Talking Baseball

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Posted by Brodie on Saturday, February 28, 2004

The Worst Case Scenario?

I'm Brodie, a friend of Dave and Ben. Jon had to take the day off, so I'll be posting in his stead.

In between take-home midterm assignments the other night, I began to wonder what the worst-case scenario for the Red Sox might be this season. It occurred to me that with some untimely injuries, clubhouse strife, and truly horrid luck, it’s feasible that the Red Sox might find themselves out of contention for the playoffs. While I think such a scenario is incredibly unlikely, it also might be quite a blessing in disguise.

Before you stab me too many times, put your knives down for a second and consider Boston’s rather unique position. The Red Sox are one of the most financially powerful clubs in the majors. They clearly demonstrated this offseason that they are capable of reeling in top talent and keeping it around for a number of years. Of course, the Red Sox cannot quite compete with the Yankees in this area, as the Yankees are and will be able to outspend the Sox every year. Furthermore, both organizations’ farm systems are rather barren. The Yankees have torn their top talents away for midseason pickups, and the Sox are left with the trio of Hanley Ramirez, Shoppach, and Youkilis. While these three players all have substantial potential, they likely won’t secure the Sox’ future all by themselves. The Red Sox also have quite a few players preparing for free agency: Pedro, Lowe, Varitek, Ortiz, Williamson, and Nomar could all potentially be skipping town at the end of the season.

These three factors create a potentially incredible opportunity for the Red Sox to ensure their ability to compete in the years to come with anything the Yankees or the rising Blue Jays can put on the field. If the Sox falter, the front office must be ready and willing to pull the trigger and trade some or all of the free agent talent for prospects.

Most of baseball’s divisions look to be hotly contested in this coming season, and there are a great number of teams that will likely contend. Interestingly enough, this includes several teams that have some of the best farm systems in the game. The Twins, A’s, Astros, and Cubs all have excellent minor league talent and are likely to be fighting for playoff spots. The Mariners also have quite a decent system, and should they get lucky, the Indians and Dodgers could find themselves in search of some established players for the stretch run. The Red Sox could easily offer any of these teams what they need. Anemic offense getting you down? Ortiz, Nomar, and Varitek are the droids you’re looking for. Did one of your starting pitchers go down with an injury? Lowe would make an awfully good midseason pickup, and what team wouldn’t want Pedro for the playoffs? Furthermore, Williamson offers a solid arm for any bullpen. In return, of course, the Sox will be expecting some prospects.

The problem is this: many of the players the Sox could potentially be loaning to other teams are fan favorites, and a great many baseball fans simply will not understand the reasoning behind giving away talent like that for “mere” minor leaguers. The front office can’t afford to alienate fans, and is therefore caught in an unfortunate situation. They know that they can loan away our free agents and replenish our farm system quickly while still maintaining a good chance of resigning some of these guys in the offseason, but they also know that fans will be very angry in reaction to the trades. Giving up will not be acceptable, no matter how beneficial to the team in the long term. Theo Epstein has the charisma to pull off these moves and give the Sox a serious, long term advantage over the rest of the division… but I doubt it will happen even if the opportunity arises simply because the fans won’t be looking at the long term.

This conflict speaks to a fundamental problem in baseball today – a problem that many baseball writers are devoting themselves to addressing. There is a clear dichotomy between the old guard and the sabermetricians. The latter are constantly trying to show the former that newer statistical methods of player evaluation are simply better, and they have done so with a measurable degree of success. However, most baseball broadcasts still focus on “mainstream” statistics and obscure splits rather than more complex, interesting, and potentially useful statistics such as ERA+, RC or Win Shares. As a result, there is a wide divide between the casual and old guard fans and the “hardcore” fans who make an effort to draw from the well of sabermetrics, primarily through the Internet.

Furthermore, I wouldn’t hesitate to claim that most baseball fans don’t pay nearly as much attention to the Minor Leagues as they should. I certainly fall into this category, although I should like to correct this error. Understanding a team’s prospects is incredibly important, and any true fan should wish success on his or her franchise not only in the immediate future but also in years ahead. Every team has to stop and rebuild from time to time, and only through careful planning can that rebuilding process be made as quick and painless as possible. Unfortunately, because many fans do not pay attention to the minor leagues, do not understand sabermetrics, and are focused on the short term, front offices are forced to choose between wise action and fan placation.

While I doubt the Red Sox will suffer from a blown opportunity in 2004 as a result of this conflict, I nevertheless implore you, the reader, to make an effort to learn more about your teams’ prospects, incorporate sabermetrics into your player evaluation, and, most importantly, encourage other fans to do the same. There will be teams that suffer because their front offices are not in sync with their fan base. The team simply won’t be willing to risk losing revenue when a controversial opportunity arises. Should the team take the risk anyway, precious fans will undoubtedly be lost. Don’t let this happen to your team. We truly are at a crossroads in the way we think about baseball, and this revolution must come at the grassroots level.

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