Remember the Billy Wagner trade? How great was that deal? The Sox picked up a closer-quality reliever for next to nothing, and came out the other end with two high draft picks. Those picks turned into Kolbrin Vitek--a solid infield prospect in his own right--and Anthony Ranaudo, who is considered to be one of the best pitchers selected in last year's draft.
Then again this year, the Sox paid about $50,000 to bring in Felipe Lopez and pick up the draft pick from his Type-B free agency.
When we're talking about big market teams, salary relief and replacement players are just about as close as you can get to "nothing" in terms of baseball value, so really, you can say that the Sox picked up these three high draft picks in the last two years for nothing. Obviously the value of picks in the different leagues vary, but can you imagine if the Patriots picked up even one first round draft pick by virtue of accepting the remaining salary on a star defensive back's contract? That would be something even for Bill Belichick.
It's this history of making the smart small deals that has me so confused as to why Theo Epstein is doing what he's doing this offseason.
For many, Theo's offseason failures to date begin and end with Victor Martinez, but that's not what I'm talking about here. Victor's price tag, though surprisingly low, came with a lot of years that are big question marks for the aging offense-first catcher. No, it's all about those small deals.
Consider the case of Taylor Buchholz. Brought in by the Red Sox on November 15, Buchholz was to be a cheap reliever with a very good chance of bouncing back and becoming even as valuable as a strong setup man. When the move first went down, I wrote this:
This seems like a great move for the Red Sox. While Buchholz is arbitration eligible and thus not as cheap as some other options might have been (still, only $1 million or so), he was impressive before his Tommy John Surgery, and has only had a very short time to recover from it. If an offseason of throwing and conditioning can return his arm close to his previous form, he could be a very valuable asset indeed.
So what happens to Taylor Buchholz? He's non-tendered by the Red Sox mere weeks after being signed, kicked to the curb to either avoid paying him $1 million (a very cheap risk) or to free up a roster space.
But why get rid of him when there are guys like Brent Dlugach and Matt Fox (the pitcher, not the actor) on the roster? How about Jordan Parraz? These are the guys whose arrival at the major leagues may as well be a sign of the apocalypse. None of them are likely to make a significant contribution to the Red Sox anytime soon, and yet all three remain with the team.
In a move almost as puzzling, the Red Sox have re-signed Jason Varitek. Certainly this deal will appeal to the sentimental side of Sox fans, but it's also pushed the team into a corner behind the plate. Now the Sox are paying two catchers with exactly one viable glove and neither a decent arm nor bat between them. They seemingly can't get rid of Jarrod Saltalamacchia after having given up prospects for him during the season, and releasing Varitek would be a horrible PR move. Meanwhile, Russell Martin-who has a glove, an arm, and a bat with upside-sits as a free agent after the Dodgers non-tendered him.
Between the contracts of Buchholz, Saltalamacchia, and Varitek, we're talking about maybe $5 million. Small change on the whole, but seasons can be made or broken on the backs of that kind of talent. Maybe there's some grand strategy at work here that Theo will suddenly unveil, halting all criticism in its tracks. But it's hard to see one that will do anything more than overshadow these bad moves, instead of making them look smart.