The Trade: An early reckoning

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- James Loney began Wednesday night leading the American League in hitting with a .381 average, and leading the majors in percentage of line drives hit, 34 percent. Do we need another excuse to revisit last August’s trade between the Red Sox and Dodgers, and some of the moves that preceded it?

In a word, no.

There are many moving parts, and always it is useful to remember that regardless of the performance of the principals involved, Boston’s primary motivation was money: the ability to climb out from under $262 million in salary obligations to Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett.

The flexibility the Sox gained will be felt for seasons to come. In 2015, for example, the Sox currently have just $29.75 million in guaranteed salary obligations. That’s only two years from now. In 2016, the obligation is $245,000, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Ben Cherington and the Sox were widely applauded throughout the industry for being able to find a trading partner willing to take on that kind of salary.

The performance of the players the Sox gave up, of course, will help to define whether that flexibility was worth it. Here is an update:

Gonzalez is putting up another impressive slash line (.341/.391/.504/.895), but last week made a startling admission to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. Gonzalez said he has never been able to regain the power swing he had before injuring his shoulder with the Padres in 2010, and that his years of hitting 30 to 40 home runs may be over.

"I can still hit home runs," Gonzalez said. "That is not going to be an issue. The full power is not the same.

"Last year, I tried to go back to the swing I had before I got hurt," he said. "I tried it for the whole first half, with horrible results."

Gonzalez hit .283 with six home runs in the first half of last season, and at the time of the Aug. 25 deal that sent him from Boston to Los Angeles, he was batting .300 with 15 home runs in 527 plate appearances. At no time in Boston did Gonzalez ever say he was forced to abandon his old swing.

So far this season, Gonzalez has four home runs in 135 plate appearances, which projects to around 20 for a full season.

The Sox, of course, envisioned Gonzalez as the slugger who would eventually take over for David Ortiz as a middle-of-the-order home run hitter. To acquire him, they gave up three prospects: pitcher Casey Kelly, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and outfielder Reymond Fuentes.

Kelly made it to the big leagues with the Padres but underwent Tommy John surgery and is out for the season. Fuentes, Boston’s first-round draft choice in 2009, has struggled for a couple of seasons in the minors but at 22 may be putting it together: He was hitting .333 with a .893 OPS for Double-A San Antonio, with 17 stolen bases.

Rizzo, meanwhile, was subsequently dealt to the Cubs, who last week signed him to a seven-year, $41 million deal. Rizzo began the night tied for fifth in home runs in the National League with nine, and projects to be the slugger the Sox envisioned when he hit 20 for Double-A Portland, this after overcoming cancer.

So while the Sox have no clear vision of their first baseman of the future, having dealt away Rizzo for Gonzalez, of the two, Rizzo appears more likely to be the player they sought for that role, and for considerably cheaper than Gonzalez cost. Whether they can find a replacement who will offer comparable production remains to be seen.

Crawford, meanwhile, has experienced a renaissance with the Dodgers, hitting for average (.311), reaching base (.372), hitting for power (5 home runs), stealing bases (8). Having failed miserably when Terry Francona tried him as a leadoff man here, Crawford has thrived in that role for L.A.

The question, of course, for CC is sustainability -- not only whether he can sustain that performance this season, but for a contract that does not expire until after the 2017 season.

Josh Beckett, on the other hand, is winless in eight starts for the Dodgers with an 0-5 record and a 5.19 ERA, and may be headed to the disabled list with a groin issue. And surprise, surprise: Beckett’s interminable time between pitches has become an issue in L.A., too.

"I'd like to see him work really quick," manager Don Mattingly said. "Some guys work quicker, some guys work slower."

The Dodgers are on the hook to Beckett for this season and next for a total of $31.5 million.

Loney was one of the players the Sox received back from the Dodgers, and he was never viewed as more than a stopgap at first base for Boston, which allowed him to walk as a free agent without making an offer. His performance so far for the Rays is not surprising; it’s shocking.

Two other players acquired in that deal, first baseman-outfielder Jerry Sands and infielder Ivan DeJesus, were subsequently flipped to Pittsburgh with reliever Mark Melancon for Joel Hanrahan. Both are in the minors, Sands hitting just .159 while DeJesus, at 26, is running out of time. [Melancon, meanwhile, has an 0.47 ERA in the Pirates bullpen].

The Sox also received top pitching prospects Allen Webster and Rubby de la Rosa. Webster has already been called up twice by the Sox, and is regarded as a top prospect. De la Rosa, nearly two years removed from Tommy John surgery, is being brought along slowly, but in his last three starts, the longest one four innings, he has pitched 11 scoreless innings, striking out 20 and walking 1 in 19 innings. At that rate, a call-up to the big leagues will be inevitable.

This will be a good deal for the Dodgers only if they are playing in October. It may be years before we know how good a deal it was for the Red Sox.

And if Rizzo becomes a superstar, the reckoning becomes more complicated.