Victorino, the Red Sox, and the Ellsbury Aftermath

Not sure if you have heard, but Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is a member of the Yankees now. Ellsbury may not have repeated his monstrous 2011 in 2013, but he did have an excellent year and put his miserable 2012 mostly in the rear view mirror. We might argue over how good Ellsbury is, but he is pretty clearly good. Boston did try to re-sign Ellsbury, but the Yankees offered more. That’s the way it works, and good for Ellsbury.

The value of Ellsbury and his place on Yankees’ side of thing has been covered, but I want to look back on how the decision to sign Shane Victorino during the 2012-2013 off-season looks even better now for the Red Sox in light of Ellsbury’s departure.

A post like this invites accusations of easy pickings given how things worked out for the Red Sox in 2013. Still, though it may be hard to remember in the afterglow of the World Series, when the Red Sox signed Victorino for three years and $39 million last December, it was panned by many writers (as were many of Boston’s moves). It would be overkill to pick on specific people, especially given 20/20 hindsight. Instead, let’s just focus on some of the specific issues critics focused on back in December 2012: Victorino’s down 2012 season (and his age), his big platoon split, and his apparent center field redundancy with Jacoby Ellsbury.

Most of these issues were simple enough to think through at the time (even if critics of the deal were not necessarily convinced). One need not even have been able to predict the way the market for free agents has become more expensive this year (three years and $39 million for a player coming off one one somewhat bad year seems almost like peanuts now) to justify the deal. Even if Victorino’s 2012 was especially poor (an exaggeration, it seems to me), it was just one season with a prior history of being better, so he should have been expected to bounce back to being at least decent in 2013, even at 32 years of age. The concern about his platoon split was rendered somewhat irrelevant when he (temporarily, it seems) gave up switch-hitting in response to an injury. Even if he had not, the platoon worry was always overblown.

All of this was pretty apparent, but one final aspect is of particular interest today. When they brought Victorino on board, the Red Sox seemed to be signing a center fielder when they already had one in Ellsbury. Some critics thought this only made sense if the Red Sox made a further move by trading Ellsbury, who at the time had one year left on his deal. Some thought that Victorino’s bat would not play in a corner. The Red Sox did not move Ellsbury, and while, yes, we have the benefit of hindsight, it worked out well. Yes, Victorino did hit better than most expected, but even if he had only just regressed to about league average, it should not all that surprising when Victorino’s excellent glove (both according to defensive metrics and his Gold Glove Award) allowed him to be a big contributor to Boston’s run. Victorino had generally been a good center fielder, including having a good arm, so the transition was not all that surprising.

Beyond the 2013 triumph, signing Victorino had longer-term benefits. The Red Sox needed outfielders, not just in 2013, but beyond. Although the outlook on Ellsbury’s future prior to 2013 was different than it is now, one thing was the same then as it was this off-season: It was far from clear whether that future lay with the Red Sox. While the Red Sox did have Jackie Bradley on the way, and had at least some sort of temporary combination of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava all that was far from reassuring (likewise the subsequent purchase of Mike Carp). Ryan Kalish was on the periphery, but he never proved to be healthy, either then or now (and now he is out of a job altogether). Prospects are valuable, but far from sure bets, as Kalish so aptly demonstrates. Gomes, Nava, and Carp ended up being valuable contributors this year, but they were hardly a long-term plan. Even if the Red Sox thought they could bring Ellsbury (something of a mystery prior to 2013) back in 2014, they would still be counting on a group of not-terribly-young part timers and Bradley to fill two outfield spots.

With Victorino on board, however, the Red Sox had an important role filled both in 2013 and beyond. As noted above, for 2013, Victorino could be expected to hold down right field, and also play center in case Ellsbury got hurt. Having plus defense in both center and right also mitigated the issue of having, say, Gomes getting significant time in the outfield. There is no need to go on at length about 2013.

The Victorino contract, however, makes even more sense now that Ellsbury has left. At the moment, Bradley appears to be in line to the be starting center fielder in 2014, with Victorino returning in right field. If Bradley gets hurt or needs to be sent down, the Red Sox have Victorino to take over in center field. If Bradley does well, they still have two center fielders out there, not only providing good defense, but enabling one to have a day off when he needs it. This is important because it also allows the Red Sox to put Gomes, Nava, and Carp (none of whom one would want to see in center field) around in suitable platoon or bench roles. (The team may also make further moves that changes the bench situation, of course.)

This is not to say the Victorino deal was only smart if Boston thought Ellsbury would leave. Again, Bradley was (and is) no sure thing. Even if he did succeed, Bradley could still be an asset in left in a similar fashion to center fielder Victorino being an asset in right. Perhaps the Red Sox would not had the roster room to keep all three of Gomes, Nava and Carp, but with both Nava and Carp in their cost-controlled seasons, one or both could have been traded or non-tendered to make space.

Although there are obvious differences, the departure of Ellsbury makes the Victorino signing look even better in a way similar to the way Albert Pujols‘ leaving St. Louis showed the Matt Holliday contract to be a smart move. Yes, both teams would probably have been better, at least in the short term, if they had been able to keep Pujols/Ellsbury. However, before either player reached free agency, the teams knew the players were likely to demand more money than they were willing to pay in free agency. The Cardinals and Red Sox both made other signings that may have seemed questionable (if for somewhat different reasons) at the time, but in retrospect, were likely made in the context of budgetary and roster situation that did not include the soon-to-be-departing stars. (Both teams winning the World Series in their stars’ last season with the team is just a nice coincidence.) And like the Cardinals, the Red Sox’ move prior to free agency has kept them from scrambling, and allows to use the money saved through their preparation to improve the team in other areas.

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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