Not so fast on small-market ways being the future of baseball – $655m to five pitchers?

In the near perpetual convolution that major league baseball has become, one month can make an astounding difference.

When the World Series ended the first week of November, the conventional wisdom boiled over in its admiration of the small-market team with the relatively minuscule payroll and virtually no free agents or acquisitions of any real cost on its roster sitting on top of the game bestriding all the idiotic spendthrifts, and laughing at the dopes burdened with suffocating salaries.

The lesson of the Kansas City Royals, we were told, is historic. They are, it was loftily declared, the new role model.  

Buying into this impeccable logic were virtually all the deep thinkers of the jock media. For example, just a week ago the New York Post’s Joel Sherman,  who is as wise, knowledgeable, and capable of creative thinking as anyone in this disreputable dodge, was opining about how maybe a lot of fat cat free agents were in for the shock of their bloody lives. His thesis is based on the smart observation that three whole weeks had passed without a significant free-agent signing while the two heaviest hitters in the money wars were renouncing their legacy and withdrawing from the fray.   

It was solid and perfectly reasonable thinking, shared by many. When the New York Yankees, still owned by a Steinbrenner, pledge themselves soulfully to a binding austerity and the Los Angeles Dodgers, proud owners of the most hideous payroll in the history of American professional sports, roll over and crap out in the bidding for their best player, it becomes unquestionably a watershed moment. Right?

In a subsequent span of a mere five days, we had $655.5 million pledged to five pitchers – average age 32 – four of whom, given baseball’s  current operative law of averages, could theoretically be candidates for Tommy John surgery any year now, with the fifth having already been there.  Amazing! Far from facing a moment of truth, the money warriors are entering a giddy new cycle of certified madness.
There was much that confounds and contradicts in this latest zany round. Irony abounds.  In their capitulation to the charms of David Price, the Red Sox gained the distinction of having handed out the heftiest contract ever given a pitcher: $31 million a year for seven years. But such proud honors were to be held only three days before the Arizona Diamondbacks, those reckless rascals, seized it away by lavishing a six-year pact paying $34,441,667 per on Zack Greinke, the crafty pitcher ex-of the Dodgers, the most dough per annum ever showered on a baseball player.

It must amuse the Yankees and Dodgers to realize that the luxury tax payments they’re obliged to cough up –totaling $55 million for just this year – will be re-distributed to alleged small-market hardship cases like the Diamondbacks so that they can buy the likes of Greinke for $206.5 million. What is there about this picture that I don’t quite grasp?

And so the winter meetings arrive with the five pitcher deals setting the stage for another torrid Hot Stove season.

Dumbest of these epic capers looks to be the Giants conferring $90 million on Jeff Samardzija, long highly over-rated presumably because he played football at Notre Dame and looks like he ought to be great. While going 11-13 with a 4.96 ERA for the White Sox last season, Samardzija led the AL in giving up hits, earned runs, and homers. On such lusty recommendations he gets $18 million per year for five years to assuage his bruised ego.  

Jordan Zimmerman, snared by the Tigers for a mere five years at $22 million per, may be almost worth it; almost, but not quite. If  there’s a bargain in the lot, it’s likely to be 37-year-old John Lackey, of not so treasured  memory, who lands with the Cubs for only two years and $16 million per. However dubious his personal charms, if Lackey remains as healthy as he was last season in St. Louis, he could bring just the right measure of savvy and stability to Joe Maddon’s  staff to carry the Cubs, with their abundance of eager young talent, over the top, and wouldn’t that be swell.

The Lackey caper is in many ways the ideal free agent pickup; neither for too much nor for too long, a proven quantity meeting a specific and strategic need, a worthy gamble for a team that’s only a lucky break shy of an epic breakthrough. It could, like all deals, backfire. But the damage would be limited, and at least the odds are in your favorite, and thereby worth the risk.

The Lackey deal I’d do, the others are stupid, delusional, and ultimately to be deeply regretted. Can’t prove it today, but check with me in about 2022 and we’ll compare notes. This admittedly sweeping indictment very much includes the Red Sox and their wildly acclaimed – at least hereabouts – bagging of David Price. Red Sox Nation has fallen in love again. It happens every winter.

To us, more hardened, with longer memories and seasoned doubts, the rave notices are amusing. To think that only a year ago the Nation was equally overjoyed with the coming of that illustrious duo, Comrades Sandoval and Ramirez. Furthermore, in the current euphoria, there’s little disposition to recall how thrilled were the natives when Adrian Gonzalez first smiled upon them.

And above all, what should we now make of all the doubletalk about the stupidity of paying too much too long for pitchers veering on middle age that was so hotly expended to justify the snubbing of Jon Lester? Not signing Lester last winter was smart. But how much better is Price now than Lester was before he turned 32? You should look it up.

The resemblance of Boston’s deal with Price to the Yankees’ signing of the highly comparable C.C. Sabathia in 2008 is downright eerie in most every detail, including the money, the contract’s length, even that crazed optional out-clause invokable  after three years.  Similarities are stunning, although actually C.C. was then younger, a touch better, more proven, seemingly even sturdier. The Yanks got three great years and a championship out of it, swallowed the option, and it has been downhill ever since, and now threatening to end ugly. A good guy, C.C, but worth it in the end? Not really! If they are lucky, this is what the Red Sox can expect from Price. But the odds against are overwhelming; they need that luck.

Of course, here and now the Red Sox would insist even one championship would be worth the price of Price, and dutiful members of the Nation, good sheep that they are, will bleat their approval. It will be fascinating to observe, as it always is, how they change their tune when reality dawns as the honeymoon ends.  And it always does.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, there seems to be growing puzzlement about the odd role of new Fenway baseball czar Dave Dombrowski in the Price saga, which has been little noted hereabouts amidst all the revelry, but surely is, for the want of a better word, unprecedented. It has aroused the intense skepticism of Jerry Green, hugely popular and respected columnist of the Detroit News for the past half century or so.  

Green finds it mighty curious that  Dombrowski, while in charge of the Tigers, first traded for Price,  then a year later traded him away to Toronto “because he was unaffordable and unsignable,” then got fired a week later, and now four months later, employed by a new team, he turns around and signs Price “for an astronomical outlay.”

To it all, Green says: “There seems to be an odor of something akin to the smell emitted by rancid cod or oyster.”

In other words, he isn’t keen on the juxtaposition of events, if you will, and wishes to know more about why Dombrowski was fired in Detroit and when he knew he’d be booted and whether it was connected to the Toronto deal and how that trade came about. Cleary, he’s irked.

“Sour grapes”, says you. Not really. That’s not Jerry Green’s style. Nor may any of it have much bearing on the end result, which finds Price and Dombrowski blissfully re-united here in Boston.  But it retains the whiff of controversy, and that’s interesting. Stay tuned.