Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Potential of Potential and the Rules of Winning

There are only two ways you can look at yesterday's trade of Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins to the New York Mets if you're a Boston Red Sox: a. awesome we get to keep our kids and the Yankees don't get Santana or b. why didn't we try harder to get him? Ultimately the choice you make colors the way you look at winning.

Inspired by a thread on Sons of Sam Horn, “Are there rules to winning?”, this entry is about the aesthetics of winning. In other words, is there a correct way or an incorrect way of building a championship team? To the hard core, “winning is the only thing” type of fan; no, there isn't a right or wrong way. The bottom line is where you finish. If you finish as the World Series runner-up, you didn't have a good year and need to retool right away by any means necessary.

The other side of that coin, is that in order to win “right” a team can't be a collection of guys assembled from other teams. They have to come up and be nurtured through your farm system for a few years to be considered “real” members of your team. Trades and free agency can augment your team, but it can never be the sole mortar used for assembling a championship squad. For some reason, these people want a degree of difficulty added to an already difficult proposition.

Think of the 2003 Red Sox. They had a team that was a brain fart and five outs away from going to the World Series. Did General Manager Theo Epstein and his front office crew think that lightening would strike twice and they were destined to be in the same place the following year with the exact same team? No. They got rid of Grady Little and hired a manager that would heed their scouting reports. Traded some minor league chaff to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for their ace, Curt Schilling, and spent a boatload of cash to land the best reliever on the market, Keith Foulke. At mid-season, they traded their home grown shortstop for a better shortstop and some bench depth.

You know the rest, the 2004 team went on to win the World Series. Was there disappointment because the team only had two home grown players (Kevin Youkilis and Trot Nixon), four if you include Curt Schilling (originally drafted by the Sox, but never played for the team) and Ellis Burks (also drafted and starred for Boston early in his career)? I don't think so. That year, the Red Sox were essentially a team of well-paid baseball Hessians that won the Series after 86 years of failure. From David Ortiz to David McCarthy, none of those players will ever have to pay for a drink in Boston again.

In contrast, look at the 2007 Red Sox. Another World Champion, but this time there are six home grown players, nine if you count Schilling and Japanese imports Hideki Okajima and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Does this team resonate any more or less with you than the 2004 team (forget that the 2004 team erased 86 years of history—I know it's a big caveat, but stay with me on this) simply because Jonathan Papelbon was a Lowell Spinner or Jon Lester spent some time in Pawtucket? Of course not, both teams overcame great post season odds and established themselves champions by playing hard at the right times. Who cares where they played ball before Boston? In the long run, aside from Manny Delcarmen, none of these men are true Bostonians or Massachusetts residents before they put on the Red Sox jersey.

People may have been a bit more exuberant to celebrate the 2004 team than the 2007 team, but that was strictly because of decades of frustration being shrugged off in one magical three-week period. There is no asterisk next to the 2004 Championship.

What does this have to do with Johan Santana? It's simple, there is a faction of people in blogland and in print and on the radio, who feel that the Sox somehow bettered themselves by not landing the best lefthander of the last seven years. They will argue that when/if the Sox win the Series next they'll have done so with their own players and thus not end up like the Yankees. That's the favorite target of these people, pointing to the bloated payroll of a collection of travelling All-Stars who routinely buy their way into postseason year after year.

In addition to supporting a team with the second highest payroll and not understanding that the rest of Baseball America lumps the Sox in with the Yanks, in terms of grossly overspending for talent, many of these same people are smitten with the idea that the the potential for greatness is better than greatness itself.

It's not.

Sure, Jon Lester or Jacoby Ellsbury or Jed Lowrie or Justin Masterson (all names rumored to go to Minnesota in exchange for Santana) could be either good or great players down the road for the Red Sox. The key word in that last sentence is “could” and Santana is great now. Barring injuries, having him anchor a rotation of Beckett, Matsuzaka, and Buccholz for the next five years would've been terrific.

Chances are good that some of those prospects either aren't going to get a chance to prove their mettle in Boston (for example, Julio Lugo is signed for three more years and Dustin Pedroia isn't getting traded—what does that mean for Lowrie?) or they're going to flame out (Phil Plantier, anyone?). If one of them will be even half as dominant as Santana, I'll be surprised. But that's the understood gamble with prospects, only some people don't seem to remember that when it comes time to let go of them.

For every Jeff Bagwell, there's a Frankie Rodriguez. For ever Hanley Ramirez, there's a Tony Armas Jr. or Brandon Lyon. In order to get value, you have to give up value. Trading your highly ranked prospects isn't “going the way of the Yankees” or some other inaccurate cliché. It's Baseball Economics 101. There are 25-30 guys drafted every year, all of them will not be making the big club. The trick in establishing a championship team is keeping the two or three draftees that will make you a better team and unloading the others on poor schmucks for their better players. That's not just the way baseball works, it's the way all sports works.

Whether Red Sox fans like it or not, if the Yankees are number 1 in terms of payroll, the Sox are seen as 1A. It's about time that the fandom embraces that, because the Little Engine that Could version of the Sox left the station the first year their payroll went over $100 million. And that's ok, it's alright to have a team make a lot of money and use that money to win. The owners of the Twins and the Royals are among the richest people in America, do you think that the citizens of Minnesota and Kansas City would rather have them use their money to better their teams or line their coffers? The answer is obvious.

There are no bonus points for winning a World Series through some arbitrary “correct way”. A winner is a winner is a winner, no matter how the team is constructed. When it comes to professional athletics, Vince Lombardi was correct, “Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.”

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