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Cherington's thrift (probably) a good sign

Posted by Andrew Mooney  January 30, 2012 01:12 AM

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In his first offseason as Red Sox general manager, Ben Cherington cannot seem to escape the steady chorus of whispers that follow his every move. How could we lose Pap? What do we want with Nick Punto? But his latest transaction — trading Marco Scutaro to the Rockies for reliever Clayton Mortensen — has amplified those whispers to a dull roar.

The Sox are acting cheap.

The deal was a thinly veiled salary dump, designed to allow for some breathing room under the luxury tax threshold (which they will inevitably cross anyway) after signing new outfielder Cody Ross and potentially a starting pitcher, like Roy Oswalt or Edwin Jackson.

But is this necessarily a bad thing? As other American League teams stock up on big-name free agents, fans might argue that it certainly appears that way. The Red Sox cannot afford to stand pat with essentially the same group of players that just missed the playoffs, especially in the AL East, and especially after the way last season ended. After all, they’ve blown heaps of money on players that didn’t pan out, so shouldn’t the Sox make a meaningful investment in a proven performer, as the Tigers and Angels have done?

That depends on the reasoning behind this newfound thriftiness. If the Red Sox are shying away from this year’s free agent market due to the Ghosts of Contracts Past — most notably, J.D. Drew, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and, at least for 2011, Carl Crawford — then I totally disagree with their current course. This line of thought disregards entirely the economic concept of sunk costs. However painful their memories may be, the inflated contracts on the Sox’ books are in the past (“sunk”), and the money already committed cannot be recovered. Lackey will get paid all 82 of his millions, and yes, Drew did just take 70 million more where that came from.

So how should the specter of these underperforming deals affect the ones the Red Sox negotiate in the present? Answer: not one bit. When determining the worth of a business investment, a rational actor weighs only the future costs and benefits that the investment will yield; it doesn’t make sense to allow something unrelated to that investment to influence one’s best choice. If, after careful evaluation, the benefits a player is expected to bring to the team outweigh the costs of signing him, he should be signed.

But if the Red Sox do indeed aspire to be rational actors, which I believe to be the case, this newfound thrift is an encouraging sign; it simply means they view this year’s free agent crop as either not suited to their needs or, more likely, wildly overpriced. Some have taken the Red Sox’ inaction as an indication that they’re being passed by in the American League arms race. So be it. Of the high-profile deals negotiated this offseason — Yu Darvish, C.J. Wilson, Albert Pujols, and Prince Fielder come to mind — my guess is that none of them will deliver even close to a fair return on their lengthy, bloated contracts (winner’s curse, anyone?). As Peter Abraham noted on Twitter, Adrian Gonzalez’s contract (7 years, $154 million) “looks better every day”.

Now, the grumblings that the Red Sox, worth $912 million as valued by Forbes, are behaving more like the tight-fisted Oakland A’s (team value: $307 million) certainly merit some consideration. By all rights, the Sox should outspend most other teams, as they have the financial resources to do so. It’s just not good business to do so every offseason. As you’ll recall, the Red Sox were proclaimed the overwhelming winners of last year’s Hot Stove, and as you’ll also recall, that meant nothing at the end of September. Uncertainty and luck are integral parts of baseball, and neither of them can be spent away. The Red Sox passed on C.J. Wilson not because of recurring Lackey nightmares, but rather their visions of a 31-year-old fragile pitcher collecting paycheck after paycheck on the disabled list.

Personally, I don’t mind that John Henry has stipulated a “budget” for the team, the bounds of which Cherington must respect (for now). Perhaps he understands that the team slated to take the field in April is largely the same as the one picked by 45 of 45 ESPN pundits to win the division in 2011, the one that possessed the best record in the American League into the last month of the season, and the one that led the league in offense despite severely limiting injuries to Kevin Youkilis and the disappointing debut season of Carl Crawford. Viewed from the preseason, this team’s chances to win the World Series are as good as anyone’s, and none of this year’s free agents would have boosted them enough to justify the expense required to land them.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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