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Red Sox to Free Bill James?

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Pitcher Rubby De La Rosa #78 was acquired in the Megatrade. Does that deal mean the Red Sox will be listening to special adviser Bill James more now? John Henry suggests it does.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Pitcher Rubby De La Rosa #78 was acquired in the Megatrade. Does that deal mean the Red Sox will be listening to special adviser Bill James more now? John Henry suggests it does. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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With all of the attention paid to owner John Henry’s trip to Seattle and the possible implications that visit may have for embattled manager Bobby Valentine, one statement the Red Sox owner made has been slightly overlooked. Henry told the Boston Herald-

"One of (the) biggest issues we’ve had is that Bill James was a great resource for us but fell out of favor over the last few years for reasons I really don’t understand. We’ve gotten him more involved recently in the central process and that will help greatly."

"He’s the father, so to speak, of baseball analysis and a brilliant iconoclast who looks at things differently from everyone else. But Ben is the right person to make the final decisions for the club."

While this statement has not gotten as much attention as the questions surrounding Bobby Valentine’s status, it is an incredibly interesting revelation. James has been with the Red Sox since 2003 as a special advisor. His ideas were one of the foundations for the Moneyball Athletics and for the many of the acquisitions that shaped the World Championship teams of 2004 and 2007. The organization’s recent overhaul via the Megatrade has given the Red Sox a clean slate and how they go about rebuilding is going to depend greatly on the philosophy that they choose to follow. For John Henry to say that James had been marginalized in some way these past few seasons strongly implies that this upcoming rebuild will truly be a return to what Rob Neyer (James’ former research assistant) recently called "first principles"- namely payroll flexibility, a strong farm system and avoiding long term free agent contracts.

Among the more overlooked aspects of James’ baseball philosophy is an emphasis on youth. James has called age the single most important number in baseball and argued that players "prime" seasons tend to be between the ages of 25-30*, when most players are not yet free agents. Signings like Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, John Lackey and Josh Beckett’s final extension are exactly the type of things that James has typically opposed. If Henry is true to his word, this could very mean the Red Sox will not make a big push for Josh Hamilton (age 30), Zack Greinke (28), Nick Swisher (31) or Mike Napoli (31).

*for a more nuanced breakdown of this question, check out this article from Baseball Prospectus

If the Red Sox are forsaking big name free agents, the trade market could be the solution. Justin Upton is almost certainly going to be made available and at just 25, with a near MVP level season under his belt, he has the perfect mix of talent and contract. The only question there will be the cost in minor league talent. If the Oakland A’s don’t pick up Stephen Drew’s $10M option, injury concerns and a down year in 2012 could force him to settle for a short-term deal. Pitchers like Colby Lewis, Scott Baker (assuming his option is declined) and Brandon McCarthy combine enough injury concern with excellent strike out to walk rates to make them interesting short term options.

This is not to say that Boston will never again sign a long term deal if James has a say things. However, the 2012 season and the resulting Megatrade should be enough to make this organization think twice about spending their way into a corner. With Jackie Bradley, Xander Bogaerts, Matt Barnes and the infusion of young arms for the Dodgers, the Red Sox could be bringing up a wealth of young stars to compliment the talent already on the team in the very near future. If they are careful enough with there spending, they can also be in the position to add even more talent next July as well.

The real challenge will not be listening to Bill James. It will be tuning out those voices that will press General Manager Ben Cherington and his team to repeat the mistakes of the past three years. These are the voices that pushed for Bobby Valentine. Some of them see James as "an off-the-rails stat geek locked away in Lawrence, Kansas." Now, they are only going to get louder. When Ben Cherington appeared on WEEI’s Dennis and Callahan show following the trade, the duo was already attempting to turn his assurances of due diligence into a confirmation that the team is going after the free swinging Josh Hamilton (something that James would likely advise against). Fans and pundits are not going wait patiently for the Red Sox to develop the talent on the farms. That isn’t unreasonable. This is Boston Red Sox baseball, not Oakland or Tampa Bay. However, this off-season, Ben Cherington and his team need to be willing to say no to this type of pressure.