Colin and Nick Barnicle released their ESPN 30 for 30 short the other day. The 22 minute, 32 second clip is extremely well done and includes interviews with Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Buster Olney, Larry Lucchino, John Hart, and Tom Hicks. The focus is on the very real possibility that Alex Rodriguez would be traded from the Texas Rangers to the Boston Red Sox following a 2003 season in which the Yankees defeated the Red Sox in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the ALCS on an Aaron Boone walk-off home run. It highlights how the deal was consummated (players and money involved), why it fell through, and how A-Rod ended up a Yankee. This raises the obvious question: How would baseball history be rewritten if A-Rod did indeed get traded to Boston instead of New York? Lets look at some hypotheticals for each party.
Alex Rodriguez: Usually baseball players will largely perform at their true talent level regardless of where they are playing. Baseball is unique in that one can truly isolate a player’s production from his teammates unlike in other sports. However, I think that A-Rod would have had a much different career path if he became a member of the Red Sox. He would have remained a shortstop at least for the near future as Boston was prepared to trade Nomar Garciaparra. In New York, A-Rod had to learn a new position, third base, in deference to Derek Jeter and he really struggled with that in the beginning. Third base is easier to play than shortstop, but learning a new position is always difficult (even first base, ask Gary Sheffield.) Then we don’t know the negative impact that the errors and misplays at third had on his performance in the batter’s box.
Additionally, I think A-Rod would fare much better as a hitter in Fenway Park. Although he has always had tremendous power to dead center and the other way, he could pull lazy fly balls that turn into doubles off the Green Monster. Lasers that would be caught for outs in Death Valley at Yankee Stadium would instead be rolling around on Yawkey Way. This is like the Ted Williams for Joe DiMaggio rumored trades: power lefty to the Yankees and power righty to the Red Sox to fit the home ballparks. Finally, I think his perception from the fans would be much different. Red Sox fans would be much more receptive to him than Yankees fans were. Yankees fans didn’t like him for nonsensical reasons like he wasn’t Jeter or he makes too much money even though he was a monster from ’04-’07 and still pretty good from ’09-’11. He would probably win some championships in Boston and the fans would value his contributions. His steroid issues might even be swept under the rug similar to what’s happening with David Ortiz. A-Rod would have been a slightly better player, a more revered athlete, and most importantly, a happier person.
Rangers: The Rangers biggest interest in completing a deal was to relieve them of some of the money Rodriguez was due. He signed a 10 yr/$252 million contract prior to the 2001 season. He was well worth the money paid in the 3 seasons he played for Texas. He hit over 50% better than league average while running the bases well and playing above average defensive at shortstop. That skill-set produced 7.8, 9.8, 9.2 fWAR over those 3 years as he was among the top-5 players in the league each year. However, the Rangers quickly realized that they couldn’t compete with one player accounting for such a large chunk of the team payroll. The team finished last in the AL West in each of Rodriguez’s seasons there. They knew they had to cut bait.
The deal that was hatched involved Manny Ramirez and Jon Lester going to Texas while either Texas or Rodriguez would make up for the difference in salaries (Ramirez’s contract was also signed before the 2001 season but was “only” worth 8 yrs/$160 million in guaranteed salary). Ramirez was a Hall of Fame-type hitter (steroids aside) and would have been excellent in the launching pad in Texas. His fWAR from ’04-’08 is as follows: 3.5, 3.0, 2.9, 1.4, 5.8, 5.8. That is three above-average seasons, one slightly below-average, and two down-ballot MVP vote seasons on the back-end. Lester, on the other hand, was a young cost-controlled player at the time. His three pre-arbitration seasons featured an fWAR of 1.3, .5, and 5.0. The Red Sox ended up extending him, but the next three seasons (in what would have been his arbitration years) he produced 6.2, 5.4, and 3.5 fWAR. He was legitimately one of the 10-15 best starting pitchers in baseball during the second three-year span.
Instead, the deal fell through and the Rangers received two seasons of Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named later who turned out to be Joaquin Arias. Alfonso Soriano‘s best 7-year span consisted of WARs of 5.5, 5.0, 1.9, 2.2, 5.0, 6.6, and 3.9. The two seasons that the Rangers got out of that bunch…the 1.9 and 2.2 years. Arias didn’t provide much value either with WARs of .2, .1, -.3, and -.3 before he was DFA’d and traded for Jeff Francoeur. On a side note, one of the players the Rangers were considering as the player to be named later was Robinson Cano. Close call for the Yankees. They tried to salvage Soriano’s value by trading him to the Washington Nationals with just one year remaining on his contract. The return wasn’t that great because of short length of team control and Soriano was merely average the previous two seasons: Brad Wilkerson (Two years of a combined .6 WAR), Terrmel Sledge (traded to Padres 13 days later), and Armando Galarraga (8.2 Major League innings with the Rangers).
