The Plan

On Tuesday, I posted for discussion a question regarding the plan – or lack thereof – for the 2005/2006 offseason. This offseason has been an exciting and tumultuous one, in which a tremendous portion of the Sox roster has turned over via trade or free agent vacancy; certainly we’re far from done. But we are, I think, at a point where a few observations can be shoehorned into a defining concept: flexibility.
There are three ways to acquire talent in baseball (and in most major sports): free agency, trades, and the farm system. These three are often connected by necessity, but I think it can be safely said that a team with the ability for all three is in a better position than teams which have the resources for only one or two.
The Red Sox have, since the dawn of the short-lived Era of Theo, been targeting all three methods of player acquisition. The Dan Duquette era was notorious for favoring the trading system above the other two by a wide margin; Duquette’s biggest moves – aside from the Manny and Damon signings – were always trades. He in many ways gutted the Sox farm system, using promising prospects as bait, and the vast majority of his free agent acquisitions were spare parts and broken down veterans that occasionally helped but more frequently did not. Theo Epstein inherited this type of club; older, without much hope of serviceable prospects but with the financial flexibility to become a player in the free agent market. In the three years since he took over the day to day management of the club, however, the Sox farm system is as good as it’s been since the 1970’s, with several exciting prospects knocking on the door and others in development in the low minors.
All of this brings us to this offseason, in which we saw the end of the loosely-defined era of veteran, big offense clubs (2003-2005). Part of this finality came from age; the Red Sox were an old club, and though still obviously powerful and talented, they were in decline. Part of it came from the inevitable vanishing of free agent players – Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Johnny Damon. The confluence of these trends, along with the renaissance of the minor league system, gave the front office two choices; either continue the trend of acquiring proven, older, and more expensive talent, or attempt to grow younger and cheaper while remaining competitive.
Anyone who reads my writing, either here or at my other blog, 12eight, knows how much I favored the latter option. Just before the 2005 season officially ended for the Red Sox, I wrote the following:
“So, this year, before we try to make a similar run, I want to state this plainly: it’s time to retool. We can do it well; so many of our key pieces remain that the transition will be smooth. We could even win something in the process. What we shouldn’t do, however, is hold on to players on the wrong side of 30, asking for the wrong side of 8 million. If it means sacrificing the headlines, and possibly sacrificing a playoff team next year, so be it. The team will be stronger for it in years to come. If we don’t, expect to be looking up at former doormats by 2008.”
Much to my pleasant surprise, this appears to be exactly what we’re doing. The average age of the 25 guys on our Opening Day roster lat year was about 33; this season (without knowing the final 25) it’s closer to 31.5. The starting rotation, which had an April 1st average age of over 35(!) has dropped to just under 33; the bullpen’s average age has lowered, and that’s not even including Craig Hansen of Manny Delcarmen. The Sox have done this through specific trades, which have either brought in new talent or cleared the way for prospects. We’ve been able to utilize the farm system in several different ways: as the source of cheap starting talent (Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, Lenny DiNardo), trade chips (Anibal Sanchez, Hanley Ramirez) and fallback plans (Adam Stern, Alejandro Machado, Dustin Pedroia, Craig Hansen). Despite the frenzy-feeding of the 2005/6 offseason, the Sox have spent relatively little money in an overpriced market; their two biggest free agent acquisitions have both been comparatively cheap relievers (re-signing Mike Timlin and acquiring Rudy Seanez). Instead, we’ve been able to largely fill out a roster through trades and prospects.
The more I consider what we’ve seen this offseason, the more I disagree with those who have been crying that Theo would have, for example, retained Johnny Damon. I think what we’re seeing right now is the first year of a new Sox era, one that had been carefully planned by Theo and the baseball operations people to position the Sox for dominance in all three avenues for talent-acquisition. We’ve pared payroll, giving us the flexibility to sign or trade for bona-fide star talent. We’ve carefully promoted and acquired minor-league players to fill key holes. We’ve dealt players intelligently, giving up youth for youth, age for age, and stars for prospects. While some people are defining this offseason by a perceived futility, I can quite easily see it as an abundance of ability; the ability to acquire talent in the manner of our choosing, without the kinds of roadblocks that exist for other teams.
In that regard, the Sox may be alone in the majors. We have the financial resources, the spare parts, and the prospects we need to be flexible and to fill holes either during the offseason or the regular season; we’re younger and cheaper, and on the verge of a renewable source of talent emerging from the low minors. The Sox may not be a world-beater in 2006, but at this current rate, we’re well positioned to add parts as we need them and build a legitimate perennial contender that’s young enough to improve and flexible enough to adapt. It’s the kind of thing I was really hoping I’d get to see from them, and therefore also the kind of thing I never thought I would; I’m thrilled to see that I was wrong.