Branch Rickey once stated that he would rather trade a player one year too early than keep him one year too late. Rightly or wrongly, that philosophy has been the Boston Red Sox modus operandi for the last 30-plus years, and, yesterday, Kevin Youkilis became the most recent example.
It wasn’t too long ago that Youkilis was considered part of the heart and soul of the Boston Red Sox. However, the combination of reoccurring injuries, a new management regime, and the emergence of rookie standout Will Middlebrooks conspired to make him the odd man out in Boston. In fact, the Red Sox were so eager to get rid of Youkilis, they not only settled for pennies on the dollar in terms of talent received in return, but also paid the Chicago White Sox about $6 million to complete the deal. Make no mistake about it, the Red Sox dumped Youkilis. Now, they have to hope their decision doesn’t turn out to be premature.
Youkilis is the latest in a long line of home grown All Stars who have made an unexpected early exit from Red Sox Nation. Beginning with Fred Lynn and Carlton Fisk, who also changed his Sox from red to white, and continuing with the likes of Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jonathan Papelbon, many of the franchise’s greatest players over the last 30 years have wound up leaving the team sooner than later. Below is a look at some of the most high profile cases as well as an assessment of each decision.
The 1980 season was a disappointment for the Red Sox. After 11 consecutive seasons of finishing within the top-three in the A.L. East, Boston fell all the way to fifth place, 20 games behind the rival Yankees. However, there wasn’t too much cause for concern. After all, with All Stars like Carlton Fisk and Fred Lynn, the team was well established up the middle and a likely contender for the pennant again in 1981. Or so then GM Haywood Sullivan thought on December 22, when he mailed out contract renewals to the two players. Unfortunately for Sullivan, a new agreement made with the Players Association required all renewals to be submitted no later than December 20, meaning, by rule, Lynn and Fisk were no longer in the employ of the Red Sox. In what may have been the most costly clerical blunder in baseball history, Sullivan’s tardiness led to his team losing two of its best players.
With an arbitration hearing looming to decide the fate of Fred Lynn, the Red Sox made a pre-emptive strike and traded the center fielder to the California Angels, who promptly signed the 28-year old outfielder to a four-year, multi-million deal. In defense of Sullivan, Lynn’s agent Jerry Kapstein, who also represented Fisk, made it very clear that his client wasn’t interested in anything more than a one-year deal, so, even if the Red Sox won the arbitration case, he likely wasn’t long for Boston anyway (which was confirmed by the immediacy of Lynn’s contract extension with the Angels). For that reason, the team was actively shopping Lynn even before the contract snafu occurred, so once that leverage was removed, a trade was inevitable. Although Boston was unwilling to take its chances in arbitration with Lynn, it rolled the dice on Fisk and lost. After he was declared a free agent, the Red Sox tried to re-sign their catcher, but the contract they offered was heavily predicated upon incentives. Meanwhile, the White Sox were willing to offer guaranteed money, so, just months after parting company with Lynn, Fisk was gone as well.
Considering Lynn’s unwillingness to discuss a contract extension, you can’t blame Sullivan for trading him. However, his refusal to offer Fisk a fully guaranteed deal is worthy of being second guessed. Not only did Fisk remain a very productive catcher over the course of his new five-year deal (114 OPS+ in 624 games), he also remained a stalwart well into his 40s. Because Rich Gedman eventually developed into a viable replacement, the loss of Fisk was mitigated to an extent, but, all things considered, even Sullivan would probably admit that he should have been more aggressive in his attempt to re-sign the future Hall of Famer.
Wade Boggs had batted over .300 during every season of his major league career, that is, until 1992. In what happened to be his walk year, Boggs hit an underwhelming .259, so, considering his age, the Red Sox decided to not offer the perennial All Star a new contract. Although whispers about Boggs selfishness followed him out the door, the Red Sox decision was based on the expectation of diminished performance. As he vowed upon signing with the rival New York Yankees, Boggs proved that assessment wrong. Over the term of his three year deal with the Bronx Bombers, Boggs not only hit .300 in each season, but also ranked third at his position in WAR, trailing only Matt Williams and Robin Ventura. What’s more, he was also credited with helping to establish the patient approach that would become a hallmark of the future Yankees’ dynasty teams. So, even though the Red Sox enjoyed nearly equal production from the duo of Scott Cooper and Tim Naehring, allowing Boggs to change sides in the rivalry had a hand in reviving the Yankees’ dominance, a dynamic that was symbolically represented by the sight of Boggs riding horseback during a World Series celebration in the Bronx.
