What Phillies can learn from Red Sox rebuild: Sign short-term deals, survive bad deals, keep players motivated

What Phillies can learn from Red Sox rebuild: Sign short-term deals, survive bad deals, keep players motivated

Last year, the Red Sox skidded to a 93-loss finish and, all things considered, one of the biggest underachievements in recent sports memory. This year, and after an 8-1 lathering of the Cardinals in Game 1, they're three wins from a World Series crown. No matter the outcome, they've already capped a turnaround that's nothing short of remarkable. Maybe among the best all-time. Maybe the best.

"How'd they do it?" ask Phillies fans, fresh off their team's 89-loss snoozer? Good question.

The answer, besides the obvious like, you know, preaching getting on base and offering the clubhouse a non-lunatic manager: By keeping guys financially motivated. And despite some failure.

Vaunted as Boston’s offseason rebuild has been, it’s hard to overlook the most significant similarities between the deals: (a) none offers any guarantees beyond next-next year, (b) a few ended in magnificent disaster.

Here's a reminder:

THE BAD

Joel Hanrahan, RP (acquired via trade on 12/26/12): Back to back All-Star Games for Pittsburgh despite absurd control issues in 2012 that resulted in baseball's second-highest BB/9 among relievers that year, his age-31 season. For some reason, this was deemed worth a former No. 6 overall prospect and Mark Melancon, who posted a 1.39 ERA in 72 appearances out of what became baseball's second best bullpen. And what did that deal, considered by some a coup for the Pirates, get for Boston? 7.1 innings, two blown saves, a 9.82 ERA, and one Tommy John surgery. Overall, less than good turnout.

Ryan Dempster, SP (two years, $26.5 million): Had decline written all over him, even before Texas traded for him at last year's deadline and his ERA blew up like Will Smith's face in "Hitch," to a 5.09 down the stretch. And decline Dempster did: 4.57 ERA in 32 starts before getting yanked from the rotation in September before the final stretch. Tough to crush Boston for Dempster's $13.25 million this year, given the comparable production vs. pay the Blue Jays, Nats and, yes, your Phillies got from Josh Johnson, Dan Haren and Jonathan Papelbon. And he did bean A-Rod. Still. Not so bueno on the whole.

THE GOOD(ish)

Mike Napoli, 1B/C (one year, $5 millIon): Original deal was three years, $39 million. Then Boston realized that the 31-year-old former Angel and Ranger was basically running on a replica of Bo Jackson's hip. (Really.) This season, solid year. 4.0 WAR, seventh most among first basemen. 23 homers. Decent .842 OPS. All to temper his 32.4% strikeout rate, second-highest in baseball, Ended up getting great value, enhanced by his ability to let David Ortiz full-time DH. But remember, Boston was willing to pay a deal that would've carried AAV of $13M, Carlos Beltran's 2013 earnings. Of the seven players at the position to post a better OPS, only Joey Votto would've earned more per year. Value, but only as a function of fortune.

Jonny Gomes, DH/OF (two years, $10 million): End of the day, any 11 year vet earning $5 million per is small potatoes. Still, Gomes' .247/.344/.426 line tells you all you need to know: plate patience matters, especially for fringe guys. If he qualified, his 3.87 pitches per plate appearance would've only ranked 11th of 22 AL outfielders. But imagine what Gomes' on-base percentage, on par with Ben Revere, who hit .305 this year, would've been without it. In short, valuing walks isn't "Moneyball." In 2013, it's just "smart."

THE GOOD

Koji Uehara, RP (one year, $4.5 million): Not much to say "nay" about here. 3.3 WAR, most among relievers. 11.22 K/9, best among relievers. 21 saves in 24 opportunities, after taking over for Andrew Bailey, who replaced the injured Joel Hanrahan. 2013 ALCS MVP. Had a $4.25 million 2014 option (55 appearances) vest mid-season. Even though he'll be 39, don't think Sawx fans are complaining.

Shane Victorino, RF (three years, $39 million): Oh, Shane. Tough for Phillie fans to swallow. Career-worst year in 2012 that somehow further slipped after he was traded to the Dodgers. Funny, though. Guy struggles heftily in not one, but two, over-paid, arguably bad clubhouses, goes to one with the proper chemistry and motivation and posts a career-high .294 average, solid .802 OPS and, best of all, 5.6 WAR, in the neighborhood of soon-to-(maybe?)-be $300 million man Robinson Cano, who played 38 more games.

Stephen Drew, SS (one year, $9.5 million): Posted the same 3.4 WAR as Milwaukee's Jean Seguara, and a better OPS, despite not qualifying for the batting title. (WAR is a cumulative stat, so yeah, that's impressive.) Not bad for a No. 8 hitter, where he batted for most of the season. On defense, average range, but a sure glove that was third-best at the position. Very, very  much worth the coin.

