Commentary

Red Sox in a curious position

Voodoo economics and the Boras Market will make this an interesting winter in Boston

Updated: November 24, 2009, 11:13 AM ET
By Peter Gammons | ESPN.com

How well the baseball business is run was summed up at both the owners and agents meetings when all parties were informed that Major League Baseball revenues in 2009 held at $6.5 billion. In a year when there was a minimal drop in attendance and there was but one September race -- that in the American League's Mid-American Conference -- what the business side of the industry did retaining interest and corporate sponsors in a downturned economy is nothing short of astounding.

[+] EnlargeScott Boras and Adrian Beltre
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenTheo Epstein has long been fascinated with free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre, who is a Scott Boras client.

As unpleasant as it may be, go back to the bleak midwinter of 1994-95, and the strike that canceled the World Series. Revenues at that time were in the $1.5 billion-$1.7 billion range. Owners were begging the players to accept some form of salary cap based on the players' splitting 55 percent of revenue, claiming that at the time players were actually being paid more than 60 percent. At the recent meetings, players were told their share is now somewhere around 46 percent, so as record revenues held they shouldn't listen to those owners who make it sound as if they're facing foreclosure.

Then, out of all this, we get the Baseball Boras Wars, the big picture economic debate seen through two ends of the telescope. First, it was Pirates president Frank Coonelly versus Scott Boras, an old rivalry, sparked by Boras' contention that the Pittsburgh franchise begins its business year with $75 million from the central fund and revenue sharing. Then it became the Cardinals versus Boras and the contention that they are a top-10 revenue franchise, despite the conditions in downtown St. Louis. Then MLB labor relations executive Rob Manfred, who is regarded as constantly fair, questioned Boras' numbers, although the principles of revenue sharing and distribution of the riches of the MLB Network, MLB.com and all the streams leading to the central fund were never dismissed.

It has been pointed out that history shows that two years before every major labor negotiation they cue Handel's "Lacrymosa." It has been asked, several times by several different people, "If the industry revenues were $6.5 billion, where is it all going?" Fair question. Although at one end of the telescope, it is a question fairly ignored.

The small and Rust Belt markets may be getting sizable checks, but they have problems competing with the big and coastal markets. Is Toronto going to be able to keep Roy Halladay after 2010? Unlikely, to use a word repeated by several management folks. Can Tampa Bay retain Carl Crawford after 2010? Unlikely. Is Grady Sizemore going to finish his career in Cleveland? Unlikely. Is Minnesota going to be able to keep Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau? Unlikely.

On the other hand, if you're Jason Bay, why should you take less than Alfonso Soriano? If you're John Lackey, why shouldn't you ask for something between CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett? If you're Matt Holliday, why would you jump on less than Vernon Wells (who, in his defense, has been hurt)?

There are two sides to this that may not get resolved in terms of signings until weeks into the 2010 calendar year. But the holiday season's strange brew is why some franchises are announcing what they don't want. Why would Angels owner Artie Moreno, who needs a middle-of-the-order right-handed bat, come out and announce he will not pursue Holliday, but is interested in Bay? Unless Moreno is Bay's godfather, it makes no sense to shut off one of the two mid-order right-handed bats on the market.

Why would the Giants, with pitching capable of winning the division oft-viewed through the prism of dodgerdivorce.com, announce they are not interested in Holliday or Bay?

The argument that the ones you love lead you nowhere doesn't hold after the Yankees put their money in the right people and won. Mark Teixeira didn't exactly take the money and relax; he finished second in the MVP balloting. Sabathia didn't exactly glide; he finished second in the Cy Young and begged to pitch on three days' rest the entire postseason.

Oh yes, and the Yankees won. If Red Sox ownership had been willing to allow Theo Epstein to fork over $185 million to sign Teixeira after he and Terry Francona met with the slugging Gold Glove first baseman, Boston might well have won its third World Series in six years. That was the market at work, and this Red Sox ownership has been exemplary in terms of investment and community involvement.

The Red Sox are now in a curious position. There have been cries for a power infusion, but, in reality, their 212 homers and 872 runs were better than the 166 homers and 867 runs they put up when they last won in 2007.

But there are concerns, and it seems extremely unlikely that the Padres will even discuss Adrian Gonzalez (and the $10 million he makes over two years) unless the Red Sox empty their farm system of Ryan Westmoreland, Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Stolmy Pimentel and essentially become free-agent market mercenaries every winter after 2011. They are on the hook for $25 million for David Ortiz and Mike Lowell this season. They want to keep Victor Martinez longterm because of his mid-order bat, but after 2010 he most likely will be more of a DH than a full-time catcher. If they are concerned that Bay eventually will be as much a DH as left fielder, are they then overloaded in DH at-bats?

Lowell can still hit, he is diligent, plays very hard and is a clubhouse presence. But while a full winter's rehab may restore some of the flexibility that his degenerative hip and the ensuing operation diminished, they don't know that. They could move Lowell to first and put Kevin Youkilis at third, or some team like the Cardinals might take Lowell if the Red Sox pay a large chunk of the contract.

That, then, would require further moves, and Gonzalez seems extremely unlikely, if not out of the question. If it seems as if Boras needs the Red Sox on Holliday as much as the Red Sox need a power bat in left field, would Epstein make a quick strike, take Francona and John Farrell (a longtime family friend who played for and coached for Holliday's father, Tom) and try to get the 29-year old left fielder off the market?

Would he then go back to Boras on free agent Adrian Beltre? Epstein has long been fascinated by Beltre, a Gold Glove third baseman who is 30 but never adjusted to Safeco Field or the myriad of injuries he fought through. Beltre's on base percentage last season was an abysmal .304, and his 2007-2009 splits averaged out to a .269 batting average, .762 OPS, .318 on base and 20 homers a year ... albeit in a ballpark that is death on right-handed hitters.

On the other hand, where Boston may have Ryan Kalish and/or Josh Reddick ready to replace J.D. Drew in right field when his contract is up after the 2011 season, there is no third baseman on the visible horizon. Beltre would address a need that is far greater than power with the Red Sox: defense, which was one of the worst in the majors in defensive efficiency in 2009.

It's not going to work to ask Padres owner Jeff Moorad to hand over Gonzalez if he takes Boston's assistant GM Jed Hoyer and scouting director Jason McLeod. So, in an odd offseason of voodoo economics, we have miles and miles to go and time to observe the theory that the people who have made baseball such a well-run business have come to the conclusion that the best way to make it an even more profitable business is to repress the high-ceiling Boras Market.

Peter Gammons serves as a studio analyst on Baseball Tonight and Baseball Today. Gammons has been a senior writer for ESPN The Mag since December 1999 and contributes to ESPN.com and ESPNBoston.com.

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