It’s impossible to tell for sure without the financials, but it looks like the Rangers missed out on not being able to close the deal with the Red Sox. They received a lesser player for fewer years and paid a larger portion of A-Rod’s salary (on the hook for $67 million of the $179 million left before A-Rod opted out after ’07) than they would have if it was Manny and Lester for A-Rod with Texas making up the slight difference in salaries. They would have essentially traded ARod for Manny straight up and bought Lester. They might have been less financially crippled and Ramirez and Lester would have been much more productive for a longer period of time than the two seasons and trade compensation they received from Alfonso Soriano. Of course, picking Cano over Arias would have helped matters.
Yankees: The Yankees would not have been able to come up with a third baseman for the 2004 season that replicated A-Rod’s value. Even with more search time they wouldn’t have been able to find a better option at third base for 2005-07 either as ARod was among the best players in the league. The Yankees made the playoffs each of those years in very large part to A-Rod’s contributions and the team paid just a fraction of what he was actually worth on the field (not to mention the off-field value). They didn’t win the World Series in the period from ’04-’07 and many fans will point to Alex’s supposed failures as a reason why.
Then A-Rod opted out of his contract after the 2007 season. The Yankees wanted to walk away, but they have a problem of bidding against themselves. The contract hatched was for 10 years/$275 million with incentives for passing home run milestones. The front office knew this deal would certainly be an albatross, but the Steinbrenners couldn’t help it and stepped in to make sure he was signed. This second deal was the one that burned them, not the tremendous production (and surplus value) they received from ’04-’07. The Yankees sit here today with A-Rod having under-produced compared to his contract (WARs of 6.0, 4.0, 3.7, 4.0, 1.9, and .5 the last six seasons). He has been hurt a lot the past few years. Girardi benched him in the 2012 playoffs. The Biogenesis stuff. The 162-game plus the playoffs suspension. The one saving grace: the Yankees don’t win the 2009 World Series without him. He was the best position player on the team by hitting .365/.500/.808 for the postseason. Just 3-years and $64 million left.
Red Sox: The Red Sox would have received Alex Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, and Brandon McCarthy by giving up Manny Ramirez, Jon Lester, and Nomar Garciaparra. The deal might have worked in the short term but would definitely hurt in the long run. Giving up Manny for ARod would have been fine. ARod was much better and played a position much harder to fill (shortstop versus left field). Garciaparra for Ordonez was just a move to fill the newly vacated position (left field) and get rid of excess (2 shortstops). Ordonez had 1 year left on his contract while Garciaparra had 2. Ordonez wasn’t able to stay on the field for the White Sox in 2004 and only played 52 games. Garciaparra was worth 1.6 WAR in ’04. He wasn’t included in the Ordonez deal, but the Red Sox traded him to the Cubs for 2 key pieces of their championship run: Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz. The facts that Ordonez was mostly hurt in ’04, Garciaparra was eventually dealt for good players, and Ramirez was huge in World Series runs (’04 and ’07) might outweigh the fact that ARod was better than Manny. It’s difficult to say how the deal worked out for Boston in the short run.
It certainly would have been a bad series of trades for the long term for Boston because Lester has been much better than McCarthy. Lester came up big for the Red Sox in the playoffs in 2007 and pitched the clinching game of the World Series. From 2008 to 2013 he has averaged 4.6 fWAR. He was even more dominant in helping the Red Sox win the World Series again in 2013. McCarthy, on the other hand, struggles to stay on the field. He is good when healthy as he has implemented a 3-quarters arm angle to induce more grounders after learning about sabermetrics. His one season of pitching more than 150 innings (2011) produced 4.5 fWAR. He just can’t stay healthy and is not as good as Lester.
ARod was clearly the best player of the bunch and they would have received 4 seasons from him at below market prices. ARod still would have probably opted-out after the 2007 season (after a World Series win possibly), but I think the Red Sox would have drawn a line in the sand as to their maximum offer much like the Cardinals did after winning the World Series with Albert Pujols. He might have even signed with the Yankees after the 2007 season and pulled a Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, Jacoby Ellsbury, etc. The Red Sox, however, would have extracted the best seasons out of A-Rod and would have been a better team from ’04-’07. We just don’t know if ARod would replicate Ramirez’s postseason production due to the randomness of events that happen in small sample sizes like the playoffs. This deal probably wouldn’t have changed the calculus much for Boston in the short term but it definitely would be bad long term because the loss of Lester couldn’t be made up by the addition of McCarthy.
We will never know exactly how baseball history was changed because the Players’ Union didn’t approve the restructured A-Rod contract followed by Aaron Boone deciding to play pickup basketball one day. We do know that the last ten years would have been drastically different for A-Rod, the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Rangers.