The Incredible Improbability of the Red Sox Mega Deal

It took an incredible range of events all coming together to put Adrian Gonzalez in Dodgers blue Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

The trade between the Red Sox and the Dodgers that went down this weekend was a big deal. Actually, it was a real big deal. Put simply, the nine player deal that sent Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto to the Dodgers for James Loney, four prospects and $260M is the largest exchange of player salaries in baseball history. It is the only trade in history that has seen two players with over $100M of money owed to them traded. It is likely to remain the only such trade for sometime.

This deal is unique and there is a good reason for that. It isn’t everyday that there is even the opportunity for one team to spend approximately the GDP of Micronesia in a single trade or for another team- especially another big market team- to instantly shed close to one third of their payroll. The mega deal was only possible because of an unbelievable number of highly unlikely, unforeseeable developments that created the perfect environment for it to take place. It may well be impossible to run down every twist of fate that made this trade possible but it certainly could not have taken place if the following events (roughly listed in chronological order) had not happened-

Frank McCourt Bankrupts the Dodgers- I am not an economist or any kind of financial expert, but from what I do know about the business side of baseball, it seems that completely bankrupting a team is not easy. MLB is a legal monopoly and territorial rights are guaranteed by the league. The league provides revenue from shared contracts and teams have merchandise, concessions, and ticket sales rights totally secured. Operating in the second largest media market in the country and being one of the game’s most storied franchises, the Dodgers should be an extremely profitable enterprise and yet, Frank McCourt managed to run them so badly that he was actually in danger of failing to make payroll at one point.

MLB takes control of the Dodgers- While it may seem that this was the inevitable result of McCourt’s mismanagement that is not the case. The Wilpon family, who own the New York Mets, ran into similar problems thanks to their investments with Bernie Madoff and the league did not take control of the team or force a sale. Instead, the Mets owners were granted a loan. That was certainly an option for the Dodgers, but McCourt had been far more reckless and he also lacked the goodwill that the Wilpons have built up with Commissioner Bud Selig through the years. The precedent for this action was established with the sale of the Texas Rangers and the relocation of the Montreal Expos, but it was still a radical step for MLB and Commissioner Selig to take.

The Walter/Kasten Group Buys the Team- It is possible that something resembling this mega-deal could have happened under other owners involved in the bidding, but the Walter/Kasten were wise enough to have money to spend on hand even after the purchase and most importantly, they did not replace General Manager Ned Colletti. Colletti came up under current Giants Brian Sabean, who has a long history of favoring veteran signees (especially for position players) and who is also very aggressive in mid-season acquisitions. This deal is something that Colletti was willing to do, whereas many other GMs would have dismissed it on principle.

The Deal is Not Completed Until April 30, 2012- Because the Dodgers Sale took the entire off-season, Ned Colletti was in an extremely uncertain position with respect to free agent signings. That may have kept the Dodgers out of the bidding for Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Had either one been signed, the team would not have needed to acquire Gonzalez at all.

The Dodgers Overachieve Early: On May first the Dodgers, who had often been projected to finish third in the NL West, were an incredible 17-7, for a winning percentage of .709. Their Pythagorean record, however, was just 14-10 at that point. At their high water mark, on May 27, when they lead the division by 7.5 games, they had a record of 32-15 but a Pythagorean record of 29-18. Even now they are one game better than expected, but that early run was extremely important. In June and July, they were a losing team, going 24-30 before adding a great deal of talent at the non-waiver trade deadline. Had they not outperformed their run differential those first two months they would have a game behind Arizona, in third place in their division at the original trade deadline.

The Red Sox Drastically Underperform: Projected to win 90 games and finish second in the division (by Baseball Prospectus), the Red Sox are currently on pace to win just 78 games. As much as the Dodgers beating out their run differential made them buyers, the Red Sox chronic failure to match theirs made them sellers. In fact, the numbers are exactly the opposite. The Red Sox were expected to win 56 games but instead had only won 53, when the July 31 deadline arrived. They stood pat essentially, because despite being just three games back in the wild card they had four teams ahead of them for the final playoff spot. 56 wins would have put them in a tie with Oakland for the final playoff spot and just four games out in their division. At the point where they pulled the trigger on the mega deal they were a full six games below the expected record. That difference would not have only put them over .500, but it would have left them just two games out of the playoffs. Jettisoning their best hitter and any starting pitcher would not have been an option.

James Loney Falls Apart: When he first arrived, James Loney looked like a potential star. He played excellent defense and hit .331/.381/.538 in his first full season in 2007, good for a weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) of 135. Since that season, he never lived up to the potential that had made him a Baseball America Top 50 prospect three times. While he was disappointing prior to 2012, he was still an above average hitter and given his strong glove work, he was fairly tolerable as an everyday player. In 2012, that was not the case. To this point, he has been 39% worse than the average major league first baseman at the plate by wRC+. He had gone from a solid role player to a black hole this year and replacing him had to be a top priority for the Dodgers.

The Joey Votto Extension: The 10 year, $220M extension given to Joey Votto did not impact either team directly but it plays apart in this deal. As Grant Bisbee of Baseball Nation wisely noted, premium free agents were not reaching the market this year. Votto’s deal is particularly significant for two reasons. First, it makes the six years and $147M contract for Adrian Gonzalez possibly the most affordable deal for a premium first baseman in the game. Second, it means that the top first baseman scheduled to reach free agency in the next two years was now locked up. If the Dodgers wanted to replace Loney with a top performer in his prime any time in the next three years, they would have make a trade.

The Red Sox Pitching Prospects All Went Bust- Though the salary relief element of this deal may be appealing enough to make it work for Boston, acquiring two extremely appealing arms in Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster was a major factor. That need arose because since Clay Buchholz was called up in 2007, the Red Sox have had just one starting pitching prospect -- Felix Doubront -- make an impact at the major league level. Promising pitchers like Michael Bowden, Junichi Tazawa, Drake Britton, Stolmy Pimental and Anthony Ranuado have all failed to develop as the Red Sox hoped. At the start of 2012, the two best pitchers in the Red Sox system were both in the low minors. The Dodgers were unique in that they could offer two pitchers close to major-league-ready in a deal.

The Dodgers System is Light on Position Players: Entering the 2012 season, it was hard to find a position player among the Dodgers top 10 prospects. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball America and Fangraphs all had seven pitchers in their top ten ranks for the Dodgers. Among those, the players closest to the majors (like formers Red Sox prospect Tim Federowicz) lacked star potential and others (like Joc Pederson) were along way from the majors. While the Dodgers have gotten a lot of heat for this deal, they did lock down 1B and LF for the long term and those positions were not going to be addressed by internal options. They may have overpaid and you can certainly argue that they could have done better on the free agent market, as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs has, but the Dodgers owners may have felt that they had more money than time to spend in building and this move certainly addresses that.

Even given all of these events, this was an extraordinarily improbable outcome. This trade is a big win for the Boston Red Sox as they gain both financial flexibility and some intriguing young players. For the Dodgers it is a big risk, but it is a calculated one, meant to excite the fan base and fill in gaps in talent on the major league team right now and in the immediate future. Yet, even as logical as the trade might be for both sides, the wealth of improbable events that all had to take place to make this possible is staggering. Even this list just stretches the surface. The clubhouse drama may have been a factor more than we have guessed or it may have had no effect at all. Had the 2011 team lost in the first round of the playoffs instead of missing out on them altogether, things might have gone very differently this summer. It will change the course of both franchises for almost a decade. It is fair to say we may never see a deal of this magnitude again. The stars just don’t align this way.

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