THE TRADE

Who could forget about The Trade, which shed $250 million in salaries through 2018 and three guys who, in their own words, even a half-year later, didn't quite jell with the rest of the clubhouse: Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. For Phillies fans green with envy over their team's bad contracts, consider, Ruben Amaro may have had the chance. Remember, trade actually centered on Los Angeles' waiver claim of Gonzalez and Beckett. Two weeks earlier, the Dodgers put in a claim on Cliff Lee. Can we confirm that conversations between GM Ned Colletti and Amaro involved a similar megadeal, for, say, Lee, Ryan Howard (a buy-low move for a high-upside guy coming off injury that would've been perfect for the first base-needy and farm system-poor Dodgers) and Papelbon (Brandon League was soon to be an UFA, and, in the first year of a three year, $22.5 million deal, owner of a 5.30 ERA)? No. But you'd be foolish to disregard the coincidence.

THE OTHER TRADE

Midseason deals often matter just as much, if not more, as those struck in the offseason. And credit the Red Sox: despite Peavy's 4.28 ERA with the White Sox in the first half, and only marginally better 4.08 in Boston after, he provided security for a team parched for pitching depth, considering Clay Buccoltz' health and Dempster's stuff. He was a No. 4 ideally, a No. 3 in a pinch. Was he worth Jose Iglesias, the slick-fielding and average-reliant shortstop that went to Detroit? Maybe, considering Boston was higher on SS Xander Boegarts anyway. Maybe not. Still, the fact that they (a) addressed a position of need, (b) got production comparable to what Peavy had been doing pre-trade, (c) orchestrated the always tough three-team deal and (d) preyed on the desperation of not one, but two teams (Detroit needed to fill the void soon to be gashed by SS Jhonny Peralta's 50-game PED ban, and Chicago just kind of sucks/needs to rebuild), it's safe to call this a success.

JOHN LACKEY

Any time you can get a guy you're paying $82.5 million over five years to bounce back from a career-high 6.41 ERA two years prior AND Tommy John surgery one year prior to win 10 games and post a 3.52 ERA as your No. 3 (and, given Buccoltz' issues, often a No. 2), you're got fortune on your side. Especially when your current management group wasn't responsible for the signing, from 2009. The lesson: good luck never hurts.

THE TAKEAWAY

So, what's there to learn in all of this?

(1) Don't spend lots of money/prospects on one or two guys that you can spend on, like, 10. In baseball, deals not working out isn't a risk. It's an occupational hazard. Here, in what may be considered the greatest fixer upper in sports history, you'll note that two of the seven deals (for $20 million in salary this year and some really, really good prospects) ended in utter catastrophe. A third, Napoli's, could've been quite meh quite easily. For Phillies fans consumed by the big market mentality that, when it comes to free agency, your spending of a lot of money on tickets/jerseys/memorabilia should correspond to the front office's spending of a lot of money on "marquee" names, no, the top prospect on the market probably isn't worth it. Money -- any money, let alone Howard/Pujols/Hamilton/Cano money -- is often "bad money" by default. Especially since...

(2) Make sure your players, and front office execs, are properly motivated. Short-term deals create incentives. Urgency. Desperation. Sure, much can be said about Boston adding personalities, character, chemistry. But how much of that is the result of their individual financial situations? Give a guy bazillions of dollars over a decade, it's impossible for him to be as motivated as he is with the carrot still dangling in front of him. He's also likely to have more camaraderie with the guys around him, most of whom are in the same, disleveraged position. This doesn't make athletes bad people, it makes them human. Which means the same incentives should work the same way on just about everybody.  Brief deals also helps cushion the blow of bad deals (which we just established are inevitable) and turn over the roster, which is especially great if you've got viable prospects up the pike like, say, Franco, Hernandez, Asche, Galvis. Giving such guys a clear path not only motivates them, seeing as they're only months? weeks? days? from "the call," it holds the front office and scouting department accountable. They have to find and cultivate talent, because sometime in the not too distant future, they'll need to use it. (Like, say, this year's other World Series participant.)

As for Victorino, pouncing on a high character guy coming off a dreadful year was savvy. It also shows how Boston executed the other part of this "give guys incentive" strategy. His motivation here wasn't the money -- he has what may be his last significant contract. It was restoring his reputation, something you have to wonder whether guys without the opportunity for a fresh start, and locked into five-year, gadzillion dollar deals, worry about. Especially when there are, like, 10 of them not worrying about it in the same room.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @MKH973 Catch him every Saturday from 12-2 on 97.3 ESPN-FM. 

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).