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In extending Rick Porcello, Red Sox commit to a future of defense

The Red Sox have promised Rick Porcello $82 million from 2016 to 2019. It's a move that could pay big dividends, but only if the Sox keep Porcello surrounded with the defense he needs to thrive.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox announced Monday night that they had signed Rick Porcello to a four-year, $82.5 million extension before he had thrown a single regular season pitch for the team. This is not the sort of safe contract we've come to expect from the Red Sox in recent years. Not even in the way Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval can be seen as safe. It's a contract that's going to leave the Red Sox looking like the smartest guys in baseball five years from now, or like over-confident fools.

The good news for the Sox is that they have a lot of say in that outcome. When the Red Sox traded for Rick Porcello, they did so knowing the 2015 Red Sox were nearly the perfect team for him. The Red Sox have put a heavy focus on ground balls in 2015, and have put together a strong infield defense to support that strategy, with Pablo Sandoval, Dustin Pedroia, and Mike Napoli all ranging from above average to elite at their positions.

The dirty little secret about Boston's ground ball strategy is that it's nothing special. In the years since Theo Epstein mixed Moneyball with, well, money, Red Sox fans have had a habit of glorifying their general managers. And, to be fair, Epstein and Cherington have had their fair share of masterstrokes over the last decade and a half, zigging while the whole league was zagging, at times changing the way we think about what makes a successful baseball team.

But there's not much about this year's plan that couldn't have been put together by a team builder 50 years ago. Or by any of the other general managers around the league. When you combine ground ball pitchers and good infield defense, good things happen. The most advanced part of the plan comes in identifying the pitchers who stand to gain the most from a team change. Those who might be undervalued based on performances that were more the fault of their infielders than the pitchers themselves. As a zero-true-outcome pitcher on a terrible defensive team, Porcello may as well be the poster boy.

The Red Sox, then, are not gambling on some fancy new metric. They're not playing a different game. They're just betting that defense will work the same way from 2015 to 2019 as it did from 1915 to 2014, and that Rick Porcello will not prove to be the one pitcher it doesn't apply to.

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan

It's a sound strategy, but it's not one that comes without cost. By extending Rick Porcello, the Red Sox have made a promise both to Porcello and themselves to maintain a focus on infield defense. The question is just how much of a cost is this? If, after all, the Red Sox are forgoing offense to fill the infield with top gloves--a Jose Iglesias at every position, say--then it's a pretty big deal. Sure, Porcello might look like a Cy Young pitcher with that sort of defense behind him, but for every run he saved he could effectively cost the Red Sox two at the plate.

But we're not talking about Jose Iglesias from third to first. We're talking about Pablo Sandoval, who has combined sharp defense with a 116 OPS+ these past three years. We're talking Dustin Pedroia, who announced to the world yesterday that his power days were not gone for good. And we're talking Mike Napoli, whose pop-ups have a tendency to leave the park.

It's not a unit that is likely to last the full five years. Napoli is no spring chicken, and it's possible Sandoval ends up at first base at the tail end of his contract. But that's a transition the Red Sox should be well equipped to handle given their acquisition of Yoan Moncada last month.

For some, the fact that so much of the work is being done by the infield while Porcello still receives $82 million might gall, but that's entirely the wrong way of looking at this. If, indeed, Porcello is not the one exception to the infield defense rule, then this really is Boston's only chance to lock him in at this price. Given the defense behind him in Boston, Porcello will succeed in 2015. And once he does, there's going to be other teams out there who think they're an equally positive situation for him, or even that he's just good enough to get by without. They will go to war with the Red Sox for him in free agency, and given that Porcello is just the rarest of commodities--a young free agent--they will likely bid the Sox up into territories they're not that comfortable with these days.

For a Red Sox team that has already made the investment in infield defense, there's little reason to view Porcello as anything but the pitcher he can be with that sort of defense behind him. And what project to be four of the best years of that pitcher's career are certainly worth $82 million. The Red Sox just can't allow themselves to lose sight of why Rick Porcello is what he is. They can't afford to replace Mike Napoli somewhere down the line with a glorified DH and expect Porcello to perform. If Pablo Sandoval can't maintain his defense at the hot corner, they're going to have to make changes.

This is a long-term commitment the Red Sox have made to Rick Porcello, and they owe it both to him and to themselves to perform the maintenance needed to make this a a positive experience for both parties.