It's been almost a decade since Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino called the New York Yankees "the evil empire," a sobriquet that becomes more laughable by the day. The Yankees are no more evil, nor any more of an empire, than the one over which Lucchino presides. They are together baseball's big, bad bullies, and to regard them as anything less than equals is to deny the truth.
In acquiring Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres for three minor leaguers Sunday, the Red Sox pillaged another city unequipped to deal with the might of their checkbook. The Padres had a hometown kid, an impeccable citizen, a first-rate leader and an excellent ballplayer in Gonzalez. And because he is all of those things, he is likewise an expense a revenue-starved franchise such as the Padres simply cannot afford, and so they have agreed to deal him to Boston for starting pitcher Casey Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, center fielder Reymond Fuentes and a player to be named later.
The deal was agreed upon Thursday, consummated Friday and Saturday and nearly fell apart Sunday, when the Red Sox and Gonzalez could not come to terms on a contract extension by a 2 p.m. ET deadline. Enough progress was made – the Red Sox reportedly offering five years for $120 million and Gonzalez and his agent countering six years for $150 million – that Boston agreed to the deal anyway. The hope is to have Gonzalez signed long term before he hits free agency after the 2011 season. The teams are expected to announce the deal Monday.
If any trade encapsulates the modern economics of baseball, this is it. Boston, with its revenue stream wide as the Mississippi, can afford to sign amateurs for big bonuses and flip them for superstars on whom they can shower nine-figure deals. For San Diego, with its revenue stream more like a tributary, its greatest currency is hope – hope that it can find an Adrian Gonzalez, and even more hope that when the inevitability of dealing him arrives, the return is sufficient.
Whether Kelly, Rizzo and Fuentes – Boston's two best prospects, plus a former first-round pick on whom San Diego can dream, respectively – become mainstays for the Padres is something we won't know until 2013 at earliest. And right now, as San Diego deals with the sting of losing a player who, in a perfect world, would have worn Padres brown until he retired, they're left to mourn while the Red Sox celebrate landing the first baseman they've coveted since Mark Teixeira(notes) spurned them for the Yankees.
Gonzalez is perfect for Boston. He's 28. He plays Gold Glove-caliber first base. He carries himself well, and the inherent pressures of Boston are unlikely to shake him. And in moving from Petco Park – "a graveyard for left-handed hitters," Padres general manager Jed Hoyer said during the season – to Fenway Park, Gonzalez can turn the all-fields power that Petco suppressed into monster results.
He joins a lineup already stacked with Kevin Youkilis(notes) and Dustin Pedroia(notes), and the Red Sox certainly have the flexibility to add another bat, even if Gonzalez does sign a mega-extension he and the team currently are negotiating in Boston. The Red Sox shed $37.7 million in salaries this offseason from their club-record payroll of $161 million last season. Next year, they'll molt another $45 million when the contracts of J.D. Drew(notes), David Ortiz(notes), Jonathan Papelbon(notes) and Mike Cameron(notes) expire.
With Pedroia signed through 2014, and Youkilis and ace Jon Lester(notes) through '13 – all to reasonable contracts – the Red Sox have enough wiggle room to continue engaging Carl Crawford(notes) should they so desire. And they do, of course, because Red Sox management is canny enough to recognize that in addition to acing the vital scouting and player-development side of the game, they have an inherent advantage: They can spend like drunken sailors with little recourse.
Boston fans, Chicken Littles that they are, worry that after a season in which their team didn't make the playoffs and owner John Henry went and bought the Liverpool soccer club, they're falling behind in the arms race with the Yankees. Far from it. Every free agent with whom New York chats, Boston can ring 'em up and not get laughed off the phone. With Gonzalez, the Red Sox are plenty stronger than they were 24 hours ago, though it's not like we're talking about some 97-pound weakling.
The Red Sox took advantage of San Diego's collapse down the stretch last season with their own organizational heft. Had the Padres not folded in September and lost the National League West, they likely wouldn't have gone into rebuilding mode so soon. Even now, it's a somewhat politically untenable move with a disaffected fan base. The flop facilitated it, though, and Hoyer – a former lieutenant of Boston GM Theo Epstein – knew enough about the Red Sox's farm system to quickly strike a deal.
Kelly, a command-and-control specialist with top-notch stuff, is such a good athlete the Red Sox spent his first two seasons alternating him between shortstop and pitcher. Scouts shrugged off his struggles last season and think the 21-year-old could arrive in the big leagues as early as this season.
And yet following the emergence of pitching prospects Anthony Ranaudo and Drake Britton, Boston felt comfortable enough to trade Kelly. Ranaudo, considered at one point last year the top prospect in the draft, slipped to 39th, where the Red Sox plucked him and gave him a $2.55 million bonus – the eighth-highest in the draft and three times the projected slot. Britton, a left-hander who had Tommy John surgery a year after he was drafted, signed for $700,000 in 2007 after Boston chose him in the 23rd round.
So goes baseball, where the Rockies of the world give Troy Tulowitzki(notes) a six-year extension when he's not due to hit free agency until 2014 because the Yankees and Red Sox cast such fear over the rest of the game.
"It's like we're damned if we do and damned if we don't," an executive from a low-revenue team said this offseason.
Damnation hurts for San Diego. It hurts bad. And they did what the game forces them to do: Bow to the will of the Boston Red Sox, who to all the have-nots of the game are just as evil an empire as the big, bad bullies in the Bronx.