The pendulum-like nature of the Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox have been a pendulum of late. Twice now in years following a World Series victory, Boston has followed with a less-than-stellar season.

Not that Boston fans are complaining (or at least, they shouldn’t be). After all, it was 86 years between World Series victories before 2004, followed by only a three year gap with a title in 2007. Then Boston won again in 2013, immediately following a year in the cellar of the AL East.

Though the 2007 title-winning team included players who were still in or just past their primes, it also incorporated young talent who would be the backbone of the 2013 run. It would seem the Red Sox are able to rebuild, or at least retool, fairly quickly. They are not, however, the first team to see such sporadic success.

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Creation of a contender: Free agency and the Big Three

The sports world is in the midst of what some have referred to as its own miniature Y2K, NBA free agency. Basketball, with its smaller rosters, is unique in the impact a single star can have on the fortunes of an entire franchise. So perhaps it is little wonder that every summer speculations rises to a frenzied level surrounding every free agent and potential trade. But like the year 2000’s overhyped “computer apocalypse” which had little actual impact, most summers end with the stars returning to the incumbent teams. But that’s only most summers.

The Big Three

Four years ago three of the NBA’s stars subverted the traditional free agency process and collaborated to join in Miami, forming an instant basketball powerhouse. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh combined to reach four finals in four years, winning twice. In the process the Miami Heat became among the most divisive teams in recent history. This summer looks to become as memorable too, but this time as an end to the Heat’s Big Three. LeBron is returning to Cleveland, and most fans are celebrating.

But is the probable end of Miami’s run a good thing for the NBA? Miami brought together basketball nuts and casual fans in a hatred and grudging appreciation for a great sporting villain, and provided a fascinating glimpse at a “super” team built by player choice.

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Thoughts on Delmon Young

Amidst talks of the Phillies signing Scott Hairston or trading for Vernon Wells, they went out and made what could end up being a gem of a move.

Their one-year, $750K (with incentives for more) signing of Delmon Young is the definition of low-risk, high reward. If things don’t work out, they will not have spent a wad of money (Hairston is reportedly asking for 2 years, $8 million) or given up prospects.

I’ve seen comparisons of Young’s 2012 stats to those of former Phillie Hunter Pence.
While there are some reasons this is not a fair comparison (e.g. RBI, OBP, primary position), it’s an interesting argument.

Amazingly, Young had a better year in a few categories, but Pence will likely make far more than Young’s base $750K. With incentives, Young could get up to around $3.25 million, but one would rightly think his performance, if earning those incentives, will make it worth the extra cash.

Granted, Young was used heavily at DH last year, but if Young’s numbers can improve as he fights for the corner outfield spot, he will be well worth the contract.

If he improves in the right areas, he could also be good protection for Ryan Howard in the lineup, and a right-handed bat to split Chase Utley and Howard from whichever lefty bats in the 6 hole.

Three things Young will need to work at, whether or not he gets the starting job:

1. Plate Discipline
His career OBP is .317, and it was under .300 last year. He only walked 20 times in 151 games last year. He’ll need to learn when to take some pitches, especially if he is to be Howard’s protection.

2. Defense
Young is a slight defensive downgrade from Pence. His range factor and fielding percentage are slightly lower over his career, and he also didn’t play as much in the outfield last year.

3. Off-field Issues
I’ve listed this as “off-field issues,” but sometimes they show up on the field, too. Young would be best advised to keep a low profile and just work hard at the game. He’s made some mistakes, and he needs to keep his cool and not be a distraction in the clubhouse – or anywhere else.

It won’t be clear until the season starts to progress how good a move this is, but it’s the kind of minor move consistent with Ruben Amaro Jr.’s approach this offseason that has a chance to really improve the team.

Nationals: All In

The Washington Nationals are all in.

Today they agreed to sign Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal (three links).
What would make a team with a duo of competent closing options (Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard) acquire a closer who’s tied to draft pick compensation?

Well, if they’re looking for those last few pieces to make the World Series.

Earlier this offseason, the Nationals acquired Denard Span from the Twins, essentially giving them four start-able outfielders. There was speculation as to whether the Nationals would trade Mike Morse or move him to first if Adam LaRoche left.

When they resigned LaRoche, it put Morse in limbo; however, don’t be too surprised if they keep him.
Morse would be fantastic insurance for an injury to one of the outfielders (Jayson Werth has been injured a few times) or LaRoche. He could also play first when the Nats are facing a lefty.

