The Red Sox rid themselves of more than $275 million in contract obligations in their mega-trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but they got back something much more valuable than more than a quarter of a billion dollars of financial flexibility — their baseball soul.
General manager Ben Cherington didn’t just make a baseball trade Saturday. He issued a rebuke of the way the Red Sox have done business for the last three years, breathlessly chasing buzz and throwing money around like a Kardashian. Commemorative bricks, coffee table books, plaques, membership cards, and sellout streaks don’t inspire a fan base. Winning baseball, which hasn’t been seen in these parts in a year, does.
The only thing this team has won is the disdain of a frustrated fan base.
The unloading of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, left fielder Carl Crawford, pitcher Josh Beckett and utility infielder Nick Punto (purely collateral damage) to the Los Angeles Dodgers for first baseman James Loney and four minor league prospects was about the Red Sox surveying the smoldering wreckage of this season, which continued last night against the Kansas City Royals, and realizing that building a baseball team is more important than building a brand.
Chasing the latter while forsaking the former is how the Sox got to this point, saddled with an unlikable and unaccountable baseball team ticketed for the franchise’s first losing record since 1997 and a third consecutive season without playoff baseball. They’re not going to own up to that frank an assessment of the state of affairs on Yawkey Way, so what you had Saturday was Cherington speaking in code, espousing the team’s need to be more “disciplined” in its roster construction.
“We’ve got to build a team and not be focused on one transaction or another,” said Cherington.
Translation: We’ll leave making a splash to Shamu.
With this trade, which ranks as one of the four most significant in franchise history, along with the selling of Babe Ruth to New York in 1920, the deal to acquire Pedro Martinez in 1997, and the jettisoning of Nomar Garciaparra in 2004, the Red Sox have also reclaimed their clubhouse.
A message has been sent to any dissenters, agitators, or laggards that the players work for the organization and not the other way around. Don’t like your manager? Deal with it. Think you have to play too many Sunday night games? Go play for another team. Don’t like the media scrutiny? Cover your ears with the expensive headphones we gave you last year.
If trading the team’s longest-tenured pitcher (Beckett) and its highest-paid player (Gonzalez) doesn’t resonate with the Red Sox’s rancorous rank and file, nothing will. Crawford’s only crimes here were that he was lefthanded on a team with too many lefthanded bats, and unlucky in injury. He never felt comfortable here, on or off the field.
But Beckett, the cantankerous Texan, was the ringleader of last September’s spate of country-fried indolence and alcoholic indulgence. His refusal to express genuine contrition for his comportment was as remarkable as it was offensive.
Gonzalez purportedly sent the text message to ownership that led to the mutiny against manager Bobby Valentine mounted by some Sox players. He is a gifted .300 hitter with power and will be tough to replace in the middle of the order. But he’s also indelible proof that on-base percentage and slugging percentage don’t add up to leadership. Gonzalez’s querulous nature won’t be missed.
Cherington claimed that disinfecting his disaffected clubhouse wasn’t a major part of the motivation for taking a blowtorch to his roster.
“The culture will feel better when we start winning more games,” he claimed. “This was about creating an opportunity to build a better team moving forward. It was not a trade that was made to try to fix a cultural problem.”
Manager Bobby Valentine, the object of some of the player discontent, was more forthright when asked if change was needed in a clubhouse toxic enough they should have hung Hazmat suits in each player’s locker.
“Yes, it just didn’t seem like it mixed as well as it should,” said Valentine.
What else could provoke the Sox to make such a lopsided deal from a proven major league talent standpoint?
The Sox traded three players who have combined to make 11 All-Star teams and Punto for an underachieving first baseman who will be a free agent in two months; two minor leaguers, infielder Ivan DeJesus Jr. and pitcher Allen Webster; and a pair of players-to-be-named later, presumed to be pitching prospect Rubby De La Rosa and first baseman/outfielder Jerry Sands.
You don’t make that type of deal unless you believe there are benefits that are more tangible and important than payroll flexibility.
Sorry, Ben. The Sox needed an organizational reboot, and you knew that booting some high-priced problems was the only way to do it.
The Dodgers delivered the equivalent of a death row pardon to the Sox by agreeing to take on these contract obligations with the Sox chipping in just $11 million.
Desperate to make a dent in the short-attention-span capital of North America, the Dodgers took the remaining six seasons and $127 million of Gonzalez’s deal, the remaining five seasons and $102.5 million of Crawford’s contract, and the remaining two years and $31.5 million of Beckett’s contract. They also agreed to pay a portion of the salaries of all four Sox players’ salaries for this season.
Instead of “Sweet Caroline,” the Sox should now play Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” in the eighth inning. These contracts were thought to be the definition of untradable.
After years of feeding the monster with big contracts and big egos, this trade showed the Sox have finally gotten fed up.
The recognition of their problems finally trumps brand recognition.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.