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How good was the Carl Crawford trade, really?

Also known as the "Nick Punto trade," for what it's worth.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows the Carl Crawford trade was a coup for the Sox. What Brian MacPherson’s theory presupposes is: Maybe it wasn’t?

It’s an interesting take, and one worth exploring. It goes something like this: Given the truckloads of cash with which the Red Sox have to work, they could have kept Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett, and they would still have enough money to do whatever they wanted. Or, TL;DR, if a salary dump is only about money, and the Red Sox print money, what’s the big deal about a salary dump?

It's a good thought exercise in a world that is finally coming around to the idea that some teams are the toys, not businesses, of their billionaire owners; the money is effectively as make-believe to them as Monopoly money is to you. The worst-case scenario is having to sell your team for, inevitably, above market value, at which point they convert every $1 in fake money to $10 in real cash. It's the billionaire impulse buy for a reason, and it never goes out of style.

Viewed through this lens -- and the tens of later millions squandered on Pablo Sandoval and thrown at Hanley Ramirez, indicating that any lessons didn't stick to the organization -- it is pretty hard to get worked up about a purely financial transaction.

I guess I disagree that it was a purely financial transaction, coming off the slow-motion disaster of the 2012 season, one that saw the manager, players and fans go to war with each other over a 12-pack of Bud Light and a 12-piece from Popeye's, the region's latent wolverine Puritanism bearing its full fruit. I strangely don't remember the drinking-in-the-clubhouse uproar when the team was pounding Jack Daniels before 2004 playoff games, but I was drinking too, so maybe I missed it.

Still, it feels weird for the guy in his home office to be disagreeing with the guy who has clubhouse access when discussing what was very much a workplace disagreement issue. I think I took it for granted that the trade was great for its clearinghouse nature, not just financially but practically (in having fewer high-paid unhappy players to deal with) and, I dunno, spiritually. Like most, I thought the 2013 World Series title effectively validated it, but there's another line of thought that says it stands on its own merits (whatever they are) regardless of what happens after.

In this case, we can no sooner use the World Series title to support the 2012 trade than we can use the Ramirez and Sandoval contracts to discount it, knowing that the team, as an institution, refused to learn its lesson. While I think there are (clearly) real-world job security concerns that led Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington to make ultimately bad deals, MacPherson is correct in noting that no matter what they spend, the Sox can always afford to make more financial mistakes. They could sign Bryce Harper for $400 million over 10 years, watch him get hurt in year one, pay out the contract like chumps, and still find a way to compete.

On this level: Point taken! From a purely numbers perspective, there's no question that the 2012 trade was overblown. It was still good -- no one is arguing otherwise -- but it was just money.

But the argument that the Sox could have made the same moves anyway, while technically true, presents some cause-and-effect issues. If the Sox have virtually unlimited resources, they're still like a poker player at a table with a small stack and deep bank account. They're limited by the chips they have in front of them, no matter how many more to which they have access. The cards that come out aren't going to change, and you could technically win just as easily with a short stack as you could with a big stack, but the degree of difficulty is much, much higher, because your margin for error is much less.

On a larger level, I think it's unrealistic to think that a general manager or team president has access to all the of the cash available to the organization, unless that person is also the owner. This approach is not recommended (see Jerry Jones in Dallas) for the simple reason that no one ever became a billionaire by building a baseball team, the same way no one (likely) did by playing poker. If the billionaire wants skin in either game, they're best off hiring someone else to manage the game and handing them the company credit card -- with limits.

The limits are important. Only by forcing your hand-picked game player to account for his or her own mistakes can you judge how good they're playing. Epstein went all-in on the Crawford and Gonzalez deals and got dealt a crap hand, and he was out. Cherington went all-in on Ramirez and Sandoval and he, too, was out. Given the incredible resources he still had under his control -- Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts were blue-chippers from Day 1 -- it's safe to say that, while the team can absorb reckless overspending, they're not about to condone it.

Which brings us back to MacPherson's original point: How much worse off are the Sox for spending bad money after good, over and over? Sitting in first place with an incredible core of young major league and minor league players, they look pretty darn great. I'll admit it: They look great! It seems pretty clear, from this angle, that the Crawford trade was likely overblown, to some degree. But not perfectly clear.

The only counterpoint left is that, in poker, you always remember the bad beats more than you remember the wins -- unless the win is so big it's iconic, like the World Series of Poker. The Crawford trade was the out-of-nowhere bracelet win following a terrible beat. It's a forever victory, and even if it was ultimately mostly a narrative victory, I'm okay, as a writer, to let it remain as such, because a great story is worth much more than dollars and cents. Any working writer knows this all too well. The billionaire owns the team, but we can, without being dishonest about it, refuse to relinquish the story. We've earned at least that much.