In the weeks leading up to the mega-deal that shook up the baseball world, paranoia coursed through the Boston Red Sox organization. Adrian Gonzalez was worried Red Sox management leaked the story of the text message from his phone that caused massive upheaval in Boston. Team president Larry Lucchino went public trying to pinpoint the source of the story. The players did not trust their bosses. The bosses did not trust their players. Toxicity reigned.
This is nothing new for the Red Sox, of course, neither the information spigot – just ask Terry Francona, whom a leak after last season painted as a pill-popper who lost the clubhouse – nor the distrust. Part of playing for the Red Sox is understanding Lucchino's meddlesome ways with baseball operations and how they trickle down into the clubhouse.
It's no surprise, then, that a deal with multiple no-trade clauses, a quarter billion dollars in salaries and potential complications out the yin-yang went down with such ease: Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto were ready to get out of Boston and head to the sunny – in disposition, outlook and weather – shores of Los Angeles.
While the Red Sox have done brilliant work clearing their dockets of almost every ugly contract remaining, a disconnect between ownership and the players remains. This is fixable. When the Red Sox were winning championships, players saw Lucchino more as a source of amusement than a nuisance. They had heard stories about his foibles in trying to interject himself into free-agent discussions, only to insult the player in the process. When losses piled up and a critical eye turned toward the players, they retrained it on manager Bobby Valentine, Lucchino's personal – and, the players believe, ill-conceived – hire.
Everything the Red Sox have done in recent weeks, from dumping Valentine-and-Lucchino irritant Kelly Shoppach to trading the frisky-fingered Gonzalez, comes off as backing Valentine. Whether he can survive a sub.-500 season – the Red Sox are 61-67 – is one of the many questions facing Boston over the season's last five weeks.
Perhaps the most pressing: How are they going to replace …
1. Adrian Gonzalez and his presence in the middle of the lineup. None of the top free agents from this mediocre class seems a particularly great fit with the Red Sox. Boston trotted out a lineup with Cody Ross, James Loney, Ryan Lavarnway and Mauro Gomez hitting Nos. 4-7 Sunday. The trade gifted David Ortiz a tremendous amount of leverage for fetching the multi-year deal he desires, even though the Red Sox know the prospect of handing more than one season to a 37-year-old DH is inherently dangerous.
More than that, it's painful to see the 23-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo hitting .289/.336/.451 for the Chicago Cubs, run by ex-Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, and pitcher Casey Kelly debuting for San Diego on Monday. Those were the two prospects Boston gave up for Gonzalez before signing him to a seven-year, $154 million deal.
The relative friendliness of that deal goaded the Dodgers into absolving a pair of Epstein's other bad contracts, the lesser of which was to …
2. Josh Beckett because it's got just two years remaining. Still, two years at $15.75 million apiece. Still, two years for a guy whose average fastball velocity has dipped 3 mph since his first season with Boston and 1½ mph since last year. Still, two years for a guy whom the Red Sox wanted to dump because they worried about his influence on other players.
The Dodgers have shown no hesitation in grabbing those labeled as problem children. Hanley Ramirez has excelled since he joined the Dodgers. One executive said the presence of Don Mattingly, who alongside Robin Ventura is the most accomplished former player now managing, gives the Dodgers confidence he can handle a clubhouse full of personalities and egos.
There's more in Beckett's favor: The quality of lineups in the NL West will help, as will playing in Dodger Stadium, one of the best pitchers' parks in the game. And the Dodgers need him. Within hours of the trade, Chad Billingsley hit the DL with elbow pain, and GM Ned Colletti told reporters he could be "out for a while." Good thing …
3. Clayton Kershaw is there to anchor the staff. Kershaw remains the hardest-to-hit pitcher in the NL a year after winning the Cy Young Award: his .210 batting average against and .261 on-base average against are NL lows, and only Gio Gonzalez holds hitters to a lower slugging percentage than his .326.
