Twelve years after Roger Clemens, 10 years after Mo Vaughn, the Red Sox have all the leverage now. Players come and players go. Theocracy rules the fabled kingdom at 4 Yawkey Way.
In the middle of this, we ask:
What will become of Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis?
On the heels of their playoff ouster at the hands of the blossoming Tampa Bay Rays, the Red Sox entered their off-season this week with the usual pair of questions: Who stays? And who goes? Historically, at this time of year, Sox followers have lamented the plight of the franchise, wondering what it might take to someday turn the Sox into winners. Now we unceremoniously open the door for the unwanted and erase any memories of the departed, all because the Red Sox have an assembly-line farm system that might as well be sending players to Boston on a transcontinental conveyor belt.
Out goes Johnny Damon, in comes Jacoby Ellsbury. Out goes Derek Lowe, in comes Justin Masterson. Out goes Curt Schilling, in comes Jon Lester.
Not so long ago, a friend of mine made an interesting observation: Fans in New England donít root for the players anymore so much as they root for the management. Maybe this is a byproduct from the world of fantasy sports. Manny Ramirez departs and Jason Bay enters, and most everyone recognizes that the Red Sox are making business decisions as much as they are baseball ones.
All of this brings us back to Youkilis and Pedroia, who currently make up the best right side of the infield in baseball this side of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Youkilis is ineligible for free agency until the fall of 2010, Pedroia until the fall of 2012. In the interim, you cannot help but wonder if the Red Sox have any intention of signing either to a multiyear contract commensurate with his skill level.
Thatís a logical question because of the self-sustaining machine the Red Sox have built.
For a moment, letís examine relatively recent Red Sox history. When Clemens and Vaughn left the club as free agents in 1996 and 1998, respectively, there was inordinate pressure on the club to keep each. Their departures prompted criticism of all sides, and Boston earned a reputation as a place nobody wanted to play. If the team mistreats its star players, many reasoned, then it surely would not embrace others.
Ten years after Vaughnís escape, the Red Sox are winners now instead of frustrated runners-up. In many cases, the front office has our blind loyalty and unconditional trust. The Red Sox can cast aside Johnny Damon and sign J.D. Drew ó were their numbers that different this year? Ė and the move does not draw nearly the skepticism it should, because the Sox keep chugging along without an apparent worry in the world.
Their farm system has been so darn productive in recent years that it has masked the clubís mistakes, which is precisely the way itís supposed to be. The more good young players you have, the more mistakes you can make, the more those mistakes do not matter.
In the case of Youkilis, what happened between the player and club last winter was nothing short of a standoff, if anyone cared to notice. Following a season in which the first baseman batted .288 with 16 home runs and 83 RBI, he was eligible for arbitration. The Sox approached him about a long-term deal. Youkilis deemed the clubís offer unfair and declined it. The sides ultimately avoided arbitration and settled on a one-year contract for $3 million.
To his credit, unfazed by the prospect of playing for his money, Youkilis went out and had a monster year, batting .312 with 29 home runs and 115 RBI. If he does not finish in the top five (at least) of the American League Most Valuable Player Award balloting, it will be a terrible injustice. Youkilis is eligible for arbitration again, and his price has soared considerably, which means the Sox will have to spend considerably more this winter than they might have a year ago.
Know whatís going to happen now? Youkilis is likely to end up with a one-year deal again, because the Red Sox are not likely to break the bank at this stage, either. Baseball rules clearly favor the owners for the first six years of a playerís career, an edge the Red Sox wisely use to their advantage. And because the Sox are a big-market club with considerable resources, they can wait until Youkilis is eligible for free agency (again, in the fall of 2010) before they decide whether to pony up big dollars.
If they opt against doing so, they can let Youkilis walk and spend that money elsewhere, assuming the conveyor belt is still feeding them players from Pawtucket, Portland, or Lancaster.
Pedroia, like Youkilis, is not likely to sell himself short. The current chances that heíll accept a long-term deal at below-market value do not seem very good. Like Youkilis, Pedroia is an extremely confident young man who believes in his ability. As such, he also believes the money will come. The Red Sox have made it quite clear at this stage that they are interested in long-term deals only if they benefit the club, assuming those discussions involve players with minimal major league service.
Again, the Sox are not responsible for the rules. They are merely using them to their advantage, which is good business. At the same time, itís fair to ask whether players will be passing through Boston on a much more regular basis in coming years, only validating the belief that fans do not cheer for players so much as they cheer for the uniforms.
Admittedly, the cases involving Youkilis and Pedroia are years away from crunch time, but that is not the point. The question is whether the identities of the players really mean anything anymore. Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice played their entire careers for the Red Sox and never won anything, but their value to the franchise was (and is) immeasurable. Keeping them was never a decision. Soon, Sox general manager Theo Epstein will be faced with the first make-or-break contract negotiations for players he drafted and developed, creating an interesting dynamic at historic Fenway Park.
By then, weíll know for sure whether we root for the players or for the management.
Tony Massarotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti