August is a time when the wackiest trade scenarios get floated around, with non-contending teams often placing high-salaried players on waivers as a means of sniffing out prospective trade partners or finding places to bury some of their most cumbersome contracts. Contenders weigh the impact of saddling themselves with potentially extravagant expenses down the road against the price of a significant leg up in a playoff race in the short term.
On Friday, that's exactly what happened, as the Red Sox and Dodgers agreed to a deal that constitutes the largest waiver-period blockbuster in history. As first reported by Fox Sports, the Red Sox agreed to send starting pitcher Josh Beckett, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and left fielder Carl Crawford — their three highest-salaried players — plus infielder Nick Punto and $12 million cash to the Dodgers in exchange for first baseman James Loney, second baseman Ivan De Jesus Jr., outfielder Jerry Sands and pitchers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster. The deal didn't become official until Saturday morning, mainly because Beckett and Crawford had no-trade rights to waive.
Simply by replacing the unproductive Loney with Gonzalez, the move significantly bolsters the Dodgers' chances of securing a playoff spot this season, but it also adds over $270 million in contract commitments to the team's payroll over the next six years for players whose past two seasons have largely fallen short of expectations. According to the Boston Herald, roughly 96 percent of that, over $260 million, will be picked up by the Dodgers. Given the quality of the young pitchers they gave up, they almost certainly should have received a steeper discount on the remaining contracts, because they have assumed virtually all of the risk in this deal. The $12 million they received — a bit more than the equivalent of half of Crawford's salary — is spread over the next six years. It's basically a rounding error.
The Dodgers' willingness to take on additional salary appears to be the hallmark of the team's new ownership group, in a calculated break from the miserly ways of former owner Frank McCourt. The Guggenheim Baseball Management group, which is headed by Mark Walter and includes basketball great Magic Johnson and longtime baseball executive Stan Kasten, purchased the club for a record $2.15 billion this year, keyed by a new television deal that could be worth $4 billion; suddenly, the team in the second-largest market in the country is wielding its financial might.
Prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Dodgers added Marlins third baseman Hanley Ramirez, who is due $31.5 million beyond this season, and after the deadline, they put in a waiver claim on Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee, who still has at least $87.5 million remaining on his deal, but in that case they did not work out a deal.
Here's how the new contracts fit in with the Dodgers' existing commitments beyond this season (all dollar figures in millions, and all annual salaries taken from Cot's Baseball Contracts):
On the other end, this is the baseball equivalent of a TARP bailout. The proposed trade not only frees the Red Sox (60-66, 7-15 this month) of several burdensome contracts, but also blows up the foundation of a team headed for its third straight year without a playoff berth, one where the daily drama surrounding manager Bobby Valentine's reception in the clubhouse has come to overshadow the play on the field. Perhaps not coincidentally, that foundation — the trade for Gonzalez, the signing of Crawford and the extension of Beckett — was laid by Theo Epstein, who left his role as Red Sox general manager this past winter to become president of the Cubs.
The Dodgers entered Saturday with a 68-58 record, in second place and three games behind the Giants in the NL West race, and in third place and 1½ games back in the Wild Card hunt. Even with the pre-July 31 deadline acquisitions of Ramirez and Shane Victorino, their underpowered offense has squeezed out just 4.00 runs per game, the league's sixth-lowest rate. Nowhere in their lineup have they received less production than at first base, where Loney, Juan Rivera and others have combined to hit .244/.289/.352, numbers that rank 23rd, 29th, and 27th among major league first basemen. The $6.38 million bet that Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti made over the winter, that Loney's late-2011 showing — .357/.416/.608 over the season's final two months — would carry over, has been lost, as the 28-year-old lefty has been reduced to a platoon player. Even with two home runs this month, he's hitting just .254/.302/.344 with four homers.
By contrast, the 30-year-old Gonzalez has hit .300/.343/.469 with 15 homers for the Red Sox this year, his first under a new seven-year, $154 million extension, numbers well off the .338/.410/.548 he hit last year, his first after being traded from San Diego to Boston. Even so, he is trending up, with a second-half surge (.338/.378/.593 with nine homers) easing fears about his physical condition — particularly with regards to his surgically repaired right shoulder — following a surprisingly punchless first half (.283/.329/.416). The only one of the Red Sox's 13 highest-paid players to avoid the disabled list this year, Gonzalez may have also been one of the unhappier ones, as he was believed to be among those who spearheaded a July 26 meeting in which a majority of the active roster aired their grievances against Valentine to the team's upper management.
Beckett was no happy camper in Boston, either, having found himself at the epicenter of controversy over his clubhouse conduct amid last season's historic collapse and then further trouble when he went golfing on an off-day shortly after being scratched from a start due to a tightness in his right lat. Through the end of June — a span that included an 18-day stay on the disabled list for shoulder inflammation — he had a 4.06 ERA, with nine quality starts out of 13, but since then he's been rocked for a 7.53 ERA, with just one quality start out of eight.
