Friday, July 31, 2009

Martinez is here but the complicated part is still to come

I pulled a Homer predicting there'd be no blockbuster by the Sox Friday. Will Theo Epstein be the one slapping his head come October, though? Photo from this site.

We’re all about the accountability here at Fighting Words (more on that over the weekend or early next week), so here goes: I took a Tex Cobb-sized beating Friday, when Roy Halladay remained with the Blue Jays and Victor Martinez was traded to the Red Sox.

In my defense, who could have known J.P. Ricciardi would hammer the final nail into his coffin by not selling high on Roy Halladay and that the Indians would just flat-out quit?

Seriously, how would you like to be an Indians fan today? Twenty-two months ago, the Indians had CC Sabathia on the mound at Jacobs Field and were one win away from eliminating the Sox and advancing to the World Series and a very favorable matchup with the Rockies. Now they’ve traded the reigning Cy Young Award winner in consecutives seasons and just gave their best player to the Sox. 2007 has to feel so far away for Indians fans, but not as far away as their favorite team’s next World Series run.

This is not intended to denigrate the players the Sox sent to Cleveland—Justin Masterson and Single-A pitching prospects Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price. Maybe Hagadone—whom the Sox absolutely love—turns into an ace and Masterson and/or Price develops into a mid-rotation guy or reliable closer.

But who will be the Indians’ ace now? How can the Indians trade Cliff Lee earlier this week and not get for Martinez either Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden, either one of whom would immediately become the Indians’ best starter? The Sox reportedly turned down a Martinez-for-Buchholz deal earlier this week, at which point, if I were Indians GM Mark Shapiro, I would have said thanks for calling, see you at the winter meetings.

That he ended up handing Martinez over for a struggling middle reliever and two prospects means it almost surely wasn’t his call. I wonder if the Indians’ fire sale is either the first step in the Dolan family selling the team and/or the Tribe doing Bud Selig’s dirty work and laying the groundwork for the bloody negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement following the 2011 season.

Get enough teams complaining they can’t compete—isn’t it interesting the Pirates keep dumping players and the Royals have, according to Peter Gammons, been told they will lose the 2012 All-Star Game if they go above slot to sign their June draft picks?—and Selig has all the ammunition he needs to engage in a high-stakes game of chicken with the union (no longer led by the unbeatable Donald Fehr) and go for the salary cap he’s been salivating over for nearly 20 years.

Hey, by 2011, it will have been 17 years since he killed a World Series! And maybe home runs will once again lure fans back after the Great Strike of 2012!

Or maybe it’s just a crappy trade. What do I know?

Anyway, from a pure talent standpoint, I can’t blame Theo Epstein for making the Martinez trade. To get a perennial All-Star catcher—and someone who buys the Sox time to find and develop that young franchise catcher—in exchange for three pitchers, only one of whom has reached the majors, is a no-brainer, and he still has his Buchholzes and Bowdens and Casey Kellys and Daniel Bards and Lars Andersons in reserve.

But the challenges are just beginning now that Martinez is in the fold, and I wonder if Epstein has committed a rare misstep here—both in trying to overhaul a team in midseason, when history suggests blockbuster summer deals rarely lead to fall glory, and in reading the pulse of the Sox.

One of Epstein’s greatest traits is his ability to remove emotion from the decision-making equation while also recognizing the intangible value of certain players. Epstein deviated from the norm in re-signing Jason Varitek after 2004, when he came up with a way for a team that didn’t hand out no-trade clauses to give Varitek a no-trade clause. The Sox typically don’t like to negotiate with players during the season, but David Ortiz signed extensions in May 2004 and April 2006. And the negotiations with Mike Lowell following the 2007 season seemed unusually testy, but the Sox eventually gave him the three-year deal that convinced him to pass on the four-year deals reportedly offered by the Yankees and Phillies.

But acquiring Martinez means a reduction in playing time for three of the Sox’ most pivotal personalities. I’d go so far as to say that while Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia are on the cover of the 2009 yearbook, the foundation of that locker room is still Varitek, Lowell and Ortiz.

All three are well-regarded for their professionalism, so don’t expect Varitek, Lowell or Ortiz to channel Mike Lansing and flip off the lineup card on the days he/they are not starting. But that doesn’t mean fitting four players into three spots won’t be a delicate and perhaps messy endeavor for Terry Francona, who will earn every cent of his salary and will need every last shred of his people skills over the next two or three months. Phasing out one leader in midseason, never mind three, isn’t an easy endeavor, and I wonder how the process will filter into the rest of the clubhouse.

Epstein has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt, and one thing we all should have learned the last few years is there’s always more going on behind the scenes at Fenway Park than he lets on. Maybe the Sox recognize Ortiz will not be the same after the news of his failed drug test, or maybe they know Lowell’s hip ailments will limit him to one or two starts a week for the rest of the season, or maybe they know Varitek is more banged up than usual.

Maybe this all makes sense in October. Or maybe it doesn’t, and Epstein realizes December is a better time to begin a transition than July.

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