Red Sox’s turnaround more about incumbents than newcomers

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We’ve heard it a million times now: the Red Sox changed the clubhouse culture for the better when they brought in Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Ryan Dempster over the winter. And that’s certainly true. I imagine this has been the best Red Sox team to cover in several years, and they do, as a group, look like they’re having fun out there.

Of course, the winning probably helps. That’s often the response when chemistry comes up in stathead circles. Did the chemistry lead to winning or did the winning lead to chemistry? There typically is some narrative building going on. But these Red Sox did seem to need the jolt that Victorino and Gomes provided.

Still, that the Red Sox clinched their first AL East title since 2007 by winning Friday night has more to do with the players that were already there than the newly hired help, unless you want to give Gomes and the rest the credit for those turnarounds, too.

Here are the rWAR improvements from 2012 to ’13 of the incumbents (or the incumbents plus John Lackey, if you prefer. Lackey didn’t pitch last season following Tommy John surgery).

4.6 – Jacoby Ellsbury (1.0 to 5.6)
3.4 – Clay Buchholz (0.9 to 4.3)
2.9 – John Lackey (0.0 to 2.9)
2.2 – Jon Lester (0.7 to 2.9)
1.3 – Dustin Pedroia (4.9 to 6.2)
1.2 – Daniel Nava (1.5 to 2.7)
1.0 – David Ortiz (3.1 to 4.1)
1.0 – Jarrod Saltalamacchia (1.4 to 2.4)
0.9 – Felix Doubront (0.3 to 1.2)

The only Red Sox to return in significant roles this year and fail to improve are Junichi Tazawa, who has been about the same, and Will Middlebrooks.

Now, part of that improvement could be chalked up to chemistry, but health has been a bigger factor. And I think the return of former pitching coach John Farrell as manager had a lot to do with the bounce-back seasons from Buchholz and Lester. Of Boston’s five best players this year, Victorino is the only one who wasn’t there in 2012.

The Red Sox had a great offseason, with only the hideous Mark Melancon-for-Joel Hanrahan trade and Dempster signing looking like misfires opposite the Victorino, Napoli, Stephen Drew and Koji Uehara successes. However, it’s the pieces that were already in place that will lead the way as the team returns to the postseason for the first time since 2009.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.