Roger Clemens was one of the Red Sox players who wasn’t unhappy to see Boggs go. “There were a few guys who didn’t want to be here and they were miserable playing here,” Clemens once said referring to the third baseman, “so it was best for them to move on.” Three years later, however, it was Clemens who was on the other side of a contentions break-up with the Red Sox.
We didn’t see Roger as the top pitcher in baseball. If you check the record book, Roger has not performed at the 200-inning level like he did early in his career.” – Red Sox GM Dan Duquette, quoted by AP, December 14, 1996
Perhaps swayed more by his win-loss record than the underlying peripheral numbers, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette infamously referred to Clemens as being in the twilight of his career after the 1996 seasons and explained away the team’s tepid interest in having the three-time CY Young award winner return to the fold by claiming he was no longer one of the top pitchers in the game. Duquette couldn’t have been more wrong. After leaving Boston, Clemens’ twilight lasted another 11 seasons, including four more Cy Young awards and two World Series rings. Had the Red Sox been able to pair Pedro Martinez and Clemens, they may have reversed the curse even sooner, and perhaps even more importantly, avoided alienating one of the greatest players in franchise history.
After Roger Clemens’ bitter parting with the Red Sox, he predicted that Mo Vaughn would be the next All Star player to leave Boston early. It didn’t take long for the Rocket to look prophetic. At the end of the 1997 season, one year before his free agency, the slugging first baseman lashed out at the Red Sox front office for its failure to come to terms on a contract extension. At the time, Boston was offering about $27 million for three years. One year later, Vaughn signed for $80 million over six years. Clearly, there was a disconnect.
I’m not going to go out like Roger Clemens and be questioned for my integrity and questioned as a man. The Red Sox can’t act as if our camp didn’t do everything possible to make a deal get done.” – Mo Vaughn, quoted by AP, September 17, 1997
Even though Mo Vaughn entered free agency as one of the most productive hitters in the game, the Red Sox’ concerns about his long-term viability were quickly proven out. In his first two seasons with the Angels, Vaughn experienced a significant drop-off in productivity before an injury cost him the entire 2001 season. Anaheim escaped from under the weight of his contract by trading Vaughn to the Mets, but the change of scenery didn’t help. After one solid season in Flushing, Vaughn’s body broke down once again, this time for good, ending his career five years into the original six year deal the Red Sox refused to give him.
If ever there was a player who seemed certain to be a Red Sox for life, it was Nomar Garciaparra. After winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1997, the young shortstop quickly established himself as one of the best hitters in the game. Every bit the equal of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, Garciaparra carried the Red Sox offense in the period between Vaughn’s departure and Manny Ramirez’ arrival, and by doing so, also earned the status as fan favorite. Garciaparra was also at the heart of Boston’s revival as a pennant contender, which is what made his sudden trade at the deadline in 2004 all the more shocking.
Boy, I’m looking at someone who is going to be as good as anyone who ever played the game. You’ll be here 10 to 15 years from now, singing the praises of Nomar Garciaparra. I can’t say enough about him.” – Ted Williams, quoted by the Boston Globe, March 1999
For weeks before he was sent packing to the Cubs, Garciaparra’s disenchantment had become the worst kept secret in Boston. After he was seen “sulking” on the bench during an extra inning game against the Yankees, the rumors began to swirl about his unhappiness, which stemmed from the team’s attempts to trade him during the offseason in order to make room for rival short stop Alex Rodriguez. In spite of the attempts to justify the trade, it still seemed as if Boston was cashing in its chips by trading a disgruntled player, but instead, the deal turned out to be a turning point in the season, which culminated in the franchise’s first World Series championship in 86 years. Because of that success, the Red Sox wouldn’t have had many regrets under any circumstances, but the undistinguished end to Garciaparra’s career served as further justification for their decision.
In addition to the departure of homegrown stars, the Red Sox have also bid an early goodbye to standout players like Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, Derek Lowe, and Manny Ramirez. Even when the commitment was only one season and money wasn’t an issue, as in the case of Dwight Evans, the Red Sox have mostly been unwilling to allow sentiment to enter into the equation. Branch Rickey would be proud, but to those who value the franchise’s legacy as much as the results of future seasons, the Red Sox track record of bitter goodbyes is probably more a source of shame. At least that’s what it seems to be in the case of Youkilis.