A few days ago, the Red Sox and Dodgers completed a potentially franchise-altering trade. Boston sent underachieving malcontents Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez (who is actually still pretty good) plus Nick Punto to suddenly-loaded LA. In return they received several solid prospects, the thoroughly mediocre James Loney, and most importantly, massive salary relief. It was shocking to see a wealthy big market team unload all this talent for pennies on the dollar, truly a fire sale that only Tobias Funke could properly dramatize.
The deal will have a major impact on the Red Sox and Dodgers for years to come, and the reverberations could be felt throughout the league. The Red Sox significantly increased their flexibility by shedding some $260 million in future contract obligations, allowing them to be big players on the free agent market in 2012 and in upcoming seasons. While the 2012’s free agent class is not considered a stacked group, they could have room in the budget to sign several impact free agents. These could include such notables as Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, both incredibly talented players (albeit with risks attached). If the Red Sox choose to spend big this offseason, it could be reminiscent of the Yankees’ spending spree in the 2008-2009 offseason, in which they signed Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett.
As we remember, these signings contributed heavily to the Yankees’ 2009 World Series title, so a similar splurge by the Red Sox could have them back in contention in a hurry. However, failing several big acquisitions, it is difficult to see the Red Sox being serious playoff contenders in 2013 and possibly 2014. While they have some talent remaining on the team and some intriguing players down on the farm (Xander Bogaerts, Matt Barnes, and Jackie Bradley Jr. especially), it is hard to see that roster being a serious threat to win the AL East. Consequently, they will need to decide whether they are doing a full rebuild, or a Yankees-esque reload. If they go big on the current free agent class, they risk burdening themselves with the types of big expensive contracts that got them into this mess in the first place. However, a rebuild will likely doom them to non-competitiveness for several years, and this may have significant financial ramifications.
Assuming Boston doesn’t go for the full reload in 2013, the Yankees should be the AL East frontrunners, with the Rays as the main competition. This is especially the case if Baltimore comes back to earth after a 2012 season that seems somewhat fluky. Toronto will likely not have the same number of injuries again, but I don’t think that team has enough impact talent to be a competitor yet.
The defanging of the Red Sox definitely helps the Yankees in the short term, but how about the long term? A lot of that depends on how the Red Sox end up deploying their newly-acquired flexibility. The Yankees likely won’t be huge spenders on the free agent market over the next two years if they are serious about adhering to the austerity budget. If Boston hasn’t loaded up on big free agents after 2012 or 2013, they could be serious competitors for some big name players that could hit the market in 2014 , most notably Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. The trade could also put Boston in the position to build a sustainable powerhouse if they are more fortunate with their free agent signing and hit it big on with a few of their prospects. One question, however, could be whether Boston’s willingness to dump players recently signed to long-term contracts shows a lack of loyalty, and could make it difficult for them to attract free agents. I think money talks ultimately, but that could be a tie-breaker.
While they are not in the same league as the Yankees, the sudden willingness of the Dodgers to spend big to acquire impact players should draw the attention of Yankee fans. We are largely used to a unipolar landscape where the Yankees are the dominant franchise financially, capable of outbidding all comers to acquire their choice free agents. There have been some exceptions to this paradigm of late, most notably the Yankees’ failure to sign Cliff Lee, but it largely has held true. Seeing the new-money Dodgers throw that kind of cash around begs the question of how much they are willing to spend to make their team a World Series contender. Could they even outspend the Evil Empire? After this big trade, they are pretty close, and if they are willing to spend even more money, they could be a force to be reckoned with on the free agent market.
Ultimately, the Yankees will be fine, but there is no doubt that this deal is a potential game-changer. The Yankees may not be able to count on being able to sign all the best free agents to fill their holes, as fewer top guys have been hitting the market, and more teams have the financial resources to compete for the ones that do. The Red Sox suddenly have huge flexibility to bring in new impact players, while the Dodgers showed a willingness to spend at Yankee-esque levels to become relevant. In the short term, the Yankees should maintain their hold on the AL East, but they certainly can’t get too comfortable at their perch.