playing CF even if, at the moment, it looks like he'll start in right. Of course, in Fenway that's about as good as playing center in some other parks. The speed he uses to cover ground in the outfield also helps him on the basepaths, resulting in plenty of stolen bases and not many times caught stealing--he's well above the break-even threshold there.
Those aspects of his game helped bail him out even in a year where his bat went flat. Even hitting ust .255/.321/.383, Victorino produced 2.4 rWAR and 3.3 fWAR. Not great, but not bad. For context, Cody Ross came in at 1.6 rWAR and 2.4 fWAR thanks in part to limited playing time and mediocre baserunning.
2) Shane Victorino could be a really, really good player.
If 2012 was Victorino at his worst, than 2011 was Victorino at his best. He hit .279/.355/.491 in the best season of his career, all with a BABIP of .292, a tiny bit beneath his career average of .296. From 2007 to 2011, Victorino was worth an average of 3.8 rWAR and 4.3 fWAR per season. Of course, he's at an age around which you have to start looking out for decline, but if his power was legitimately down in 2012, nothing else really was by any significant amount. He's still a guy who can make contact, run fast, and, if the BABIP adjusts itself a bit, get on base at an above-average pace.
Is he likely to repeat 2011? No, but it's not so far in the rearview mirror that it's worth tossing out. In a way, he's a lot like Napoli, except that his common source of production is defense and speed instead of the bat. He will reliably give you a certain level of production by virtue of those parts of his game, and like Napoli there is the potential for the bat to make him a real bargain, even if his heights there are about as high as Napoli's floor. A team full of power hitters who trip over their feet every time someone hits a fliner is no better than a team with a bunch of Jose Iglesiae.
3) The free agent market was scary, and potentially getting scarier.
I'm going to give the Red Sox' front office the benefit of the doubt here and assume they are not absolutely insane.
It would be absolutely insane to lock themselves out of a potential Swisher/Hamilton deal (and more on whether they have later) if, indeed, either one looked reasonable. The last we'd heard was that Hamilton wasn't getting any offers over three years. The last we'd heard on Swisher was--well, actually, all we've heard is that things were moving "slowly," but that's certainly not a good sign.
The point is that I doubt the Red Sox looked at these three options and jumped at Victorino unless the other two didn't seem likely.
Now, for all that we'd heard good news on Hamilton, it's worth considering how skeptical we were that such a down market was possible even with the reliable Rob Bradford providing the news. It's also worth looking at 5/75 for B.J. Upton and 4/40 for Angel Pagan. It's kind of a madhouse right now, and as the available outfielders dry up, even if demand shrinks some with them, it seems unlikely that the market is going to really improve until it's down to the bare bones. And trust me, none of us wants to be the team going home with Delmon Young at the end of the day. Hell, in that situation you might as well not even show up. If anything, it would likely wind up with Boston paying through the nose for Shin-Soo Choo in prospects, which are far more valuable than dollars for the next couple of years.
This may look like an overpay now, but if the Sox really do intend to head into the season with this as their outfield, then wait to pass final judgement until the market either proves itself sane again, or goes into full blown insanity.
4) The risk is contained.
So let's say this blows up in Boston's face. Victorino is terrible, and we end the season with Ryan Kalish in right field (ignoring whether or not Kalish is any good anymore). It's still only three years. Hamilton and Swisher are each probably going to take at least 4, with 5 likely for Hamilton and possible for Swisher. Right now that seems to be where the Sox want to really hold their contracts. Maybe it's with an eye to extending Will Middlebrooks or any of the young talent coming up through the system. Maybe they've gone looking all the way down the line at who's going to be a free agent come the end of 2015 (DAVID PRICE EVERYBODY FREAK OUT!!!) or, more likely, it's just about when they think their best opportunities will come.
This fanbase has professed a desire to see a return to the days of the aughts, when the Sox were basically a lock for 90 wins and a playoff spot year in and year out. They can likely make it back to that level right now. 2013 could have been a near-guaranteed playoff team (kind of in the way 2011 was, but oh well), 2014 not far off that...
And then we'll have Anibal Sanchez, Zack Greinke, Nick Swisher, and Josh Hamilton all getting old and decrepit and basically putting the Sox in another 2011, 2012 situation. Maybe we even end up trading away some prospects to try and plug the holes because we have to act now while the window is still open. And we'll wonder how it is we didn't learn the first time.
Of course, now we've pretty much ruled that out. Sanchez seems out of reach, the Sox were never in on Greinke, and if indeed the Sox jumped on the Victorino deal because Swisher and Hamilton were clearly too far gone to be worth waiting on, then we're safe from that situation too.
The 2013 Sox team is shaping up to be one like we haven't seen in a while. There's going to be tons of uncertainty. But that's good. Because there wasn't a path to building a 2013 team that was absolutely going to be great without shooting the 2015-2017 teams in the foot. And the only other way to be certain is to have a decidedly bad team. Shane Victorino could be average, he could be good, there's even a chance he ends up bad just as with any free agent. The same is just as true with Mike Napoli. The Sox are taking risks on guys that are very likely to give them something of worth, and carry some chance to be stars for the next two years, when the Sox really need to get either a bit lucky or a lot stupid to be legitimate contenders.
5) There might be another shoe to drop.
Alright, this may sound like it's going against what I just said, but bear with me.
Right now the team has Ellsbury in center, Nava - Gomes in left, and Victorino in right. It's basically a full outfield, if there might be one more fringe name to come in depending on how the team sees Kalish (or a full platoon partner depending on how they see Nava).
They also haven't brought in any starting pitchers. Meanwhile, it seems that much of the free agent crop is either gone (Baker, Peavy, Kuroda), super-expensive (Sanchez, Greinke, possibly Jackson), or not terribly appealing (Lohse, Blanton, Marcum).
Now, this is purely speculation, but it's possible the Hamilton and Swisher deals aren't out of range, and that the Sox aren't out of those races. Shane Victorino, after all, can play center field, where Jacoby Ellsbury is currently set to play out the last year of his contract (with little-to-no expectation he will stay in Boston after the year is done).
If the Red Sox see the outfield position as a sudden source of plenty in the free agency market--if, say, they felt really good about their chances with either Hamilton or Swisher on a reasonable deal that wouldn't hurt them too far into the future--then maybe we're just waiting for the other shoe to drop on this deal. It's a bit of a long shot, but we're all still waiting for the Sox to sign a starter, and the options are getting less and less impressive. They don't want to trade any of their best prospects, however, so how many other roads are really open to them?
It will be interesting to see how the next few days progress. Whether we hear anything about the Sox being in on other outfielders (presumably they'll try and stay as quiet as possible) or being willing to move Jacoby Ellsbury for the right deal.
Even if this is just a wild goose chase, though, then we're just left with Shane Victorino. A decent player who could be great, one who fits the Red Sox' plans for the future. If he costs a bit much, and if his splits aren't ideal, he's still the sort of guy the Sox have to take chances on if they're going to try and stay relevant this year and the next without hurting themselves too much down the road. Victorino's not a terrific signing, but he makes more sense than he's getting credit for.