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.

Nick Markakis: ‘I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?’

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Earlier today, the Braves inked veteran outfielder Nick Markakis to a one-year deal worth $4 million with a club option for the 2020 season worth $6 million with a $2 million buyout. Though Markakis is 35 years old, he’s coming off of a terrific season in which he played in all 162 games and hit .297/.366/.440 with 14 home runs and 93 RBI in 705 trips to the plate. Markakis had just completed a four-year, $44 million contract, so he took a substantial pay cut.

Per David O’Brien of The Athletic, Markakis asked his kids where they wanted him to play and they said Atlanta. O’Brien also asked Markakis about the pay cut. The outfielder said, “I’m not mad at all. I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?”

This seemingly innocuous comment by Markakis is actually damaging for his peers and for the union. Baseball as a game is indeed a “kids’ game,” but Major League Baseball is a billion-dollar business that has been setting revenue records year over year. The players have seen a smaller and smaller percentage of the money MLB makes since the beginning of the 2000’s. Furthermore, Markakis only gets paid “a lot of money” relative to, say, a first-year teacher or a clerk at a convenience store. Relative to the value of Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, and relative to the value of Major League Baseball itself, Markakis’s salary is a drop in the ocean.

That Markakis is happy to take a pay cut is totally fine, but it’s harmful for him to publicly justify that because it creates the expectation that his peers should feel the same way and creates leverage for ownership. His comments mirror those who sympathize first and foremost with billionaire team owners. They are common arguments used to justify paying players less, giving them a smaller and smaller cut of the pie. Because Markakis not only took a pay cut but defended it, front office members of the Braves as well as the 29 other teams can point to him and guilt or shame other players for asking for more money.

“Look at Nick, he’s a team player,” I envision a GM saying to younger Braves player who is seeking a contract extension, or a free agent looking to finally find a home before spring training. “Nick’s stats are as good as yours, so why should you make more money than him?”

Contrast Markakis’s approach with Yasmani Grandal‘s. Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year, $60 million contract offer from the Mets early in the offseason and settled for a one-year, $18.25 million contract with the Brewers. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Grandal said on MLB Network, “I felt like part of my responsibility as a player was to respect the guys that went through this process before I did. Guys like Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, These are guys who established markets and pay levels for upper-tier catchers like me. I felt like I was doing a disservice if I were to take some of the deals that were being thrown around. I wanted to keep the line moving especially for some of the younger guys that are coming up … to let them know, if you’re worthy, then you should get paid what you’re worth. That’s where I was coming from.”

Grandal’s comments are exactly what a member of a union should be saying, unapologetically. The MLBPA needs to get all of its members on the same page when it comes to discussing contracts or labor situations in general publicly. What Markakis said seems selfless and innocent — and I have no doubt he is being genuine without malice — but it could reduce the bargaining power players have across the table from ownership, which means less money. They are already being bamboozled, at least until the next collective bargaining agreement. They don’t need to be bamboozled any more.