Stop me if you've heard this one: Why did John Henry cross the road? He didn't, because he was too busy watching soccer! (ba-dum-bum) Lame as that joke is, I'm fairly certain the thirty seconds I spent thinking it up is more time than Jon Heyman spent deliberating before posting this little gem yesterday. Did you guys know that the Red Sox haven't spent much money this offseason? And that the rotation isn't yet set? And also that there might be (gasp) a platoon at shortstop? Crazy, right?
So timeliness isn't exactly the strong suit of the column. But really, it's not the weakest point. The weakest point is, well, everything else. It's as though Heyman took every straw man argument, every overblown critique, and every piece of pointless front-office mind-reading that's flown around Boston since the Cherington era started, and distilled it into 2-buck vodka. And life's too short to drink 2-buck vodka.
The central argument of the piece is threefold: first, that the Red Sox cheaped out this winter; second, that this has left the team fatally flawed; and third, that this can all be directly attributed to John Henry prioritizing the Liverpool Football Club. So let's take a look at each of these attacks, and see if any of them hold water.ARGUMENT 1: The Red Sox didn't spend any money this offseason, which was both foolish and cheap.
If there's a single overarching critique of the Red Sox this offseason, this is it. No big-name free agents, no long-term contracts, even an obvious salary dump in the trade of Marco Scutaro to the Rockies. Clearly, they're acting like a small-market team, probably because ownership doesn't fully trust Ben Cherington. As Heyman puts it:
Quick tip: anytime a sportswriter tells you that the inner workings of a front office are "obvious" without a quote (even an anonymous one), he is full of it. Actually, Heyman never quotes anyone in the entire article, which should tell you something about how well-sourced and researched his column is. In addition, anyone claiming that the Red Sox are cheaping out in their competition with the Rays, when their payroll is literally three times the Rays'... Just mind-blowing. Anyway, let's take a look. Did the Red Sox spend any money this offseason? And if not, should they have?
As previously mentioned, the Red Sox didn't sign any big free agents this year, not even their own Jonathan Papelbon. (Credit where credit is due, Heyman does compliment Cherington for filling in the back end of the bullpen with Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon.) Of course, just because the Red Sox didn't sign any big free agents doesn't mean they didn't spend any money on players. Quite the contrary, actually. These are the players who saw a substantial raise in their salaries this offseason, either through arbitration-related contracts or prior contractual bumps:
Jon Lester: +$1.88 million
Dustin Pedroia: +$2.5 million
Jacoby Ellsbury: +$5.65 million
Clay Buchholz: +$3.195 million
Jarrod Saltalamacchia: +$1.75 million
Adrian Gonzalez: +$15.56 million
Carl Crawford: +$5.5 million
That's a little over $36 million, not counting Andrew Bailey's $3.4 million arb raise and David Ortiz's still-pending arb case, which could add another $4 million to the pile. No, spending more money to keep players on your own team isn't particularly sexy, but it counts. And the Sox payroll heading into 2012 looks to be somewhere in the vicinity of the $178 million luxury tax threshold, second only to the Yankees. They'll have seven players making over $10 million. "Pennies to spend" and "small-market" are not the first terms that come to mind.
Let's say you don't buy that. The Red Sox should have spent more on free agents, and damn the luxury tax. After all, don't I spend $6.25 a pop for Bud Light at the park? Fair enough. Let's consider this year's free agent class, and the needs of the Boston franchise heading into 2012. Specifically, where were the Sox weak in 2011, and who on the FA market might have fixed that? Well, I think we can all agree that the main holes were right field, and every starter not named Beckett or Lester. Right field Heyman doesn't address, which I'll assume is because Cody Ross is Officially Scrappy. Besides, Boston's right fielders in 2011 put up an OPS of .652. In a lovely coincidence that doesn't make me weep at all, .652 was the 2011 OPS of Yuniesky Betancourt. Basically anyone who knows which end of the bat to hold is an upgrade.
Starters, though. Who could the Sox have signed to boost the rotation? Must have been someone, right? Well, take a look at ESPN's list of FA starters. Basically, the one guy on the market who screamed "give me lots of money, big-market teams!" was C.J. Wilson. Who is pretty good. For a 31-year-old pitcher with decent peripherals in the AL West who wound up signing a 5-year, eight-figure contract. Can you see why perhaps the Red Sox might be justifiably skittish there? Conveniently, this leads us into the second piece of the argument.
ARGUMENT 2: As a result of their sudden stinginess, the Red Sox are fatally flawed and will struggle to compete.
Heyman seems content with the Sox' platoon in right, and I'm sick of arguing about it. So we'll leave it alone. He focuses on three problem spots: shortstop and the 4-5 slots in the rotation. I seem to recall hearing worry elsewhere about these portions of the roster. Are the worries well-founded? Can the Sox contend with such obviously glaring holes at key positions?
