Boston Red Sox' contract to Carl Crawford raises questions

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:58 PM

With the $142 million deal they gave to Carl Crawford, who has spent nine seasons proving that Fenway Park damages every part of his game, the Boston Red Sox just made the Washington Nationals look smart. Or, at least, the Nats now look a lot less dumb for giving Jayson Werth $126 million.

The Red Sox just broke the bank for a free agent who, as a Tampa Bay Ray, never hit 20 homers and only once had more than 81 RBI. But Boston's decision, made after the Nats grabbed their first choice, Werth, may be scarier than that.

Throughout his career, Crawford has hit Red Sox pitching just as well as he has hit against everybody else - that is, as long as the games were in Tropicana Field. There, he had a flashy slash line of .327/.363/.482. But in lopsided Fenway Park, which works against all his tendencies as a hitter, Crawford has only hit one home run every 85 at-bats. In 338 career plate appearances in Fenway, a large sample over many years, he has an ugly .275/.301/.406 line.

There's a name for speedy, weak-armed left fielders with those numbers. They're called AAAA players. Or young prospects. Many teams have one. The Nats' example is Roger Bernadina, except he can throw. Last year, Crawford's OPS was "only" 75 points lower in Fenway than elsewhere.

Crawford's other flaw is that his career numbers against left-handed pitching are even worse than his stats in Fenway. Now, in the same lineup with lefties such as David Ortiz, J.D. Drew, Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Red Sox will see every team's southpaws. Calling CC Sabathia. And Andy Pettitte and Cliff Lee?

Few phrases are as filled with tingles and terror as "$100 million contract." But add the word "guarantee" and the hair really stands up on your neck. Nats fans have that double-edged feeling now. But Bosox fans who think Crawford's a safe bet should, too.

If Werth falls down an open manhole, the decision to sign him for so many years will obviously be a huge disaster for the Nats. That's the risk every team takes in every sport when it signs a contract for more than $100 million in guaranteed money.

What on earth is the Red Sox' excuse? For a team as obsessed with stats as Boston it's amazing to watch the Red Sox do a deal that screams "Yankee Fear." Didn't the Yanks help the Red Sox out enough already by re-signing their utterly immobile captain for three more years? Derek Jeter, a handsome marble column of a shortstop, has finally gone from "iconic" to "Ionic."

Crawford is an excellent player. Next year, he may help make the Red Sox the preseason favorite to win another World Series. (I never thought I'd type those last dozen words!) Maybe short-term joy is sufficient when you have Red Sox revenues. But the contract this week that should really raise eyebrows is Crawford's.

First, there's context: It's all the Nats' fault.

Werth was the Red Sox' logical choice as a free agent outfielder. He's a righty power bat who hits more flies than grounders and pulls the ball more often than he goes to the opposite field. Hello, Wall. Besides, his strong arm and speed would be perfect for Fenway's huge right field.

Also, he'd help balance that lefty-loaded lineup. Just a week ago, before fiscal insanity broke loose, Nats left fielder Josh Willingham (career .265/.367/.475) was a possible trade match for the Red Sox. He not only jerks all his high-fly home runs to left field but lands most of them in the same seat. You can look that stuff up now. Josh's 103 homers are so tightly bunched they'd look like a rifle-range target hung under the CITGO sign in Boston.

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