One night in April 1947, over drinks at New York restaurant Toots Shor's, Yankees owner Dan Topping and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey agreed to a swap of superstars: Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams. They decided to sleep on it, and the next morning, Yawkey balked, asking for Topping to include "your little leftfielder"—Yogi Berra, who was still learning the ropes at catcher—in the exchange. Wisely, Topping declined, but the deal has been forever immortalized as "The Biggest Trade That Never Happened."
It didn't take long for the 21st century to offer a challenger, once that also involved the Red Sox and Yankees, albeit more indirectly: a December 2003 trade that would have sent Alex Rodriguez, the best and highest-paid player in the game, to the Boston Red Sox. Suffice it to say that the next decade of baseball might have unfolded quite differently. Below we'll explore the alternate universe in which A-Rod called Fenway Park, not Yankee Stadium, home. But first, some background on why the trade didn't happen.
At 25, Rodriguez had left the Mariners to sign his record-setting 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers in January 2001. While he had led the American League in home runs for three straight seasons, with totals of 52, 57 and 47—winning his first AL MVP award in that latter season—the Rangers had finished last in the AL West in all three seasons, with win totals of 73, 72 and 71. He was eager to play for a winner, but the Red Sox, who were still smarting from having lost a seven-game ALCS classic to the Yankees on Aaron Boone's walk-off home run, were unwilling to take on the entirety of the $179 million he had remaining on his pact. According to the Boston Globe’s Gordon Edes, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told Rodriguez that he would have to reduce the value of his contract by $4 million per year—$28 million over the remaining seven years—in order for the trade to work.
A-Rod was willing to restructure his contract and, under the reworked deal, he would have been able to opt out of his contract in 2005 and every year after, instead of just in 2007, as originally stipulated in his agreement. The full scope of the trades that had been hammered out had the 27-year-old Rodriguez going from Texas to Boston in exchange for 31-year-old Manny Ramirez, pitching prospect Jon Lester—then just two seasons into his professional career and a month shy of his 20th birthday—and cash. Nomar Garciaparra, then 29, would have gone to the White Sox along with reliever Scott Williamson, 27, in exchange for going-on-30-year-old outfielder Magglio Ordonez and 20-year-old pitching prospect Brandon McCarthy. But the players’ union rejected the proposal, as it was against any effort to reduce the value of an existing contract.
The non-trade is the stuff of legend, and even an ESPN 30 for 30 short film. What if the deal had gone through? It’s impossible to know how every last detail would have played out, but we can at least take a swing by focusing first upon the impact the three-way swap would have had on the Red Sox and the rival Yankees from 2004 to '07. Would Boston have still won two World Series in that span? Would the Yankees have continued their dynasty? And what impact would it have had on the rest of baseball?
Lacking a crystal ball, the best we can do is speculate and estimate. I’ll start with the assumption that each of the principals would produce the same value (as measured by baseball-reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement) regardless of which team he actually played for—a stretch perhaps, particularly with Rodriguez’s position change upon moving to the Yankees, but at least an attempt to ground this alternate history in some reality. The players involved would also be subject to the same amount of availability with respect to injuries.
Fresh off their ALCS loss, adding Rodriguez would have given the Red Sox a massive upgrade at shortstop, as Rodriguez (7.6 WAR in 2004) outperformed the combination of Garciaparra (a flat 0.0 WAR before he was actually traded to the Cubs) and Orlando Cabrera (1.8 after being acquired from the Expos in that same four-way swap). That’s a gain of 5.4 wins right there, but some of that would have been negated by the step down from Ramirez (4.1) to Ordonez (0.9 in just 52 games; the rest lost to a torn meniscus and then swelling in his knee). The Sox were already stretched thin in the outfield by the loss of rightfielder Trot Nixon, first to a herniated disc and then to a quad strain, with Gabe Kapler providing only replacement-level production. The late-July timing of Ordonez’s second, season-ending DL stint would have left Boston time to deal for an outfielder at the deadline..
