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Adrian Gonzalez: His Value and the Waiver Move

 Adrian Gonzalez #28 of the Boston Red Sox and A.J. Pierzynski #12 of the Chicago White Sox watch Gonzalez's solo home run in the first inning on May 30, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Adrian Gonzalez #28 of the Boston Red Sox and A.J. Pierzynski #12 of the Chicago White Sox watch Gonzalez's solo home run in the first inning on May 30, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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NEWSFLASH! Adrian Gonzalez has been placed on waivers. As with Manny Ramirez before him, Gonzalez' antics have led the Red Sox front office to throw their hands up in the air and scream, "take him, please! Just take him away!" After all, there is only so long that a team can be expected to tolerate the quiet, thoughtful way in which Gonzalez goes about playing the game. Add to that a down year in performance and it isn’t hard to see why Boston would be ready to cut bait on the pricey first baseman.

The ever-shrinking rational corner of the Boston sports world should recognize that the preceeding paragraph is utter nonsense. While Adrian Gonzalez has been placed on waivers, the move almost certainly has nothing to do with Gonzalez’s attitude or any of the many clubhouse-cancer related theories that are certain to be bandied about.

In fact, this move is not really about Adrian Gonzalez at all; this is a team that has fallen out of contention exploring the options available to them and little more than that. Red Sox fans have not had to watch this type of situation too often lately but this is the reality now. The Red Sox front office is going to consider offers for Adrian Gonzalez because he is one of the most valuable pieces they have to trade and this is a team with a number of real costly needs.

What might they be on the lookout for?

2012 has not been a great season for Gonzalez. He is hitting .301/.345/.473 which is still good for 15% better than league average (by weighted Runs Created Plus, wRC+), but it is a far cry from his typical production and ranks just twelfth among qualified first baseman. It has also been a bizarre year for Gonzo, who was dreadful in the first half of the season and has been one of the best players in the game since the All-Star Break. Gonzalez was a below average hitter for three straight month before catching fire in July. Over the past two months he has been 56% better than average by wRC+. Even this hot streak has been very strange. In July, the typically patient first baseman walked just one time in 96 plate appearances. Since the start of August, the walks have largely returned and his power has exploded, with a .312 Isolated Power score for the month. All in all, it is one of the more perplexing seasons in recent memory.

Gonzalez signed to a seven year, $154 million deal with the Red Sox prior to last season and he will be owed $21 million for the next four seasons and then $21.5 million for two more years. While this deal is pricey enough to exclude some of the smaller market teams from the trade market, with the deals top first baseman that have signed recently, it is a very reasonable contract for most contending teams.

By Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), Gonzalez has been the fourth most valuable first baseman in the game since 2008 with 24.4 fWAR. He ranks well behind Albert Pujols (33.9) and just a hair behind Joey Votto (27.7) and Miguel Cabrera (26.9). He is just a bit ahead of Mark Teixeira (23).Gonzo is two years younger than Pujols and Teixeira, one year older than Cabrera and just under a year and a half older than Votto. He is arguably the best defender of the group as well. Yet among these players, only Miguel Cabrera and Mark Teixeira are owed less money overall. Cabrera has just $65.5 million and three seasons left on his deal, but he will be paid the same amount as Gonzalez next season and then $1 million more for the two remain years of that deal. Teixeira is owed $22.5 million until 2016, $1.5 million more than Gonzalez. Both Pujols and Votto have back-loaded contracts, so they come cheaper right now, but Votto is owed $98 million dollars more than Gonzalez and Pujols is owed $101 million more overall. Among elite first baseman, Gonzalez is basically even with Miguel Cabrera as the most affordable option.

Further, even with a salary over $20 million, Gonzalez is not particularly overpaid. Fangraphs estimates that one WAR typically costs around $5M on the free agent market. Gonzalez has average just under five WAR per year in his six full seasons and in two of the last three seasons he has top six WAR. Even in this down year he will likely finish close to four WAR, or around $20 million in value. As expensive as he is, he may still be a bargain for a team with hopes of winning now, saving them $5-$10 million in free agent spending in each of the next two or three years. For a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers (who had inquired about Gonzo at the deadline), Gonzalez could be a major difference-maker this year and beyond. The Rangers, the Nationals, the Cardinals and the Giants should all have at least some interest in him. Even a traditionally thrifty team like the Pirates may be willing to enter the bidding, seizing the chance to win while they can.

With the Red Sox in serious need of pitching, they need to know what the return for Gonzalez could be. This year there will be few free agent pitching options to choose from and even fewer that appear to be a good fit for the Red Sox. The trade market is their best option for rebuilding the staff and if the Red Sox don’t want to trade their top prospects, the options are limited to Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury. Finding a short term solution at first base is certainly easier than replacing a star centerfielder (whether Ellsbury will be that or not is another conversation). Given that reality (and, frankly, any other), there is no downside to placing Gonzalez on waivers. If an acceptable deal is not found, he can be withdrawn, no harm done. However, the possibility that he could bring back an impact player or top tier prospect is worth exploring.

Even if the only result is an improved idea of the market for Gonzalez, Boston will benefit. This off-season is going to require Ben Cherington to consider a vast range of possibilities for improving the team and trading Gonzalez is just one of them. Everything that makes Gonzalez appealing to other teams also makes him difficult for Boston to part with. He may bring the greatest return now, with pennant races on the line, but a deal is not likely, now or in the future. Aside from pre-arbitration players, Gonzalez is among the most valuable players the Red Sox have, and they just need to see what that value really is. Not testing the waters is not an option. This team needs to find a lot of value this off-season and, generally, you have to give value to get it back.