The trade deadline is looming on Friday. I’ve made my view known that the Red Sox should proceed with great caution and won’t reiterate that again today. All the trade talks at this time of year are really about something deeper--the overall economic structure of baseball itself, and setting reasonable expectations for teams within that structure.
The Boston Red Sox, as presently constituted, are good enough to make the playoffs. They are, beyond a reasonable doubt, one of the best eight teams in baseball and the only thing that could keep them out would be a fluke of history that has arguably three of the top five teams in the same division. Even given that oddity, the smart money is still on Boston to survive and at least pick up a wild-card berth. They would then be at least even money to beat their opponent in the Division Series. After that, whether they have the juice to win the LCS and World Series, presumably against the Yankees and Dodgers (if form holds), is up for legitimate debate. Right now, I would say the odds are against us, but not by much. We’ve got great top-of-the-rotation pitching, a great closer (even if he had his first real tank job last night against Oakland), a steady bullpen (25 straight scoreless innings prior to last night) and playoff-toughened vets in the lineup. We are showing weaknesses at the back end of the rotation, as the injury to Dice-K has taken its toll and the offense doesn’t have the same depth in years past.
To make a long story short, we have a team that virtually anyone else in baseball would jump head over heels to take, warts and all. Why would the thought of compromising this team’s future for a short-term fix be even remotely contemplated by sane people? Answer: the economic structure of baseball is pushing it. Boston is one of the few teams with the resources to afford a big payroll. Even when they clinched the playoffs last year, Boston Globe scribe Dan Shaughnessy said that was only to be expected from a team shelling out $140 million. And though Shaughnessy is often deliberately antagonistic, was he really that far off the base? Being among the last eight standing in a field of thirty teams, with that kind of payroll is indeed a minimum expectation. Particularly when your ticket prices are gouging your fans to the point that families have to save for months in advance to take their kids to Fenway Park. People are going to want something in exchange for that.
So the high expectations aren’t a problem per se. That’s entirely reasonable. I grew up in Milwaukee and lived in Pittsburgh for eight years, so I know all too well that the world the Red Sox must function in is entirely different than the one the Brewers and Pirates face. C.C. Sabbathia pushed the Brew Crew into the playoffs last year almost singlehandedly, and the memory of that stretch drive alone will carry Milwaukee baseball for the next ten years. Making the playoffs was tantamount to winning the World Series. It’s not that way in Boston, and given the economics of the game, it shouldn’t be.
But let’s now take my current home of Baltimore, where the current national misperception of the Red Sox has its home base. With the Orioles being one of only three true East Coast teams in the AL East, there’s a lot of antagonism toward the Twin Powers of the division. As we get set for the Sox to come into town on the weekend, the local regional sports network is running an ad of an Orioles fan seeing Boston fans come into town and saying “They’re almost as annoying as Yankee fans.” And hey, this is a divisional rivalry, so fair enough. However, this is also reflects a general national perception which is that the Yanks and Sox are virtually indistinguishable as teams populated by hired Hessians, bought and paid for, with Boston perhaps being the lesser of two evils.
Lumping the Red Sox in with the Yankees is no more reality than lumping the Sox in with the Brewers Boston’s a big-budget team. But New York is a no-budget team. When did you ever hear of the Yanks letting a quality veteran go because they could no longer afford him? In the last few years alone, the Red Sox have cut loose Johnny Damon and Pedro Martinez at times when both still had good years ahead of them (in fact, Damon’s still productive) and lost out on the bidding for Mark Texeira. Those are only the most visible examples. It doesn’t happen often and fans in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh would rightly say “Cry me a river”, but it happens more often then in the Big Apple, where it never happens.
In reality, Boston is on a par with the Angels, Dodgers, Mets and Cubs, as a team in a big market. I think you can also add teams like the Phillies (fifth-largest market in the country), the Braves (Superstation access) and the White Sox (still have Chicago, even if they don’t always pony up the cash), as teams that have the resources to compete at the highest level, but still have to set priorities and occasionally pull back. And there’s a further group of third-level teams led by the would-be populists here in Baltimore and joined by St. Louis, Colorado and Arizona as teams in markets that are either baseball-passionate or potentially lucrative as growing cities. These teams might not be big-budget, but they’re not small-market either. And winning consistently is a very reasonable hope.
Compare the Red Sox to those teams I put in the second tier. Would we expect those teams to win the World Series and demand they do everything possible at the trade deadline to get there, even at risk to the future? Or would we simply see them as teams in a good situation who should be expected to contend consistently and get over the top once in a while, say every ten years? The fact Boston, under the John Henry ownership group, has met that reasonable expectation should not be turned against them, into a demand that it happen every year.
Ultimately, it would be better if MLB were like the NFL, where teams were on equal footing and we could judge them all by the same standard. That utopia is a long way away. But we can at least get the standards in the current environment right. The Red Sox are not the Yankees, nor should we try to be. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and who wants to flatter anyone in Pinstripes?