The best outfielder dealt at that year's deadline was 39-year-old centerfielder Steve Finley, who went from the Diamondbacks to the Dodgers, which allowed Los Angeles to trade Roberts to Boston. (Roberts, of course, earned a permanent place in Red Sox lore with his ninth-inning stolen base off Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the ALCS.) In this scenario, a more desperate Epstein might have dealt for Finley instead—a 1.1-win upgrade on Roberts over the final third of the regular season (we’ll have to assume he adapted to one or the other of Fenway Park’s quirky corner outfield spots). So the accounting in the outfield is a 2.0-win drop, bringing the net gain for the Red Sox' set of transactions to three wins, lifting them from the 98 they actually won to 101.
The Yankees, who won 101 games in 2004, wanted Rodriguez because they had lost Boone to a late-January left knee injury suffered playing basketball. Though they would have been hard-pressed to find a third baseman as valuable as Rodriguez, as it turned out, there was a 24-year-old third baseman in Los Angeles coming off a disappointing .240/.290/.424 offensive season (but 25 Defensive Runs Saved and 3.6 WAR) and heading into his walk year: Adrian Beltre. Had New York dealt for him—perhaps by giving up Alfonso Soriano, who himself had fallen out of favor in late 2003 and was traded to Texas in the real Rodriguez deal—it would have received a player on the verge of a breakout 48-homer, 9.5-WAR season. That would have been a two-win upgrade on Rodriguez and enough to keep the Yankees ahead of the Red Sox, and probably to make them players for retaining Beltre’s services after the 2004 season with a better deal than the five years, $64 million he got from the Mariners.
In this scenario, New York would have won the AL East and Boston the lone wild card, and given the ease with which the two teams dispatched their Division Series opponents—the Sox swept the Angels and the Yankees took down the Twins in four games—they would have met in the ALCS just the same as they did in real life. While there would be no Roberts steal of second in Game 4 and no Rodriguez slap play in Game 6, it’s not outrageous to think that with the regular-season gap between the two teams having narrowed slightly, Boston still would have won the series and then gone on to trounce the Cardinals in the World Series for their first championship in 86 years. The Curse of the Bambino would still have ended, just not in such historic fashion, and Rodriguez would have gotten his championship ring five years earlier than he actually did.
Rodriguez (9.4 WAR) would have been a massive, eight-win upgrade on actual Sox shortstop Edgar Renteria (1.4, including -12 DRS). With Ordonez as a free agent after the 2004 season, Boston probably would have gone into the market, steering clear of his growing medical file (though he did net a five-year, $75 million deal from the Tigers). With Johnny Damon a year away from free agency, it would have made sense to go after Carlos Beltran (who wound up signing a seven-year, $119 million deal with the Mets), but the Sox didn’t pursue him. What they might have done in this alternate reality is accelerate a union with another Scott Boras client: J.D. Drew, whom they signed two years later after he exercised an opt-out in his five-year deal with the Dodgers.
Drew, normally a rightfielder, probably would have been pushed to leftfield by the continued presence of Nixon, but he’d likely have been up to the task when given the chance to join the defending champions. Even though he missed half the 2005 season due to a broken wrist, he produced 3.2 WAR, not far below Ramirez’s 4.4. Drew's absence could reasonably have been offset by Matt Murton, who instead of being dealt to the Cubs in the Garciaparra trade and kicking in 1.1 WAR for Chicago in 51 games in 2005 would still have been Red Sox property. Call that a break even and an eight-win gain overall for Boston, pushing the team from 95 wins to 103.
The Yankees, who actually won 95, would have dropped back to 89 given Beltre’s modest 3.2-WAR season. Instead of edging the Sox for the AL East title on the basis of head-to-head record (they won 10 out of 19), they would have been the wild card, facing the White Sox (who actually won 99 games) in the Division Series. In this scenario, Chicago would have gotten just 62 games and 0.2 WAR out of Garciaparra, who missed time due to an excruciating groin strain, but it still had the versatile Juan Uribe (2.2 WAR) on hand. As the White Sox won the AL Central by six games and were four wins better than the AL West-winning Angels, we don’t have to sweat the impact there.
