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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.

There's a Fenway Type hitter: Dick Stuart, Rico Petrocelli, Butch Hobson, Tony Armas, Tony Conigliaro, Hawk Harrelson, Don Baylor, Nick Esasky, John Valentin, Kevin Millar, Mike Lowell and even Jason Bay. That could've been Willingham, 31.

Just so you know how crazy the baseball world is, how reputations hinge in part on physical appearance, grace and herd-think, here is Werth's career line: .272/.367/.481. Sorry, Josh.

Everything about Crawford's game is ill-suited to lopsided Fenway. His only flaw is a weak arm. In Boston's huge right field, he'd be a pigeon for the running game. So, he'll have to remain a left fielder. But he'll be stuck in the smallest left field in the sport, where the impact of his range is minimized and the hits he does manage to steal will mostly be singles, not doubles or triples.

Many elite lefty hitters blossom into batting champs in Boston if they have opposite-field power. You'd think that the 215-pound Crawford would fit the bill. And he may. But he hasn't yet. In his whole career, he only has seven opposite-field homers. And in Tropicana Field, only three of his 53 homers have been hit even one inch to the left of dead center field. On paper, you couldn't draw a hitter less helped by Fenway. Maybe he'll adjust.

The Nation better adapt its expectations to the real Crawford. He steals 50 bases, bunts, hits more grounders than fly balls, slaps the ball to left field, but pulls it to right field with occasional power. He seldom walks and doesn't even score a ton of runs - averaging 95 for the last seven seasons. His contract is $50 million more than any ever given to a player who's never hit 20 homers.

But, like Roberto Clemente, the player he most resembles statistically at 29, he looks great doing it and steals runs in the outfield - well, in a normal park where he can get a head of steam.

Over the next few years, the Nationals will have plenty of chances to worry about whether Werth was worth it. But at least they got the player that General Manager Mike Rizzo had known since Werth was in high school and whose athletic blood lines, conditioning regimen and clubhouse fire were exactly what he wanted. Werth has flourished under post-season pressure, played with a World Series champion and subtracts a key piece from a division rival.

So, right or wrong, the "lowly Nats" got exactly what they wanted. And, as a result - hold your breath - the mighty Boston Red Sox had to pay $142 million for what was left.

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