Boston Red Sox reality doesn’t match media spin

Ryan Dempster Boston Red Sox

By adding Ryan Dempster, the Boston Red Sox continued their lackluster offseason (CBS Sports photo)

The latest Herald piece about the Boston Red Sox paints a positive, though not particularly enthusiastic, view of the team’s offseason to date.  The opening thought, that the club is “not winning the offseason” is obviously accurate; while teams like the Angels (Josh Hamilton for 5 years, $125M) and Rays (sending James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City for super-prospect Wil Myers) are making significant moves, Boston is staying fairly quiet.  Relatively speaking.

But the Herald’s next bit is this:

“The Red Sox set out this offseason to stay true to a disciplined path on which they would dole out their abundant stack of bills with measured restraint while keeping an even closer eye on steering away from multi-year deals.”

GM Ben Cherington had said prior to the winter meetings that the team would be spending money to improve itself, but there was always the implication that Boston wouldn’t be throwing around large sums willy-nilly.  That’s a good thing.  The Angels, as an example, are getting a great hitter right now, but have likely hurt themselves with the size and duration of recent contracts.  In other words,Red Sox Nation should be glad that Cherington didn’t cough up $100M or more for a high-risk outfielder.

The free agent class of 2013 isn’t particularly strong and the tactic of staying disciplined is a good one, in principle.  But part of staying disciplined is making moves that will fundamentally improve the team, providing good value and return on investment.  Just because the Red Sox haven’t made a huge, impetuous signing doesn’t mean they’ve been successful.

The latest add, Ryan Dempster, has been well-received.  The question is why.

In 2012, the average ERA for starting pitchers in the A.L. was 4.37.  Raise your hand if you think that Ryan Dempster is going to beat the number. 

Right.  Not seeing any hands.

Although Dempster has posted some very nice seasons over his 15-year career, he’s had plenty of duds as well.  Since 2006, three of his seven campaigns have finished with ERAs of 4.73 or higher, all in the N.L. Central which, for reference, is not a particularly strong division.  Now Dempster is coming to baseball’s toughest, the A.L. East.  It’s hard to imagine he’ll manage an ERA under 4.50.  His first and only foray into the A.L. finished with a 5.09 ERA in 69 innings with the Rangers last year.

I’m willing to cut Dempster some slack.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, that those dozen games represented a period of adjustment.  But even if he pares back that 5.09, odds of him being better than a league-average pitcher are extremely long.   At $13.25M per season, is he really worth it?

Like many Red Sox experts, Pater Gammons is putting a happy spin on the deal:

But come on.   Sox fans should be happy because 380 innings of high-4s ERA will be better than what we suffered through in 2012?  Sure, 7.13 was a monstrous and disturbing number, but more or less any duo of average pitchers could improve on that.  Boston will be dropping $28.5M on Lackey and Dempster this year.  For two arms whose best case scenario is league average results.

The bottom line is that these types of players, guys like Dempster and Lackey, might help keep things from getting too far out of hand.  But they’re not going to help you win.  They’re not going to elevate you over the Yankees, Rays, or even the dramatically improved Blue Jays or Orioles.  Does it really matter whether you lose 93 games (like last year) or only 85?  Would it not be better to save that $28.5M and use it for player development or the acquisition of some high-upside youth?

And what about the other signings this year, do they really represent discipline as the Herald suggests? 

Shane Victorino can play a solid right field and has some speed, assuming his stint with the Dodgers wasn’t a true indication of skill erosion (that’s a big assumption).  But he’s also a 32 year old with typical on-base skills and little power.  His slash line will probably be something like .260/ .325/ .425 with 12-15 homers and 20 steals.  Not bad totals by any means, but do they represent a $13M improvement over, say, Ryan Kalish?

Mike Napoli is a big-bodied catcher/ first base type with exactly one full season on his resume.  Relegated to part-time duty in both Anaheim and Texas, he’s not without risk.  The 25-30 homers will be nice, but his on-base percentage is likely to be closer to .350 than to 2011’s aberration of .414. 

Like Victorino, Napoli is a good player and the type of guy who can improve a team’s chemistry.  No one should underestimate the importance of that factor after the last few years in Boston.  The club is certainly in desperate need of an overall attitude adjustment.  And let’s all accept that there’s nothing to be done about John Lackey’s contract.  But Victorino, Dempster, and Napoli combine for nearly $40M in 2013, are all on the wrong side of 30, and, if you believe the metrics, are each likely to decline.

Is that $40M discipline?  Or is it just mediocrity?