Under the postseason format of the time, the Red Sox would have hosted the Angels, from whom they took six of 10 games in the regular season (but were outscored 49–43), and the Yankees would have played the White Sox. For argument's sake, we'll suppose that the pair of Sox would have wound up meeting in the ALCS, and this time, with the Red Sox having a much stronger team than the one that was swept 3–0 in the actual Division Series, they might have prevailed and gone on to beat the Astros in the World Series.
But even if Boston hadn’t won that second title, there’s one thing we know about Boras clients with opt-outs (and players with opt-outs in general): They usually exercise them. With A-Rod coming off an MVP-winning season, he’d have been a fool not to test the market, this time after his age-29 season rather than his age-31 season, as he actually did. And with the AL East balance of power having tilted against New York by Rodriguez’s two years in Boston, you can bet the Yankees would have been even more eager to sign him in the winter of 2005–06 than they were in the winter of '07–08. Having Beltre on hand wouldn't have been an obstacle: He wasn’t the marquee attraction that Rodriguez was and could have been dealt elsewhere.
With the Sox having freed themselves from the so-called "Curse of the Bambino," they might have breathed a sigh of relief over the chance to get out from under the remainder of Rodriguez’s deal. Maybe they’d have signed the top free-agent shortstop, Rafael Furcal, instead of doing what they actually did, which was to add ex-Marlin Alex Gonzalez on the cheap. That would have provided a three-win upgrade in 2006—not enough to push the Sox (who won just 86 games and dealt with injuries and a dreadful rotation) back into the playoffs, even with the presence of Drew (4.0 WAR) canceling out what they actually got from Ramirez (4.5). The Yankees, who would have had A-Rod, still would have won the AL East and beaten the Twins in the Division Series before meeting their fate against the Tigers in the ALCS.
Even with Furcal slipping to 1.8 WAR, his performance would have been superior to actual Sox shortstop Julio Lugo (0.7), and the Sox’s AL East title would remain unchanged. We’d have to assume Drew would have opted out if given the chance, leaving a modest 2.1 WAR hole to fill, and there’s still the matter of Ramirez, who actually provided Boston with just 1.1 WAR. A grab bag of free agents such as Moises Alou (who produced 2.2 WAR with the Mets), Kenny Lofton (2.3 with the Rangers and Indians), Darin Erstad (0.6 with the White Sox), Luis Gonzalez (0.1 with the Dodgers), Jose Guillen (3.5 with the Mariners), Soriano (4.0 with the Cubs), Jayson Werth (3.0 with the Phillies) and more contained hit-or-miss options that could have narrowed the Sox’s two-win margin over the Yankees for the AL East title—some for low cost, others more expensive. We’ll give the Red Sox' front office some credit, because coming up with three wins between two free-agent corner outfielders when you’ve got room in the budget isn’t that hard. Assume that Boston's AL East title would remain unchanged, as the Sox were already two wins better than the Yankees, who after making the playoffs as the wild card exited in a cloud of midges.
As for the Red Sox, the lack of Lester during the regular season would have more or less been offset by McCarthy (0.9 for the former, 0.6 for the latter). But Boston's postseason might have unfolded differently without Lester, who gave the team 9 1/3 innings of 1.93 ERA work in October, including 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball in the World Series-clinching Game 4 against the Rockies, his lone start. A different starter probably wouldn’t have changed the ultimate outcome given that the lopsided series resulted in a sweep.
It’s at this point that I’ll bring down the curtain on this exercise. Had A-Rod wound up in Boston, it’s reasonable to think that he would have won one or even two World Series rings before testing the market again and receiving a dump truck full of money from the Yankees. Let’s face it: The odds are high that he would have found his way to the Bronx eventually, particularly with Boras guiding him. With New York unrepentant in its big-spending ways, the magnetic pull of the game’s biggest star to its largest market would have been too great to avoid. And as Damon showed by signing with the Yankees in January 2006, it was hardly unthinkable for a free agent to jump between the two teams during the period when the rivalry was at its 21st-century peak.
Maybe with at least one championship under his belt, Rodriguez would have been a more secure person upon arriving in New York and avoided some of the pitfalls of life in the Big Apple. That wouldn’t have stopped his exposure for having failed the 2003 survey test (revealed in '09 via Sports Illustrated), but it might have made his New York tenure just a bit easier. We’ll never know.