Red Sox-Dodgers Blockbuster Trade Reshapes MLB Landscape

The baseball world has been rocked over the last 18 hours or so, by the stunning completion of the blockbuster trade between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Red Sox have dealt Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to Los Angeles in exchange for James Loney and prospects. The Dodgers assume almost all of the financial obligations associated with the three players—over $250 million. One year ago at this time, the Los Angeles ownership situation was a mess and Boston looked like a team headed for the World Series. To say “how times have changed”, doesn’t quite do this one justice. TheSportsNotebook breaks down the trade…

I’m a partisan Red Sox fan and right now I feel like dancing. That tells you how I feel about the Boston end of the deal. The big consideration for Boston is money. In 2010, the organization locked up Beckett for six years and prior to the 2011 season they inked Crawford to a seven-year contract. Either deal individually looked problematic. Collectively, they were the kind of albatraoss that can sink a franchise. Combined with the disastrous signing of John Lackey, the Red Sox were staring into the kind of organizational abyss that Peter Angelos led the Baltimore Orioles down in the late 1990s. Because of this deal, the lineup the Red Sox will put on the field for the rest of 2012 won’t be very good, but GM Ben Cherington has steered the franchise away from the abyss and has a chance to rebuild.

In a lot of ways it’s an NBA mentality. The Red Sox could have slogged along as a mediocre team, but the contract situation ensured they wouldn’t be serious championship material for several years. In the NBA, the mindset says to bottom out and get a lottery pick. As it applies here, Boston needed to take several steps back, so they could sprint forward again. It was something Cherington wanted to do, and while I’m not a huge fan of the PR-conscious president Larry Lucchino, give him credit for signing off on the decision.

The prize prospect in the deal is Rubby de la Rosa, a 23-year-old pitcher. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery, but Stephen Strasburg has shown us that doesn’t have to be as ominous as it once was. Allan Webster, a minor league pitcher further down the chain is also highly regarded. But let’s be frank—while the Red Sox will spin the prospects for all their worth, the real value to the team is the flexibility they now have back.

Boston’s need to make this move should end, once for all, that the franchise is just a watered-down version of the Yankees. I understand that fans in areas like my native Midwest and former home in Baltimore, felt that way a lot. Maybe even some Red Sox fans themselves drank the Kool-Aid. But while Boston is a big-budget team that can afford to go after top free agents, they are more akin to teams like the Angels, Mets, Cubs, Dodgers and maybe a few others. Yes, they can spend, but they better be right. If you’re in the Bronx, you just eat the bad contracts and come back for more.

Which brings us to the Dodgers. They’re one of the few teams that could have afforded to take on this kind of payroll commitment and it’s a massive risk. Crawford will require elbow surgery and will miss the rest of this season and at least half of 2013. Beckett is 32 and other than 2007 and the first five months of 2011, hasn’t looked the part of a stopper. Gonzalez saw his power decline dramatically since the onset of shoulder problems midway through last season.  The Dodgers could have put the entire equity of their franchise on the blackjack tables in Las Vegas and not taken this much of a risk.

But there are plenty of reasons to think the move will work out for them. Let’s go player-by-player…

*Beckett: He was clearly unhappy in Boston by the end of his tenure. He’s going to move to a pitcher’s park and no longer have to face the Yankee lineup six times a year. With Clayton Kershaw as the clear #1, the same kind of pressure won’t be there. And while he may be 32, he’s got a filthy curveball that can compensate for any decline in velocity. If he just pitches well the rest of this year and two more years he’s worth the investment for Los Angeles. Furthermore, his reputation as a big-game pitcher is still unparalleled by anyone currently pitching, and combined with Kershaw is the kind of arm that can win a team a Division Series by themselves.

*Crawford: I was never as down on him as most Red Sox fans were. He had a bad year in 2011, but it was evident that was because he genuinely wanted to fulfill the expectations that came with his $142 million contract. Had he not gotten hurt, I liked his chances to do that. But you can make a good case that a speedy left field with great range was miscast playing in the park with the shallowest left field. Now he’s in a spacious park, where his speed in the outfield can be a big asset. And since Los Angeles currently has impending free agent Shane Victorino in left, there’s no immediate need for Crawford. This is a long-term move and while it’s an expensive one, I think it’s going to pay off.

*Gonzalez: The reports are that Boston wasn’t looking to deal Gonzalez, but he was the price the Dodgers wanted in agreeing to take the Beckett and Crawford contracts. A SoCal native who built his reputation in San Diego, he’s shown he can hit in a big ballpark. As a Mexican-American, the front office is hoping he becomes a poster boy for that community and if it pays off, the marketing side of things will go a long way to defraying some of the costs. He’s an able defensive first baseman, a necessity in the National League. The loss of power since the shoulder problems is definitely a concern, especially since he no longer has the Green Monster to bail him out on the opposite field fly balls he’s renowned for. But if nothing else, he hits for a good average and is a patient hitter. I think the risk here is minimal—if the power doesn’t come back he won’t be worth his contract, but his other skills ensure he’ll always be an asset.

I think the short-term additions of Gonzalez and Beckett make Los Angeles the new favorite in the NL West and if the Washington Nationals persist in their plans to shut down Stephen Strasburg, I think the Dodgers are now the best bet to make the World Series, so long as they as they either win the division or win the wild-card game and give their talent a chance to thrive in a complete postseason series. For the long term, it’s a big risk, but if Crawford comes through like I think he will the Dodgers are the favorites for years to come in the National League.

Overall, this signals a clear shift in baseball’s balance of power. When the Red Sox were committed to heavy spending to try and keep up with the Yankees, it had ripple effects to the Angels and down the ladder. No one was setting that kind of pace in the National League. The Mets tried, but failed. Now the Dodgers are flexing their economic muscle and over the next year or two it’s a virtual certainty that we’ll see other teams up the ante to keep pace.