When Cole Hamels signed his six-year, $144 million extension with Philadelphia on the cusp of his free agency, it sent Kershaw's market into the $30 million-a-year range. For one: Hamels would've hit free agency as a 28-year-old. Kershaw is scheduled to be a free agent at 26. Also: Kershaw is simply better than Hamels, which is not to take away from Hamels but to show how great Kershaw really is now.
So the confluence of the Hamels deal and the Dodgers' spending puts Kershaw in the catbird's seat following the 2013 season, when a two-year, $19 million deal expires. The Dodgers can keep Kershaw through 2014 and let him walk to free agency or do what they did with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier and keep together a homegrown core to surround the influx of traded-for talent. Either way, barring an injury, someone is going to give Kershaw a larger per-year deal than the prorated $28 million …
4. Roger Clemens received during 2007 that still is the richest annual pitching deal. It was Clemens' last season pitching in the major leagues, and he was nothing more than mediocre as a 44-year-old, with a 6-6 record and 4.18 ERA in 99 innings.
Now Clemens is 50, and he threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings Saturday for an independent-ball team called the Sugar Land Skeeters, and whether it's to satisfy some youthful need personified by his frosted tips, or to prove people he can do it clean, or to delay voters rendering his Hall of Fame worthiness for another five years, all of this is barreling toward Clemens pitching for the Houston Astros sometime in September.
And, well, the Astros already have made farce enough of their season by tearing things down like they've been foreclosed on. They are unquestionably the worst major league team since the 2003 Tigers that lost 119 games, and if Jim Crane, their new owner, wants to turn to a guy who's half-a-hundred to fill his stadium because the real major leaguers he throws out there on a daily basis cannot, it's his team, his legacy, his embarrassment to own. Clemens is doing what plenty of guys would do if someone were willing to oblige their Peter Pan fantasy. No matter how long you're away from the game, the tug is eternal, to which ...
5. Dan Duquette would certainly attest. Duquette, remember, is the former Boston GM who dumped Clemens because he said he didn't want the Rocket to play in Boston in "the twilight of his career." Clemens went on to win 162 games and four Cy Youngs, much of which were allegedly steroid-fueled.
Duquette, in the meantime, couldn't find another job running a team after the Red Sox fired him in March 2002. He tried to run the Israel Baseball League. It flopped. He bounced around a couple other dead-end jobs. Only Peter Angelos, one of the most helter-skelter owners in sports, would give him a chance, and he hired Duquette as Baltimore GM this offseason.
And Duquette hasn't stopped maneuvering since. On Sunday he traded for left-hander Joe Saunders to fortify a rotation racked by injuries. His arrival, plus the expected September return of starter Jason Hammel, may be enough to keep the Orioles in the postseason hunt. They're currently tied for the second wild-card spot with Oakland and a half-game behind Tampa Bay for the first slot, with Detroit behind a half-game. The difference between the Orioles and every other team within nine games of the wild card: They have a negative run differential, at minus-46. It's 75 runs worse than Boston's, and …
6. Ben Cherington can only wonder: What happened? Well, first Lucchino hired the manager, which everywhere else is the GM's job. And then Epstein's contracts – contracts, yes, in which Cherington was involved as one of Epstein's lieutenants – bonked big-time. Throw in sub-standard seasons from Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester and the clubhouse issues, and, yeah, that's pretty much baseball's version of x+y=disaster.
What Cherington did in facilitating this trade was a brushstroke of brilliance. He found the one team in baseball that could take on not one and not two but three big contracts, and got back a pair of high-upside prospects. Rubby De La Rosa has a million-dollar arm and nickel attitude, and the Dodgers didn't lament losing him. Allen Webster, on the other hand, should be a sinkerballing innings eater, the sort of pitcher with enormous value whom they were loath to deal.
