Bust? Another disappointing season for Crawford in Boston is over
Carl Crawford's season came to a premature end on Monday, as the Red Sox announced that the 31-year-old leftfielder will undergo Tommy John surgery on Thursday to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left (throwing) elbow. The recovery period for position players is shorter than it is for pitchers — ranging from six to eight months, due to less need for repetition and fine motor control — so the timing leaves open the possibility that Crawford could be ready by Opening Day 2013. Even so, the decision is among the first signs of the Sox admitting that this isn't their year, which is at least somewhat understandable given their 59-63 record and seven-game deficit in the Wild Card standings.
The surgery also closes the book on a second thoroughly dismal season in Boston for Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million deal in December 2010 but has since been dogged by health issues. At the same time, it leaves the team wide open to second-guessing regarding his signing and handling and to questions of whether or not he can ever regain the form that led them to give him that contract in the first place.
Coming off a .255/.289/.405 showing in 131 games last year — the lowest batting average of his 10-year major league career, and the lowest on-base percentage since his 2002 rookie season — Crawford underwent surgery on his left wrist last January to repair cartilage damage. At the time, the Red Sox explained that he had begun experiencing soreness when he began his offseason hitting workouts, but in March, it emerged that Crawford had received painkilling injections to manage the problem in 2011, which at least provided some explanation for his struggles; news of the injections hadn't previously been reported. By month's end, Boston general manager Ben Cherington revealed that Crawford had been dealing with wrist pain "for four or five years," but that the team felt confident it could help him manage the problem when it signed him.
Because he didn't undergo surgery until January, the Sox expected Crawford to miss Opening Day, but setbacks delayed his return even further. Just as he was nearing readiness to play in mid-April, he suffered the UCL strain. By the end of that month the team conceded that he could miss three months. He didn't begin swinging a bat until late May, didn't begin throwing until early June and didn't start a rehab assignment until June 23. Briefly slowed by a minor groin strain, he finally made his Red Sox debut on July 16.
Barely more than a month later, his season is over, leaving the Red Sox to not only play out the string without him, but to confront the sobering reality that they still owe him $102.5 million over the next five years and have received just 0.7 Wins Above Replacement Player for the first $39.5 million they've paid him. While the possibility exists that he could recover the form he showed with the Rays, for whom he hit .296/.337/.444 over the course of nine seasons, the reality is that he has never been quite the same hitter away from the artificial turf of the Tropicana Dome: .303/.344/.457 there, .284/.323/.430 elsewhere; the difference mainly owes to a 16-point difference in batting average on balls in play (.337 versus .321) which owes something to the speed with which the ball moves on turf.
Crawford's contract, which at the time was the second-largest ever signed by an outfielder — Sox leftfield predecessor Manny Ramirez's eight-year, $160 million pact signed before the 2001 season ranked first — is off to an even worse start than two other notable nine-figure deals for outfielders. Vernon Wells' seven-year, $126 million deal, signed with the Blue Jays prior to the 2008 season, has yielded a measly 7.2 WARP over five years; 6.8 of that came in three seasons with Toronto, while his career has absolutely cratered in Anaheim. Jayson Werth's seven-year, $126 million deal, signed with the Nationals prior to the 2011 season, has yielded 3.5 WARP thus far; after a dismal first season with the bat (.232/.330/.389) in 2011 he has rebounded this year (.318/.412/.471), though he missed 75 games due to a broken arm.
Given Boston's resources, including the game's second-highest payroll at $175.2 million, Crawford's deal doesn't appear to be as franchise-crippling as the eight-year, $184 million deal the Twins gave Joe Mauer. Mauer has produced just 3.4 WARP in the first two seasons of that contract, and still has $138 million remaining on the deal following this year, and a move away from full-time catching is clearly in the cards; he has played first base or DH in 53 games this year compared to 58 behind the plate. The five-year, $125 million extension the Phillies granted Ryan Howard, who has produced just 0.1 WARP in 36 games after missing the first 84 games of the season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, might also be worse than Crawford's.
But when paired with the $127 million they will have remaining on Adrian Gonzalez's deal over the next six years, Crawford's salary is a tough one for the Red Sox to swallow as they maneuver to avoid the steeper luxury tax penalties that will kick in for repeat offenders in 2014. Finding another team to take on a significant portion of his deal via trade would require the absorption of other large contracts, though their financial footprints might be different. In the weeks leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, the Sox were said to have discussed a deal that would have sent Crawford to the Marlins in exchange for Hanley Ramirez, who has $31.5 million remaining on his deal following this year, and Heath Bell, who has $18 million guaranteed remaining; nonetheless, the two teams couldn't find agreement. With the deals of Wells ($42 million remaining for 2013-2014), the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano ($36 million remaining for 2013-2014) and Giants' Barry Zito ($27 million for 2013 plus a 2014 buyout) winding down, situations where a team is experiencing a comparable enough level of buyer's remorse to swing a deal for Crawford aren't readily apparent. If the wrist and elbow injuries to blame for Crawford's first two seasons with Boston have been repaired, the team can hope he can rebound to some semblance of the All-Star form he showed in 2009-2010, when he hit a combined .306/.360/.473 for Tampa Bay. That said, wrist injuries are the bane of hitters, sapping power, and it's still unclear that Crawford's chronic problems are behind him. The Tommy John surgery may present less of a long-term problem, as hitters such as Luke Scott, Xavier Nady and Shin-Soo Choo have enjoyed years of productivity after returning. But it's going to be at least six months before the Red Sox can start finding that out, leaving another winter of regret and second-guessing regarding his deal and handling in the interim.