When the Yankees acquired outfielder Bobby Abreu at the trading deadline from the Philadelphia Phillies, Red Sox manager Terry Francona was candid about what impact Abreu might make on the playoff race.
``I'm afraid he might become the best player in the league for the next two months," said Francona, who clashed with Abreu in his formative years as manager of the Phillies but has long since abandoned reservations about his talent.
The Yankees' advantage in acquiring Abreu became more pronounced when on July 30, the day the Yankees acquired Abreu along with pitcher Cory Lidle, Red Sox right fielder Trot Nixon strained the tendon in his right biceps muscle and went on the disabled list the next day. That loss was compounded when switch-hitting catcher Jason Varitek tore the meniscus cartilage in his left knee, leaving the Red Sox without another lefthanded bat and a lineup that was, by general manager Theo Epstein's admission, top-heavy on the right side.
The Red Sox addressed that imbalance yesterday, acquiring lefthanded-hitting Eric Hinske from the Toronto Blue Jays in a waiver deal, but no one is pretending Hinske, a platoon player with the Blue Jays, brings the same skill set as Abreu.
Since Abreu played his first game with the Yankees Aug. 1, the Bombers are 9-7, including losses in their last two games. The Sox are 6-9, which means the Yankees have gained 2 1/2 games on the Sox as they begin a five-game series with a day-night doubleheader today.
The possibility Abreu might be a difference-maker in this series gives Sox fans further reason to pose a question that has been an irritant since Yankees GM Brian Cashman trumpeted his acquisition: Why didn't the Sox trade for Abreu, especially since he didn't cost the Yankees a top prospect?
Or, for that matter, Lidle, who poses a much more palatable alternative than Jason Johnson, the journeyman who is scheduled to start the series opener for the Sox.
These days, the Sox are inclined to place such discussions off limits, especially when they can argue, with some justification, that it serves little purpose to dissect something that didn't happen. But there are sufficient clues afoot to draw a road map of what happened, and it can be found on that page entitled, ``Follow the Money."
Fact: The Phillies were looking to dump Abreu's salary, and put out word he was available. He was under contract to Philadelphia next season at $17 million, a base salary of $15 million plus a $2 million buyout for the following season.
For teams such as the Red Sox and Yankees, who are facing a luxury tax assessment at 40 percent next season, unless players and owners change the collective bargaining agreement that expires in December, Abreu represented a cost of more than $20 million.
Fact: The Phillies found an active market for Lidle, with a half-dozen teams interested, including the Sox, who were dealing with the uncertainty of David Wells's recovery from knee surgery, Tim Wakefield's rib injury, and had been essentially running pitchers off the street to fill out the end of their rotation.
The day before the Abreu deal, the Phillies proposed a trade to the Red Sox in which Boston would have acquired Lidle for a couple of mid-level prospects. The Sox were agreeable and told the Phillies they hoped they had a deal.
At the same time, the Sox were talking about Abreu. They said they'd be willing to trade prospects for the outfielder as long as the Phillies agreed to pay in the neighborhood of $6 million toward Abreu's salary. At the time, Nixon was healthy. The Mets were also taking a run at Abreu, but they wanted the Phillies to eat some salary, too.
There was, however, a team willing to take on all of Abreu's salary. That team, of course, was the Yankees, but they added an important stipulation: They'd pay Abreu's salary, but only if the Phillies gave them Lidle, too.
Could the Sox have done the same? Yes, if you want to assume Epstein operates without financial constraints. But it is probably too simplistic to say it was just a case of owner John W. Henry being unwilling to give Epstein the green light to make the deal. If Epstein had been persuaded that Abreu was worth what in reality is a $20 million investment next season, there is no evidence suggesting Henry would have reflexively refused to make the deal (Henry has not responded to an e-mail asking for comment on the deal).
What appears to be a more likely scenario is Epstein decided the money could be spent in a more productive fashion this winter. He has not always been right in such judgments (Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement, et al), but it seems readily apparent only one team deemed Abreu worth that much, and that is the team owned by George Steinbrenner.
The Yankee owner will claim vindication, of course, if the Yanks win the World Series. But their losing streak in being the last team standing is five years and counting. It remains to be seen if Abreu will play a role in ending that streak.