By Gerard Lombardo – @wickedlinedrive
Outside of the initial decade of my life, I’ve never lived in one place for more than four years. Ah.. to be the product of a broken home. My journeys from one house to another landed me in Cambridge from 2000-2003, where we still lived in the ancient times of gas lit lanterns and horse drawn buggies. So when the Manny Ramirez signing in late 2001 was announced, there weren’t iPhone alerts or tweets to spread the news. I simply found out the morning after, when I passed a Boston Herald kiosk on my walk to school.
If you remember, Mike Mussina was departing Baltimore the same year, and it was all but determined that Manny was a perfect fit for the Yankees, who had a whopping 9 homeruns from left fielder Chuck Knoblauch in ’01, and Moose would be the new 1A behind Pedro. Which, was made moot by the Derek Lowe 21-8 performance in 2002. Regardless, things shook out the way they did, New York moved onto Rondell White and Raul Mondesi as corner outfielders, and the previously mentioned pair of superstar free agents kept the rivalry aflame, peaking of course in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs.
Despite Manny’s $165 million price tag, annual shenanigans, and ultimate trade to Los Angeles after punching his ticket, he was a successful free agent signing. I determine that based on his 868 RBI over seven and a half seasons, protecting and grooming Ortiz for all of those years, and being an absolutely integral part of the drought destroying World Series championships. Argue what you will, Ramirez was a monster here, and one of the best right handed batters of the last 75 years. That is the definition of a quality free agent addition.
But free agency has been incredibly and frustratingly misconstrued over the course of it’s existence. It essentially was set in motion in 1969, when Curt Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, stating it violated his 13th Amendment rights. After a trade was agreed upon, which would move Flood from St. Louis to Philadelphia, Curt took his fight to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, protesting the trade, essentially arguing that he should be allowed to consider contract offers from other teams. In 1972, the case went to the Supreme Court; ruling in favor of Kuhn and the MLB, five votes to three. Finally, in 1976, seven years after Flood’s initial letter to Kuhn, players with six years of major league service were now allowed to explore the brave new world of Free Agency.
Since, countless players have filed for, received, and benefited from free agent contracts. Obviously with inflation, popularity, marketing and poor money management, contractual agreements have made unprecedented leaps. Early on, it was incredibly modest; Nolan Ryan pitched for a million bucks in 1980. Fast forward 20 years, and Mike Hampton goes to Colorado for a then-astronomical $142 million. $300 mil was shelled out for whine bag David Price. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will undoubtedly seek $400M next offseason, will probably get it, and there’s absolutely no reason not to expect an athlete to be signed to half a billion dollars by 2025. Meanwhile, here I am, selling an old bureau on the Letgo app for twelve dead presidents.
As we witness every offseason, there are players signed to terrific value, (Mark Bellhorn in 2004 had 80+ RBI/R; made $480K) as well as polar opposites, a la Allen Craig who earned $750,000 per base hit in Boston. Speaking of Allen, he represents just one of many front office contracts acquired that prove big money players are never a sure thing, and should be approached with caution. Rusney Castillo, earned $70M based on a WBC performance. Carl Crawford, Edgar Renteria, Pablo Sandoval, and Tony Clark also represent major Boston busts.
This can be damaging to a franchise, and the Sox fell victim to it in 2017. How much money was tied up this year between Craig, Rusney, and Pablo? Just 40 million dollars, no big deal. Not as if that hindered the Red Sox from a legitimate mid season blockbuster trade, or has caused Dave Dombrowski to dance around hot lava, also known as the luxury tax.
The sticky situation is only made stickier, however, as the Sox need a power bat. A cleanup hitter, to me, is a higher priority this offseason than a manager. If John Farrell can win back to back divisions, so can Alex Cora, Gabe Kapler, or Gary Disarcina. But Boston can’t hit 168 home runs and expect to outslug the competition in 2018. And with the outfield youth, a third base rookie phenom, the middle infield locked up and a strong pair of catchers, we must turn to the 1B/DH areas. Sure, the front office can and should get creative, maybe by moving an outfielder and prospects for Stanton, or attempt to pry Nelson Cruz loose from Seattle. But currently, the focus is preemptively on Eric Hosmer, and I do not want.
The fact is, many a free agent have came to the great city of Boston only to flame out or falter under the bright light banks of Fenway. And that trend will continue, as the current general manager has a deep baseball acumen, and an even deeper pockets. Money will be thrown around, money will be wasted. Two, three, four or five seasons from now, the Sox will be dealing with the familiar problem of trading steady contributors to free up money, sitting on dead cash, and watching the GM’s head spin in circles, not understanding why he can’t improve the club that is littered with garbage contractual obligations.
I’m not the president of baseball operations. Honestly, I’m lucky I even graduated high school. But I don’t think I’d want to be in DD’s position right now; does he throw money at players who have no guarantee of panning out/thriving in a Sox uniform, or get Billy Beane-ish and start looking to create more value out of each position, whilst competing for a championship? What is clear to me, is that our hometown club lucked the hell out with contracts given to players like Johnny Damon, Adrian Beltre, and Man-Ram. I’d add more examples, but there simply aren’t any. JD Drew was hated, Pedroia is taking heat for the $56M owed through the 2021 season, and Crawford is literally still being paid to chill at home, watching the game he once was a part of.
Could Hosmer be the missing piece? Yeah, absolutely. He should put together, at minimum, 28 homers and 95 driven in annually over the next five seasons. Might even earn a nice ring if he signs here. However the cookie crumbles, dollars are going to be spent, earned, and wasted. But as long as it delivers championships to the city, we can’t really complain; just win, Red Sox, because that fixes everything.