The 2010 Chicago White Sox were, one might argue, a 95-win team that won 88 due to bad luck and one bad decision.
Bad luck came in when second baseman Gordon Beckham and rightfielder Carlos Quentin, who are both good, played abysmal baseball, staging what looked at times to be an out-making competition. The bad decision was to start the year without a designated hitter. In theory, all of this cost the team about seven wins, and the American League Central when they finished in second place, six games behind the Minnesota Twins.
For general manager Ken Williams and owner Jerry Reinsdorf, this made the offseason a math problem. Even accounting for some decline in the best rotation in baseball, the 2011 Sox project to be contenders so long as they can field a basically average set of position players. Beckham and Quentin are good bets to be average, shortstop Alexei Ramirez and centerfielder Alex Rios a bit better than that, third baseman Brent Morel and leftfielder Juan Pierre a bit worse. By this logic, the team needs to fill its open positions at DH, first base and catcher with two average players and a passable one to set up well for next year.
Signing Adam Dunn for four years and $56 million, then, is the perfect move at the perfect time. One can go on about the balance the move brings to a lineup heavy on impatient righthanded hitters without real power, and the charm of seeing a team whose last significant free-agent signing was Albert Belle in 1996 spend real money, and the refutation this represents of some of manager Ozzie Guillen's dafter notions. (The flexibility Guillen wanted out of the DH role ended up being used to play ancient shortstop Omar Vizquel there.) The real importance is in how many problems this solves at once.
Most obviously, the team needed a bat and now has one. Dunn has his flaws -- when used in the outfield he's possibly the worst defender in the game, and he's never hit even .270 in a season -- but the lunk can hit, having averaged 40 home runs and 107 walks per year since 2004. About two thousand Sox rallies died last year for want of a real on-base threat, and while Dunn's annual 200 strikeouts will drive the crowds, and Guillen, mad, his 450-foot home runs will more than make up for it.
Somewhat less obviously, the team now has some genuine flexibility. With the signing of catcher A.J. Pierzynski to a two-year, $8 million deal, the Sox's math problem is just about solved. If they can resign first baseman Paul Konerko, they'll be in top shape, probable favorites in the Central. If they can't, they'll still be just fine so long as they can sign one tolerably mediocre hitter. Because Dunn is a perfectly adequate first baseman, they'll even have the option of making that hitter a rightfielder and moving Quentin and his dreadful glove into the DH spot. Either way, they'll be fine.
The problem for the White Sox over the past few years is that they simply haven't been able to support a truly outstanding rotation. That problem is solved; now it's just up to John Danks, Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson to do what they usually do.
The front office of the Boston Red Sox, as Pedro Martinez or Johnny Damon could (and would) tell you, is famously unsentimental. This does a lot to explain why the Sox have won 94 games per year and two World Series since Theo Epstein took over as general manager after the 2002 season. It also explains why their captain, Jason Varitek, will be returning for a 15th season at Fenway Park next year.
As reported by SI.com's Jon Heyman, the new deal will pay Varitek $2 million to play his now customary role as a reserve, playing coach and living connection to the much loved Idiots of 2004. This is fair. The going rate of a win on the free agent market is between $4 million and $5 million. Varitek's usual .220/.310/.390 line and diminished defense (he's thrown out just 20 per cent of would-be base stealers over the last three years) are worth something like half a win. There you have your $2 million.
At its most , this shows the typical Red Sox method of operation. So long as a player is willing to work for what the Sox are willing to pay him, they have no problem doing business with him. If their captain, like New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter, were asking for many multiples of what his on-field value is worth, one can be sure no signing would have been reported. Past the basic framework of dollars and wins, though, one sees another Sox trait in action -- their ability to extract small amounts of value from unlikely places. Add enough such small amounts up, and you have a lot.
It is a tenet of conventional sabermetric analysis that catchers have no real effect on the performance of pitchers. Many, many studies have shown that whatever the real effects of pitch calling, pitcher calming, ball framing and the rest of what a catcher does on the field are on ERA, they are elusive, statistically undetectable.
Probably no one will ever be able to tell. It doesn't have to be much, though, to be significant. Remember that the value of a win on the free agent market is about $4.5 million right now. Going by the rule of thumb that 10 runs equal a win, that would put the value of a run at something like $450,000--more than the major league minimum salary. By this calculus, a catcher whose backslapping and banter were worth as little as a single run a month might be fairly valued at $3 million.
