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Context and the Offseason

Trades don't happen in a vacuum, and often it's worth looking at the context of a deal before smashing it. Although occasionally the context makes it worse.

Rob Carr

Remember those arguments you used to have on the schoolyard, the great "who would win" debates? "If there were a fight between a Tyrannosaurus and a tank, who would win?" They were always fun, and always completely ridiculous. One thing that always got me in trouble in these arguments, and made no one want to have them any more, was that I kept trying to contextualize them. "Well, I mean obviously the T. Rex doesn't have a cannon, so the tank's at a pretty big advantage there out on the open plain, but what if it's in the mountains, or the forest? Tanks are pretty useless in those environments, and eventually it'll run out of fuel and the crew will need to get out, and then they're dino food." And so forth.

As it turns out, I haven't broken that habit, I find myself doing the same thing every offseason. Trades and free agent signings, oddly, aren't context-free decisions. They involve all sorts of factors, and there's rarely any one single piece of information that drives them. I've noticed this offseason (and the past few, actually) an unfortunate tendency toward judging moves without context, as though they were fantasy deals. It's an easy way to write a quick article, and it certainly allows for easy snark. But it's also incredibly lazy.

An easy place to start on this is the Shane Victorino deal. The shorter version of the internet's reaction to Boston's signing of the Flyin' Hawaiian was "$13 million a year for a guy who can't hit righties? Wow, way to destroy the flexibility you got from the Punto Trade, Ben! Worst deal ever." And in a vacuum, without any context whatsoever, I suppose that's not a bad way to look at it. Then again, the deal wasn't done in a vacuum by a generic team, it was done after 2012, by the Boston Red Sox.

Shane Victorino is pretty good defensively in the outfield, and Boston has a bunch of flyball pitchers. Victorino can play a strong center, and Boston has both a center fielder they might soon deal and a right field that's very hard to play. Victorino is from all accounts a stellar teammate, and Boston spent the last year and change with... let's just call them chemistry issues and move on. He's also pretty good with the fanbase, and Boston's fanbase is somewhat disgruntled at the moment. Finally, $13 million to the Red Sox is nothing. It's less than ten percent of their payroll for three years. If the Rays had given Victorino $13 million, yes, that's flexibility-killing. For the Red Sox, it's a slight overpay for a guy they wanted.

This strikes me occasionally when writers get up in arms about player contracts being overpays. Years of reading about how impressively the A's and Rays have built their teams despite not having much money has, I think, made us overly miserly in the way we approach contracts. The entire point of the Moneyball approach is that Oakland can't afford to compete monetarily with New York, so they need to go digging for value elsewhere. What's made the Red Sox and Yankees so dangerous over the last decade is that they have the luxury of choosing what tactics to use. Sure, Boston can choose to go the Moneyball route, looking for undervalued guys and signing them cheap, and it's worked out pretty well in some cases (David Ortiz says hi). But they don't have to, because they also have the money to throw eight-figure salaries at established stars (David Ortiz again says hi). A deal that would be a horrible, payroll-shredding disaster for Kansas City can simply be a slight overpay for Boston.

Speaking of Kansas City, last night provided a brilliant example of how context makes all the difference in approaching a trade. For anyone who was asleep, or didn't read our earlier coverage this morning, the Royals pulled the trigger on the trade that had been rumored for the last few weeks, sending top prospect Wil Myers, along with three other solid prospects, to Tampa Bay for James Shields and Wade Davis. The deal's been picked over repeatedly, and pretty brutally, already, but let's imagine it in a diffferent context for a moment. Imagine Boston had made this deal. And I don't mean the way it was rumored they might (Lester+ for Myers), I mean trading four top prospects for Shields and Davis.

What would we think of that deal? Aside from the fact that it likely wouldn't happen, given that Tampa's a division rival, I don't think I would hate it. Shields is a pretty damn good pitcher, and one that Boston could afford now and into the future. Davis has a fair deal of value as either a long reliever or a fifth starter. Obviously any chance at 2013 contention for Boston as they stand depends upon a return to form from Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, but assuming that happened, Lester-Buchholz-Shields is a pretty respectable top three if you're looking to make the playoffs. Losing prospects is always dicey, but as I've already covered, Boston's a team that doesn't have to only build through the farm. In that context, big prospects for Shields ain't bad at all.

But of course that's not the context. Even taking into consideration the weakness of the AL Central, and the potential mashiness of the KC lineup, Shields alone doesn't get the Royals anywhere near a pennant. He's not a Justin Verlander or Pedro Martinez who can guarantee a win every five days, he's basically a better, younger, less-mustachioed Jack Morris. Which is valuable, and something Kansas City hasn't had since Kevin Appier. But unless Dayton Moore's got another guy in his sights, he's just turned a 72-win team into (maybe) a 77-win team, at a pretty steep cost.

That, by the way, is the last bit of context that always needs to be taken into account as we wend our way through the offseason. The offseason's not over yet. It's not near over, actually. Kansas City could go find more pitching, and suddenly they're pretty interesting. Boston could trade Ellsbury, and then Victorino's the starting center fielder and thus closer to being worth $13 million. New York's thusfar quiet offseason could suddenly turn spectacular with an enormous trade. There's a whole lot of hot stove left, and we can be just as angry about stuff in March. Let's see how the rest pans out.