His overall ERA is 5.23, part of a familiar pattern where his even-numbered years have been much worse than his odd-numbered ones, with his ERA and home-run rate increasing by more than 40 percent (3.27 vs. 4.64 for the former, 0.84 vs. 1.41 per nine for the latter). Injuries, particularly his ongoing shoulder and back troubles, appear to be a significant factor in that pattern, as he has totaled 176 days on the disabled list in even-numbered years, compared to 99 in the odd ones. His strikeout rate has fallen from 8.2 per nine last year to 6.6 per nine this year, but even so, his current ERA is just over a full run higher than his strikeout, walk, and homer rates would suggest via his 4.21 Fielding Independent Pitching mark.
Exactly how Beckett would fit into the Dodgers' rotation remains to be seen. Assuming everyone is healthy, the best guess is that he would replace Joe Blanton, who has been strafed for a 7.71 ERA in four starts since being acquired from the Phillies earlier this month. The Dodgers' other four starters (Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang) have all posted ERAs of 3.65 or lower and strikeout rates of at least 7.0 per nine. Capuano and Harang both have contended with significant enough injury issues in recent years for Colletti to seek insurance, but a more pressing situation may be developing with Billingsley, who served a DL stint for elbow inflammation around the All-Star break, and left Friday night's start against the Marlins in the fourth inning due to another flareup.
The real head-scratching figure in the deal is the 31-year-old Crawford, who underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this week, bringing an unhappy end to the second year of a seven-year, $142 million deal. Hampered by elbow and wrist injuries — the latter of which required surgery back in January — he has hit just .260/.292/.419 for the Red Sox, compared to .296/.337/.444 in nine years with the Rays. With Matt Kemp in the first year of an eight-year, $160 million extension, Andre Ethier having signed a five-year, $85 million extension that kicks in next year, and Cuban defector Yasiel Puig having inked a seven-year, $42 million deal earlier this summer, the team is already awash in long-term commitments to outfielders, and while Puig was just promoted to High-A Rancho Cucamonga earlier this month, he figures to be ready for the majors some time in the next couple of seasons. With first base blocked by Gonzalez — thus negating a potential position shift — one player is going to be the odd man out.
Running down the rest of the players in the not-yet-official deal:
• Punto is a 34-year-old switch-hitter who's batting just .200/.301/.272 this year, well below his career mark of .247/.324/.325. Presumably, he'll take on some of the utility work of Jerry Hairston Jr., who will undergo season-ending hip surgery, but it appears that between Ramirez and the surprisingly productive Luis Cruz, shortstop and third base are covered for the Dodgers, with Juan Uribe relegated to a bench role and Dee Gordon unlikely to find much playing time when he returns from his thumb injury.
• De La Rosa is one of the keys to this deal for the Red Sox, a 23-year-old righty who earlier this week made his first big-league appearance following Tommy John surgery. De La Rosa jumped from Double-A to the Dodgers last summer, throwing 60 2/3 innings with a 3.71 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per nine as a starter and reliever and lighting up radar guns with a fastball that topped 100 miles per hour at times. He was one player the Dodgers considered untouchable in any deadline deal.
• Webster is a 22-year-old righty who's currently in his second season of Double-A ball, a pitcher considered to be a potential No. 3 starter down the road, and another one who was considered untouchable at the deadline. He came into the year as the Dodgers' second-best prospect behind Zach Lee, according to Baseball America, a pitcher with a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a plus changeup.
• Sands is a 24-year-old righty outfielder/first baseman who hit .253/.338/.389 in 227 plate appearances for the Dodgers last year but has spent most of this season at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he has hit .303/.380/.531 with 24 homers in a very hitter-friendly environment. Such is the Dodgers' view of his shortcomings that he languished in the minors even while Loney and Rivera failed to deliver in the majors.
• De Jesus, the son of a former major league infielder, is a 25-year-old second baseman who was regarded as a good prospect before he missed nearly all of the 2009 season due to a broken leg. Since then, his career has somewhat stalled out at Triple-A, where he has racked up 1,266 plate appearances while making just 72 for the Dodgers.
All in all, it's a dizzying deal that could affect not only the outcome of this year's NL playoff races, but also could turn the Dodgers into the NL West's powerhouse for years to come, with an enviable middle of the order starring Kemp, Gonzalez, Ramirez and Ethier. Or it could blow up in the team's collective face, saddling the Dodgers with unproductive players signed to long-term deals, and hampering their roster flexibility much as it did these Red Sox.
Given their surrender of two top young arms, and the massive savings — and saving face — that the deal offered Boston, the Dodgers should have come away with far more than $12 million in salary discounts. That they didn't puts virtually all of the risk on them, but it makes for a compellingly aggressive play in a playoff race that remains wide open.