At shortstop... Honestly, I'm passing here. Marc covered this way better than I ever could two weeks ago. Suffice to say that an Aviles-Punto combo won't exactly make us forget Nomar's prime, but it's not a huge dropoff from Scutaro. And frankly, tell me with a straight face that Derek Jeter or Reid Brignac will be MVPs this year. Baseball has gotten away from the mega-scoring of the late 90's and early 00's, and shortstop has resumed its traditional role as the position that doesn't hit. I miss Nomar. We all miss Nomar. Then again, when Nomar was at short, the Sox had Jeff Frye and Jose Offerman at second. Now they've got Dustin Pedroia.
What's left? Oh, right. The starting rotation. It's "highly questionable," says Heyman. So let's question it. Will Josh Beckett and Jon Lester be an acceptable 1-2? Precedent suggests they'll be not just acceptable, but arguably the best 1-2 in the division. 3 slot? Well, it'll be Clay Buchholz, who last year put up the best peripherals of his career before he was sidelined with a back injury. Will he be that good, and that good for an entire season? It's a fair question, but by most accounts he would have been available had the Sox made the playoffs last year, and he's had nothing but time to heal and build strength since then. Most of Heyman's questions regard the latter two slots in the rotation. So let's address those.
Last year, the Boston Red Sox won 90 games, missing the wild card by one game. They produced a +138 run differential. And they did so despite the fact that 63 of their games were started by Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield, and John Lackey, who delivered respective 5.54, 5.12, and 6.41(!) ERAs. The league average ERA in 2011 was 3.94. The Red Sox' current back end of Daniel Bard and a Cook/Silva/Padilla Cerberus doesn't even have to be league-average, and in fact can be substantially worse, and the pitching staff will still have improved. This is not necessarily an endorsement of the current rotation. It's a condemnation of last year's. 2011's starting pitching, other than Beckett, Lester, and Buchholz (and Buccholz replacement Erik Bedard) was historically terrible.
And even though Heyman's convinced that Roy Oswalt won't come to Boston (doesn't say where he's more likely to go, just not Boston), Roy's running out of options. If he finally decides that he can deal with our accents, our rotaries, and our beer that doesn't taste like it's already been through a horse, the Sox rotation pretty quickly becomes a potential strength. So maybe, just maybe, the Red Sox haven't massively increased their payroll because they're comfortable with the team they've got. No, wait, I forgot about...
ARGUMENT 3: John Henry isn't spending on the Red Sox because his ownership of LFC has drained his finances/attention.
This is where the column's argument goes from analysis (lazy, minimally-researched analysis, but analysis nonetheless) into full-on speculation. Heyman even says flat-out that it's a guess, which is maddening. Everyone, as a quick aside, say the first word that comes to mind when you hear "Jon Heyman." Was it "connected"? Of course it was. That's why we all pay attention to him. It's abundantly clear that he's got levels of access the rest of us can only dream of, with a smartphone full of GM's home numbers and an endless flood of agent and FO types lining up to give him tips. So why the hell is he guessing at the motives of the Red Sox here? This is the team that spent the entire fall dealing with leaked tales of beer-swilling pitchers and tuned-out managers. Surely there's at least one disgruntled or fame-seeking low-level exec inside the Sox organization willing to say "Yeah, ever since Mr. Henry bought LFC, the Sox have been playing second fiddle."
Without any such quotes, Heyman just tells us that Henry spent $179 million this year on Liverpool. He leaves out entirely the very different player-transfer system, the fact that Premier League salaries are actually higher on average than MLB salaries, or really any context at all, even whether the money spent by Henry is a one-year expense. Basically, we're all supposed to go "Wow, $179 million! That's an astounding amount of money! And he's only letting Ben Cherington spend $3 million on Cody Ross? I am angry at John Henry!" He's counting on us to forget that the Sox payroll will still be the second-highest in MLB. He's counting on us to forget that just last year, months after buying Liverpool in the first place, Henry committed $300 million to Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Basically, he's counting on us to shut down our critical-thinking faculties and accept his word without question, because he's got Scott Boras on speed-dial.
I know I'm about to get torn to shreds in the comment thread because I'm way too bullish on the Sox, because I think this year's team will be right in it from start to finish and even ought to get deep into October. You've looked at the Sox, and you've seen critical flaws where I've seen acceptable weaknesses. You want a vigorous debate over whether the 2012 Red Sox will be a serious contender. A real discussion of whether the Sox should be cost-conscious after last year's spending spree and the new CBA's luxury tax changes. To register the serious complaint that Boston has gone for quantity over quality in the rotation. And I'm looking forward to it.
Because each and every one of you has put more thought into the two paragraphs you're about to write calling me an optimistic dip than one of the best-connected baseball writers in America put into his last post about the Red Sox. And while that doesn't make me happy about the state of sports journalism, it makes me incredibly happy about the state of sports fandom.