Marginal change might be enough

What would the addition of Alex Rodriguez to the Red Sox lineup have accomplished in 2004?

Aside from irritating George Steinbrenner -- which, granted, is a worthy goal in itself -- not a whole lot. Why not? Because replacing Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez with Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez is essentially a wash.

Not precisely a wash. Crunch all the numbers, and you might expect the Red Sox to win a couple of extra games with Rodriguez and Ordonez in the lineup. But a couple of games doesn't really seem like so many, considering all the hullabaloo.

Which isn't to say it's not worth doing, and for a couple of reasons.

The first is certainty. If you have Alex Rodriguez, you're fairly certain you'll have the game's best player on your side for the rest of this decade. That's not an inconsiderable consideration.

The second is that the Red Sox have to get better, and there really aren't many ways for them to do that. Why do they have to get better? Yes, because they finished six games behind the Yankees last season. But that's not the real reason they need to get better. In terms of run differential, the Red Sox were just as good as the Yankees in 2003; a few breaks here and there, and it's the Sox rather than the Yanks who win 101 games.

No, the real reason is that the Red Sox are going to be worse next year, in a lot of spots. Look at how these players fared in 2003, compared to their career numbers entering the season ...

OBP Slug
David Ortiz .348 .461
.369 .592 '03 season

Bill Mueller .370 .399
.398 .540 '03 season

Trot Nixon .359 .476
.396 .578 '03 season

Jason Varitek .335 .427
.351 .512 '03 season

It's not just that all of these guys out-performed their career stats; all of them out-performed anything they'd ever done in a single season.

Which isn't to say they all were flukes, and in 2004 are going to sink back into the depths from which they came.

Were I a betting man, I'd bet on Ortiz and Nixon to maintain their production (or come close), with Mueller and Varitek dropping off some, but remaining solid enough.

Meanwhile, not a single everyday Red Sox player did appreciably worse last season than we might have expected. Garciaparra, Ramirez, Damon, Todd Walker ... all of them were right in line with expectations, with the slight exception of Kevin Millar (who slumped in the second half, probably due to a couple of injuries). There was only one disaster: Jeremy Giambi, but he barely played. Absent a big change in the lineup, the Red Sox simply aren't likely to score as many runs in 2004 as they scored in 2003.

Which wouldn't be the end of the world, because of course they seem quite likely to allow fewer. With the addition of Curt Schilling and a bullpen that simply can't be worse than it was in 2003, the Red Sox are already better. They could use a second baseman and a right-handed bat (Ortiz can't hit left-handed pitching, at all). But as things stand right now, the Red Sox are as good as anybody.

Except maybe the Yankees. And that's why they'll not be content until they've got Rodriguez. Two games isn't a lot. But it might be the difference between these two teams, who are essentially playing in a league of their own.


I've heard people complaining about what's happened this offseason, with so many of the best players going to the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Orioles. But unless your favorite team is the Blue Jays or Devil Rays, isn't this a good thing?

What we've got now is something that smart people have been advocating for a long time: the great players should make big money, and the near-greats and the goods should make substantially less money.

Why is this good? Because there aren't enough great players to swing the balance of power all over baseball. If they were spread around evenly, having one of them wouldn't constitute a substantial advantage. But of course, that's not what's happened. Rather, most of the great players -- at least the incredibly rich players -- are becoming concentrated among a few teams that happen to play in the same division. No, it doesn't really matter how smart you are if you're the Blue Jays, because the Yankees and Red Sox are smart and they're wealthy beyond belief.

But everywhere outside the American League East, smarts are just as important as cold cash, because there are plenty of good players available for the right price. The trick is to know which players are good and which prices are right.

It's funny. For all the talk over the years about Major League Baseball needing help from the players, all the owners really needed was a bit of sanity in the front offices. Now they've got that, and we're all -- except those of us in Toronto and Tampa -- better off as a result.

Hope and faith has returned. Glory be, and wait 'til next year.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.