Players underperform all the time, and Red Sox fans as much as anyone should know just how often those underperformers take up disproportionately large chunks of payroll. And when fans are left to suffer through the contracts of those overpaid underperformers, there's a tendency to villainize. Yes, sometimes players just lose it. Sometimes they decline due to age or injury or just because they wake up one day in a slump that they never quite escape. But not this guy on my team. He's just a lazy jerk.
A tempting thought, but usually not a terribly accurate one. Just because a player's millions are guaranteed after signing the dotted line doesn't mean they're suddenly without motivation. Pride, responsibility to one's teammates, the love of the game--there's plenty of reasons for players to keep trying. And by-and-large, most of them do. But every once in a while, maybe that suspicion is true. It's not just the irrational nature of fandom that causes it. Per Bill James, who's in a much better position to judge than the rest of us:
We get all kinds, but there are more highly motivated professionals than anything else. In the thirteen years I have been in Boston I guess we have had three players who basically conned us out of a contract and then showed up with no apparent desire to earn their money; can't give you names, obviously, but it does happen occasionally. None in the last five years. Occasionally you get players who, after signing what they know is their last big contract, don't seem highly motivated, and are kind of just going through the motions.
No names. But we have a range. 2003-2010, if we assume James is being precise (and given that we're talking about Bill James with time to choose his words, that seems safe). And if this doesn't have you curious enough to play guessing games, well hell, you're a stronger/better person than I am.
So, who are the three players?
If you're looking for a certain answer, I'll just tell you now, I don't have one for you. But at the very least I'd like to cross off a few of the names more commonly tossed around (and perhaps highlight some others).
Carl Crawford: The five years clause kills this one no matter how you interpret it. In fact, I'd almost guess that James was specifically thinking of Crawford when he threw that range in. Carl gets a lot of flack around these parts, and he's one of the first players that you think of when the words "overpaid" and "underperformed" are thrown around. Hanley and Pablo too, these days, but one doubts James would speak ill of them if they were still with the team no matter what. Whatever the case with those two, Crawford is safe.
J.D. Drew: I'd be remiss if I didn't seize the opportunity to engage in the Over The Monster pastime of defending J.D. Drew. It's been so long, after all, since we've had any cause to. Suffice it to say, given Bill James' background, it's hard to believe he looks at Drew's performance (114 OPS+), particularly in the first four years that didn't lead directly into his retirement (121 OPS+), and thinks he conned the Red Sox out of much of anything. If it was supposed to be a con, well, it wasn't a very good one.
Daisuke Matsuzaka: Yeah, another one of Boston's greatest hits in terms of free agent busts, but word was that Daisuke butted heads with the team over a workout program that Boston considered too strenuous. Daisuke didn't live up to expectations, but he clearly wanted to put the work in.
MLB ranks Espinoza a top-10 RHP prospect
The Red Sox have promoted quite a few arms, but they still have a serious one sitting in the minors.
Eric Gagne: Gagne may be a four-letter word around these parts, but at the time he was still set to land another big deal in free agency. Given that his career ended after one more bad year, and was named in the Mitchell Report, it's not hard to imagine something other than effort was involved in his failure here.
As for those who seem more probable...
Julio Lugo: Signed his first big long-term deal with the Red Sox after hitting free agency with a career line of .277/.340/.402. proceeded to hit .250/.315/.337 after getting his money. That he tried to stick around with other teams on minor league deals is a little problematic, but on the whole, he seems a good candidate.
Bartolo Colon: The big issue with Colon is that he showed up on a minor league deal. But after making the 25-man roster in May, he proceeded to throw seven decent games and then just...left while the Red Sox were in the middle of a playoff push. An odd case, to say the least.
Edgar Renteria: Everyone remembers Rent-a-Wreck. And while the shortstop was perhaps not quite as bad as we remember, the fact that a reliable defender fell so completely to pieces before putting everything back together in subsequent years with the Braves makes it easy to imagine that Bill James had Renteria in mind when he was talking about conned contracts.
So there's my two cents. Anyone else up for wild speculation? (It's not like there's anything better to do in January.)