Now, financial flexibility is no good if you don't have anyone to spend it on, so the Red Sox have to figure out whether they're going to dip into the free agent market this year or next, lock up homegrown kids like Jacoby Ellsbury, Pedroia and Lester, or make a splash in the trade market with a drastically improved farm system. The job is a lot easier today than it was last week, and even if …
7. Bobby Valentine returns next season, the Red Sox, from top to bottom, have ample reason to hold hands and sing kumbaya. One thing is for certain: No longer are the Red Sox the complacent bunch they grew into during Francona's final days as manager. The more power ownership gives Valentine, the more players are resigned to his return – and if he does return, it's a remarkable political victory, the sort that has become his hallmark.
Backroom machinations aside, Valentine still is helming a wildly underachieving team that with almost the exact same roster last season was 80-51 on Aug. 26. That cannot be overlooked, though if the Red Sox are inclined to do so, the sickle will hang above Valentine's head next season from the first day of spring training. Whether there's a new Bobby V or the same one whose team is going to spend more than $2.5 million per victory this season is up to Lucchino. Valentine needs more guys like …
8. Carl Crawford, who a friend says actually liked Valentine. While much of the talk surrounds how Beckett will fit in Los Angeles, one executive thinks Crawford could turn into his old self when he returns sometime in the middle of next season from Tommy John surgery.
No, Crawford no longer has the wheels that turned him into a perennial 50-steal guy in Tampa Bay nor did he ever have the sort of on-base prowess that plays at the top of the lineup. The seven-year, $142 million deal Boston gave him never made sense, not even with his superb fielding.
And that's where the Dodgers could benefit. They won't get $100 million worth of production from Crawford, but he'll play a solid left field and compensate for Matt Kemp as he ages and slows down, which, at his size, is inevitable. And if he can play somewhere near the level he had this year before the elbow surgery shut him down, he'll have the pleasure of hearing …
9. Vin Scully sing paeans to him as he does all of the players lucky enough to wear a Dodgers uniform. Of all the cool things baseball players are afforded – the money, the lifestyle, the swag, the chance to play a game for a living – one of the coolest is playing for or facing the Dodgers and knowing Scully, 84, will say your name.
He postponed his farewell tour one more year Sunday, announcing that he would return to the television booth in 2013, his 64th season calling Dodgers games. Think about that: 64 years in the same job, from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, from the Bums to Hollywood, from Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax to Kemp and Kershaw.
Scully is a pleasure to listen to and a treasure to behold, and perhaps the most amazing thing is: He's as good as he's ever been. Age has atrophied neither his mind nor his voice nor his ability to capture a moment as succinctly and perfectly as the listener could wish. On Saturday, he offered a classic call, his cadence even, his voice building, his offering to …
10. Adrian Gonzalez perfect: "Welcome to the Dodgers." Gonzalez crushed a home run in his first at-bat in a Los Angeles uniform, and with six years left on his deal it was the first of many.
What surrounds him in the coming years will depend on the sustainability of this whole operation – whether the pockets of Mark Walter and Magic Johnson remain as flush as they are currently, and whether the forthcoming TV deal really can rake in enough billions to cover the purchase price of the club along with the hundreds of millions in guaranteed contracts. We saw a house of cards once with the Dodgers, and it's only natural that skepticism surround a team doing what no other team dare do.
In the meantime, Los Angeles can celebrate. It's got a slugging first baseman who fills one of its greatest needs, and it's got an erstwhile ace, and it's got some potential dynamism in left field, and, more than anything, it's got capital, in both the actual and emotional sense. This didn't just buy the Dodgers new players. It's buying them back the fans who went AWOL during the McCourt years. It's buying them the reputation as the wild card, the team to which cost is no object.
From bankruptcy to the penthouse in mere months, the Dodgers once again have staked their claim as a great franchise, one for whom players want to play. See the look on Gonzalez, Beckett and Punto's faces when the Dodgers sent a private plane to shuttle them cross-country? It was of joy, relief.
No more paranoia. No more feuds with ownership. No more toxicity.
No more of what still ails the Boston Red Sox.
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