Is Varitek one of those catchers? Maybe and maybe not, but if anyone is, here would be the man. He is genuinely and rightly respected for his toughness and his ability to help his pitchers think their way through all their problems. He has worked with Hall of Famers and scrubs, expensive imports and kids who have never, in their professional careers, known anything but the Red Sox Way. Most of them have been successful. To say that what his knowledge and presence might be valued at a run a month seems rather modest.
The Sox, then, have a player who at worst is worth what they're paying him, and might be worth twice as much or more. If there is a signal example of the difference between this and the way their Bronx rivals do things, this is it. At the scale of a single decision, of one team paying fairly for intangible value while the other team tries to decide whether to overpay or to vastly overpay for it, this doesn't much matter. But when trying to figure why the team that has spent $1 billion since Epstein's ascent has more World Series titles than the team that has spent $1.5 billion, it does. Efficiency counts.
Mariano Rivera is the best pitcher I've ever seen. Others have been more valuable, because even a reliever as great as he is can't measure against a pitcher who throws 250 innings per year. On the level of a single pitch or sequence or inning, he is the absolute best.
Over the last three years, he's been even better than he normally is. When he signed his most recent contract, a three-year, $45 million deal (exactly the same amount the Yankees reportedly offered Derek Jeter initially), after the 2007 season, he had a career 2.35 ERA. During that contract, he ran up a 1.64 ERA. He also allowed one run in 18 postseason games, ridiculous even by his standards.
Despite all that, Rivera's new contract will pay him no more per season than his old one did. This has obvious implications for the interminable Derek Jeter negotiations. Logically, if Rivera just keeps his old salary for pitching better than he did in the past, Jeter should take a pay cut for playing worse than he did in the past. He can't even claim that being an iconic Yankee should entitle him to special consideration. There actually is a player more revered in New York than Jeter, and he wears number 42.
The Colorado Rockies have probably taken too much guff for signing shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to a six-year, $119 million contract extension that doesn't kick in for another four years. Tulowitzki is a baseball talent comparable to Cal Ripken Jr., and while you can throw out examples like Eric Chavez and Nomar Garciaparra as counterexamples, teams generally don't regret locking such players up.
The Rockies are, to be sure, assuming some real risk. Tulowitzki could get hurt. The United States could enter a period of extended deflation that will make the real value of his contract grow rather than decline with time. Space aliens could zap Denver with a ray that turns everyone into soccer fans and leaves the team with little income and no way to pay the contract off.
Tulowitzki, though, is also assuming real risk. This is a 26-year-old who is by every indication a historically gifted defender, and also capable of hitting 14 home runs in 16 games in the middle of a pennant race, as he did last September. He could go out and win three MVP awards in the next three years. His contract could end up looking like a bargain.
A deal where both sides take on some risk is fair. The team is betting that the player will remain a valuable property and the player is betting that he won't play to his absolute potential. In the end a not terribly rich team has made sure that it will keep its franchise player through his prime. That should be applauded.
Ahead of the winter meetings, aren't the Tampa Bay Rays the most interesting team? While everyone is keyed in on the fact that they'll spend less next year than they did this year, there are more significant facts. For one, they have just $16 million committed for next year, far less than any other team in baseball. For another, they'll be paying third baseman Evan Longoria and starter David Price -- reasonable bets as any to win the MVP and Cy Young awards next year -- just over $3 million. For another, they have a terrific farm system and an actual surplus of young pitching.
The Rays may not have a lot of money, but in baseball, talented young players being paid less than they're worth are even more valuable than cash. If the team wants to pay fair value for a young star like Colby Rasmus of the St. Louis Cardinals or Justin Upton of the Arizona Diamondbacks, they can do that. They can even do it while cutting payroll, perhaps by shipping off starter Matt Garza. The Rays haven't won the toughest division in baseball twice in three years by luck, and you can count on them to do something smart.
I think Ron Santo loved baseball more than anyone else I've ever met. Wrigley Field is an old ballpark with a cramped press area that can only be accessed by a narrow staircase. To see the work it took for Santo just to reach the broadcast booth on his prosthetic legs was to appreciate just how intensely he cared about calling Chicago Cubs games and enjoying Wrigley, which on the right day in the right weather is the loveliest place in America.
The day his number was retired -- and this is actually true -- it was miserable, with rolling clouds threatening rain. You figured that it would be just Santo's luck to have his day ruined. Just as a fanfare started to introduce the great man, though, the sky parted and bathed the old park in a warm light. I'm not exactly sure what kind of metaphor that makes, but I know that Chicago is going to be a much poorer place for not having Santo around, just as the Hall of Fame is a much poorer place for never having given him the honors he so very much deserved.