Two years ago today, the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Nick Punto and other assorted parts for James Loney, and the baseball world was never the same.
Also included in that deal: Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and four younger players who went to Boston. It was a mess of a masterpiece of a deal, a catapulting of contracts that we're unlikely to see ever again. It was a Frankenstein's monster of a message-board comment coming to life and escaping from the Internet's basement to cause mayhem. My brain still hurts thinking about it.
Two years later, it's time to revisit the deal and figure out what the teams were thinking at the time, if they accomplished what they wanted to, and what it means for future offseasons. We'll spend a feature on just Punto, so forget about him for now.
What the Red Sox were thinking
"Hey, let's get these players off the roster, buy new ones, and win a championship."
Probably. Except it's worth revisiting just how terrible the 2012 Red Sox really were. On the day of the trade, the Red Sox lost to the Royals, 10-9, with Aaron Cook starting and the bullpen getting shelled. It was only the seventh time in the last 100 years that the Red Sox lost a game in which they had 20 hits. The loss moved them seven games under .500, and Bobby Valentine was literally their manager. Literally Bobby Valentine.
The Red Sox had their worst season since 1960, thanks to a remarkable 7-26 finish. But they didn't have to pay Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett again. It allowed them to patch the roster up in the offseason and contend again, and we all know how that worked out. I'd wager that while the goal was to contend right away, in Ben Cherington's heart of hearts, he was looking toward the 2014 offseason just as much, if not more. The 2012 Red Sox were so bad, even the most optimistic of folks weren't likely to think that a tub of Shane Victorino spackle was going to fix everything after the plane crashed into the front porch.
When doing the math to tally up what the Red Sox bought with their savings, then, don't forget this offseason. Here's a rough estimate of what the Red Sox have already bought with their savings:
Again, that's a rough estimate. And it's imperfect, considering that it's not like the Red Sox were just going to sit out the last two offseasons because they had Crawford, Beckett, and Gonzalez on the payroll. They would have picked up a couple free agents, possibly some of the exact same ones up there. Still, as a way to look at just how much the Red Sox saved and inspect what they did with the money, that'll do just fine.
Over the Monster
Over the Monster
Those players combined for somewhere between 20 and 25 wins above replacement over the last two seasons, which is a little below the market rate for wins so far, but don't forget that a) some of those players are still doing good things, b) Rusney Castillo hasn't played an inning yet, c) Punto's departure actually helped the team get under the luxury tax earlier than expected, and d) the Red Sox kind of won the whole danged thing last year, which sells an awful lot of t-shirts. The savings have already paid off more than the Red Sox could have ever hoped.
Even after adding Castillo, the Red Sox still have about $30 million left from the Punto deal to play with. They can probably get rid of at least some of Victorino's salary, too, if they decide to trade him in the offseason. That's money that can offset some of the costs of Jon Lester returning or a Cole Hamels trade. The Red Sox aren't in a better position than they were after the 2012 season financially, considering they've already committed some of those millions to players like Victorino and Napoli for next year. Considering their wave of near-ready prospects and Castillo, though, they're certainly in a better position overall.
The goal of the Punto trade was to use the 2013 and 2014 offseasons to restock, refurbish, and retool. It worked. Oh, how it worked. And there's still time this offseason to let it work a little more.
What the Dodgers were thinking
"Hello, Los Angeles. We were serious about those things we said. Let us prove this to you."
The Red Sox bought wins with the savings. The Dodgers bought trust. They wanted to show that they could be a financial bully, with the new ownership group even invoking the Yankees by name, except it wasn't going to be a great offseason to be a financial bully. There wasn't an Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder on the market, a clear trophy to mount above the fireplace. There was Zack Greinke, sure, but he didn't constitute proof on his own.
So you can't just look at the combined WAR of Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett so far (about 10 and counting) and declare the Dodgers buffoons. They turned Gonzalez into a division title and an NLCS appearance so far, and they're threatening to do even more this season. More than that, their organizational phoenix shot out of the McCourt ashes much quicker than anyone could have hoped. It's a tricky thing, figuring out exactly what correlates with attendance, but it's not a stretch to think that the owners making a gigantic, ludicrously expensive, up-yours-baseball move before they even got to their first offseason has a little to do with this:
What we're looking for is the first time the Dodgers say "no." No, we can't extend Hanley Ramirez because we're being cautious about future payroll. No, we can't add James Shields because Gonzalez and Crawford make far too much money for far too long. It's possible that we've already seen this no, but we couldn't recognize it because we aren't privy to internal discussions. Without the Punto trade, maybe the Dodgers are enjoying the superior talents of Robinson Cano. Maybe the Dodgers settled for Dan Haren instead of Masahiro Tanaka explicitly because of the Punto deal.
These possible "no"s don't mean as much right now, with the Dodgers contending, but if they show up in 2016, when Crawford and Gonzalez are both extremely unlikely to provide enough on-field value to justify their contracts, then we can point and laugh. Then we can note that it was certifiably insane to take Crawford's contract as the cost of acquiring Gonzalez. Until then, though, I'm pretty sure the Dodgers got exactly what they were hoping for.
And I'll believe in the first "no" when I see it.
The Red Sox are happy. The Dodgers haven't turned Gonzalez into a championship yet, but they're still happy. Everyone's happy! The confluence of bad contracts and a team begging, absolutely begging, for a chance to announce their alpha-finance dominance to the world was a ballet of perfect timing that we're never going to see again.
All those words, and I never got to the moral of the story. The moral of the story is holy hot damn did the Red Sox get lucky that Frank McCourt had to sell the Dodgers. Two years later, everyone on the inside and outside are still shaking their heads in wonder and disbelief. How in the heck did that happen?