For these reasons, the Nationals would be best advised to only trade Morse for the right deal. They need to be impressed by the offer before trading Morse. The 30-year old is only a year removed from 31 home runs, and is a right-handed power bat – a rare commodity in the current market.

Edit: The Nationals did end up trading Morse in a three-team deal for three prospects including A.J. Cole, whom they sent to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez deal last year.

Without Span or Soriano, the Nationals won the NL East – and 98 games in the regular season – in 2012. But almost any team that wins its division after years of underachievement is looking for more.

Though the team is short a dependable left-handed reliever, it has a solid rotation, eight seven proven position players, and now three pitchers capable of closing. This looks like a team trying to go somewhere now.

Having said all that, the 2013 Nationals remind me of a few recent teams that made postseason runs:

1. The 2003 Marlins

The Marlins went all in and won the World Series, similar to their 1997 team.
They relied a lot on homegrown talent, and after the victory, they couldn’t afford to hold onto their players. They went into all-sell mode to rebuild again.

This doesn’t seem a fair comparison because the Nationals’ success has been on the other side of rebuilding a new stadium (2008 opening). Additionally, the Nationals have more money to spend than the Marlins ever have.
Take the front end of the 2003 Marlins team – the talent coming together at the right time – and you’ve captured the main part of the similarities.

2. The 2007-2011 Phillies

Through the later part of the ‘aughts, the Phillies built their team around a core of players like Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard. The team continued to get better overall and they built their talent up to a 102-win season in 2011. Ironically, though, they only managed to capture the trophy on the front end of this stretch in 2008, because they were the hottest team at the end of the year.

This is more of a fair comparison. The Nationals are accruing talent like these Phillies teams did, also accruing a larger fanbase and more revenue, also on the other side of a new stadium (Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004).

Depending on how some of the younger players develop, though, the Nationals could be a staying power for a number of years – unlike the Phillies, whose core were already in their prime. For just a few examples, Stephen Strasburg is 24 and Bryce Harper is only 20. If the Nats play it right and have some of these players during their prime years of production, they could be well worth their money.

The youth and talent of the 2013 Nationals plays very much into their favor. The race for the NL East will be a fight – a fight the Nationals look to be a part of for years to come.

Outfielder Shakedown

Over the past 24 hours, the free agent outfield market has become three names thinner.

1. Ross

First, 2010 NLCS MVP Cody Ross signed a three year, $26 million deal with the Diamondbacks.

It’s an intriguing signing, as the Diamondbacks already had considerable outfield depth. However, this does free up another outfielder (probably NOT Justin Upton) as a trade chip. While his numbers trended upward this year from 2011, he’s 32 as of today, and probably won’t be worth the money at the end of the deal.

In fact, the last time his WAR was above 2 was 2009. However, some of his numbers and accomplishments exceed those of players receiving deals almost as good (Jonny Gomes, Ross’s replacement, for example).

The deal has a club option for a fourth year.

2. Ibanez

During the evening we learned that former Yankee/Phillie Raul Ibanez signed with the Mariners for $2.75 million in 2013.

His postseason heroics, as well as the years he spent in Seattle, likely helped him reach the deal. With incentives, he could be worth $4 million. The most likely scenario is that Ibanez finds himself in a platoon, batting against righties.

3. Swisher

Nick Swisher accepted a 4 year, $56 million offer from the Indians.

I thought that if the Dodgers, Angels, or Yankees offered him something close he might take it. After all, postseason chances are no small thing. Apparently, though, the deal was sweet enough for his taste. Swisher has been a consistent bat, maybe worth $10 million a year, but the Indians wanted him enough to spend the extra money.

Where does that leave the outfield market?

4. Bourn

Michael Bourn is the last big name listed.

Not many teams are biting on Bourn. The Rangers are “interested in” Bourn, but that’s a fairly non-committal statement, and they’re early in the process. Given how this offseason has turned out thus far, the signs lead to Bourn signing for a one-year deal, recouping his losses and taking a shot in free agency again next year.

5. Hairston

On the second tier, Scott Hairston is still available. Hairston is being pursued by at least the Phillies, Braves, Mets and Yankees.

He’s a career .247 player who hit 20 HR for the first time in his career and only maintained a WAR above 2 in 2008 (when he played 112 games). He has yet to make 400 plate appearances. But perhaps he can play 140-145 games.
Especially with the three signings over the last 24 hours, it’s become a thin market, and that’s probably why Hairston is getting such a hard look from multiple teams. He may have more leverage in negotiations than he would have had yesterday.