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Should the Red Sox make a splash in free agency?

Posted by Andrew Mooney  October 9, 2012 02:16 AM

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I've written about the "winner's curse" in this space before, but as a quick recap: the winner's curse refers to the phenomenon in which the winner of a sealed-bid style auction (when each party knows only his or her own bid) almost always overpays for the item won, since the most extreme valuation among a group is typically not the correct one.

Why is this relevant? Well, given the financial flexibility with which the Red Sox unexpectedly find themselves this offseason, they're in prime position to overbid for eligible free agents. Even worse, this winter's supply of free agents won't be good enough to meet the demand in the marketplace, so the players that are available will likely be able to command greater bargaining power in negotiating their new contracts.

On the other hand, the front office needs to improve this team, and fast. Ownership will not want to risk the further tarnish that another losing season -- let alone another 90-loss season -- would smear on its brand and its bottom line. The quickest and easiest fix for this problem is to throw cash at it until it goes away, or at least recedes a little bit into the distance.

For that reason, you can bet the Red Sox will make a few moves in free agency, in addition to bringing back Cody Ross, Jacoby Ellsbury, and David Ortiz for another season; they have no excuse to stand pat, after the Dodgers excavated them from the worst of the rubble of bad contracts littering their books. So how big of a splash will they ultimately make? Let's look at a few potential additions and what they would mean to the Red Sox for next season and beyond.

The Big Fish: Josh Hamilton

Why sign him: He's been known to hit baseballs pretty hard. Hamilton is coming off of a career-high 43 home run season, and he played in 148 games, his most since 2008. An up-and-down second half of the season may also reduce his value, as will things like "my eyes got stuck." Whoever signs Hamilton assumes a certain risk you don't get with many other ballplayers.

Why pass on him: That whole winner's curse thing. Hamilton is almost certain to be overpaid by the end of his deal, given that he'll turn 32 next year -- generally not a good age for a new contract to begin. He was nagged by injuries on and off pretty much all season, and he won't be an effective defensive outfielder much longer. The bottom line is the contract Hamilton signs this offseason will probably pay more for his past performance than what he’ll produce in the future.

Verdict: Tempting, but no.

The Smaller Fish: Mike Napoli

Why sign him: James Loney didn't win many hearts and minds during his brief Boston cameo at first base, and the Red Sox could use a slugging first baseman. Napoli fits the bill, beating the baseball into submission in 2011 on his way to posting a .631 slugging percentage and a 1.046 OPS.

Why pass on him: His 2011 season is far and away the best he's ever put together, so there's no reason to expect that on a consistent basis. He'll still hit home runs and draw walks, but he won't do much else. And just like Hamilton, he's already in his early 30's. Age regression, the biggest reason teams lose value on free agent contracts, seems like a fair assumption here as well.

Verdict: Negative, not enough upside.

Carl Crawford, Part II: B.J. Upton

Why sign him: At 28 years old, he's about as young as you'll find anyone on the free agent market, and that's important since a large part of what he brings to the table is related to his speed. His power numbers have risen each of the last five seasons, and his ugly batting average numbers will likely depress his value somewhat. Whoever signs him will probably get the best three or four seasons of his career, which you can't say for many free agent signings.

Why pass on him: He's a speedy free agent outfielder from Tampa Bay. He strikes out more than once per game. He doesn't get on base much, and he can't hit for average.

Verdict: Ah, what the heck, let's give it a whirl.

The Risky Venture: Brandon McCarthy

Why sign him: When healthy, he's been a top-two starter the last couple of years. He hasn't hit 30 yet. The Red Sox pitching staff was a mess last season. John Lackey will probably factor heavily in the rotation next year. That seems like a pretty compelling case to me.

Why pass on him: "…when healthy." McCarthy has only topped 115 innings in a season once in his career, and he has dealt with persistently recurring shoulder problems for the last five seasons. He's been comparatively healthier the last two seasons, but it's difficult to count on him pitching the full year.

Verdict: On a short contract, go for it.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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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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