Imagine this: A perennial contender, one that sells out every game year after year, loses in the first round of the playoffs, and the general manager quits after the season. The new GM trades maybe the team's most indispensable player for a journeyman big leaguer and three minor league prospects. The GM justifies the deal by saying, ''It's a very difficult thing to do, transition and contend. We couldn't."
Teammates of the traded player are stunned and disappointed. The next day, a fan in the upper deck is spotted holding a sign directed at the owner that says, ''Jump, Larry, Jump."
Two days later, an editorial in the hometown paper says that if the owner doesn't want to spend the money, he ought to sell the team. ''The future today," the editorial continues, ''is bleaker than at any time in the past 16 years."
Is this a sneak preview of what awaits Larry Lucchino and the Red Sox if they trade Manny Ramírez? It's easy to see why you might think so, but everything you just read already happened. In Cleveland.
Just days before the trading deadline in 2002, Mark Shapiro, who took over for John Hart after Hart resigned the previous winter, shocked the baseball world by trading ace Bartolo Colon, who was just 29 at the time, for first baseman Lee Stevens and three minor leaguers. Indians fans were in an uproar, and after setting a record with 455 consecutive sellouts, they stayed away from Jacobs Field in droves. The team, which had begun the season 11-1, finished just 74-88, then lost 94 games the next season. The owner, Larry Dolan, was Public Enemy No. 1.
But something happened to the Indians on the road to oblivion. Stevens made just a cameo appearance, but of those three minor leaguers, two of them, pitcher Cliff Lee and outfielder Grady Sizemore, blossomed into stars, and the third, Brandon Phillips, who was the most touted of the three, might still make a meaningful contribution.
The general manager, Shapiro, made a series of other shrewd trades, bringing in more impressive young talent, and the Indians, who finished just under .500 (80-82) in 2004, emerged as one of baseball's best teams this past season, winning 93 games and falling just short of the playoffs. ESPN.com already has ranked the Indians No. 1 going into the 2006 season.
The only negative for the Indians? The fans, who truly felt betrayed as they watched the Indians stripped, either by trade or free agency, of such stars as Colon, Ramírez, Robbie Alomar, Jim Thome, and Omar Vizquel, have been slow to come back. The Indians drew just over 2 million fans this past season, a far cry from the days when they played in an empty Municipal Stadium but still better in 2005 than only the Royals and Devil Rays.
Can the Red Sox transition and contend simultaneously? Their fans will expect nothing less, especially when they'll be shelling out $95 for a field box seat in 2006 and $275 a pop to sit in the new suites replacing the .406 club. John W. Henry, Larry Lucchino, and Tom Werner, with considerably greater revenue streams available to them than Dolan had, understand that if fans perceive a Ramírez trade as merely a way to slash payroll, the backlash will be considerable. Theo Epstein often expressed an awareness that in Boston, you're not allowed to step back for a year or two to reload.
That's the dilemma facing Sox management and whoever the general manager will be in 2006. The safest course would be to hold on to Ramírez. ''What do teams fear most when they come into Boston?" one baseball man said last week in Palm Springs. ''Manny and David Ortiz."
Ramírez is reaching the stage in his career when he is securing his place in Cooperstown. Ortiz could be named the American League's Most Valuable Player tomorrow. There is no reason to believe there will be any dropoff in production next season from Ramírez, who has averaged 40 home runs and 122 RBIs in his five seasons in Boston. There is considerable cause to worry what impact a lineup minus Ramírez might have on Ortiz.
But the Red Sox did not have a single player under the age of 30 in their everyday lineup by the end of the season. Shortstop Edgar Renteria turned 30 in August but played old, perhaps concealing a recurrence of back problems that plagued him early in his career.
Ramírez will be 34 next May 30. He will be 36 at the end of his current contract. There should be little question anymore that Ramírez wants to be traded. The player has not been heard from directly, but all three members of the Troika, plus Ramírez's agent, Greg Genske, said that is the case. Genske, disputing a report here that the Angels would not be interested in Ramírez because he doesn't want to DH, said last week in Palm Springs that Ramírez would indeed be willing to DH.
Werner insisted last week that Ramírez still could be in a Sox uniform next spring, but the Red Sox have to maintain that posture if they want to maximize the value they could get in a deal. No one wants to make a trade with a gun to his head.
But any deal for Ramírez must bring significant returns for the future. Before he traded Colon, Shapiro made a much less successful trade of Alomar to the Mets; outfielder Matt Lawton was a disappointment and top prospect Alex Escobar suffered a serious knee injury from which he never fully recovered. The goals of that trade were a little different, made when the Indians thought they could contend and rebuild at the same time. The Colon trade was a full concession to the future. One of the Indians scouts who hand-picked the prospects they got in that deal was Tony LaCava, who is now with the Blue Jays and turned down an invitation to interview for the Sox GM job.
The Sox don't have the luxury to fall back into full rebuilding mode. They need a Ramírez trade, and the money they save by losing Ramírez's salary, to fill some of their immediate holes: first base, second base, outfield, bullpen. But the true value of trading Ramírez is making sure they identify, and acquire, the kind of premium talent that will help them the rest of the decade. A Lastings Milledge (Mets), perhaps, or a Brandon Wood (Angels). If not, keep him.
Otherwise, you can expect to see plenty of ''Jump, Larry, Jump" signs come April.