I've been a little obsessed with this question since the Red Sox made an unprecedented deal last August, shipping four players - including $100 million men Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez - to the Los Angeles Dodgers for some spare parts and prospects.
The team won almost universal praise for the deal: in one fell swoop it dumped $260 million from its payroll, putting an end - more or less - to a miserable season and freeing up loads of cash to build the team of the future.
It is a strong argument. But there are some potent, little-explored counterarguments. Amd some of them, I think, that turn the conventional wisdom about baseball economics on its head. I'll save them for a longer piece. There is another point I'd like to focus on here.
Most fans and analysts acknowledge that Gonzalez, despite a worrisome decline in his power over the last year-and-a-half, has been an elite player for much of his career and could be again; it was, as even the Red Sox top brass acknowledge, a risk to get rid of him. But the deal was worth it, the thinking goes, to unload Crawford, who struggled through two injury-prone seasons in Boston and never seemed comfortable in the city.
Crawford's struggles during the 2011 and 2012 seasons are undeniable. But he was hurt.
He could, of course, remain an injury-riddled player - in whch case the trade will look brilliant. But much of the Crawford critique, I think, boiled down to a separate, flawed talking point: the outfielder, a speedster with modest power, was never worth $20 million-per-season in the first place.
One would have to hold a rather simplistic view of player value to make that argument, I think. Take a quick glance at the advanced metrics popularized by Moneyball, and one can't escape the conclusion that Crawford was an elite player when he signed with the Red Sox.
Indeed, in his final two seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays - 2009 and 2010 - he was the fifth best player in all of baseball according to the gold-standard stat of baseball's nerdist class: wins-above-replacement-value, or WAR.
WAR, a catch-all statistic that measures player contributions at bat, in the field, and running the bases, asks how much better a player is than the typical bench player or minor leaguer who might replace him if he got hurt. Crawford's two-year WAR of 13.5 trailed only Albert Pujols, Evan Longoria, Ryan Zimmerman, and Chase Utley in 2009 and 2010.
Crawford's considerable skills - and the track record of elite speedsters who preceded him - had sabermetricians like the respected Tango Tiger suggesting the seven-year, $142 million deal Crawford signed with the Red Sox in the winter of 2010 was actually a good deal.
Crawford's deep struggles in a Red Sox uniform make for a significant dent in Tiger's original calculus. But it's worth noting that his analysis, which factored in a decline in Crawford's skills as he aged, suggested the player would have to achieve a WAR of 4.3 this coming season to continue justifying the contract.
Last year, Alex Rios of the Chicago White Sox compiled a WAR of 4.3. He had 25 home runs, 93 RBI, and 23 steals. His fielding totals were nowhere near Crawford's 2009 and 2010 marks.
Crawford, in other words, is entirely capable of earning his keep - or something close to it - this season. And when you trade away a player of his caliber, you can't just pick up another one. They are rare commodities (ditto for Gonzalez).
We'll see how Crawford, recovering from surgery, performs this years. In a recent Spring Training tilt with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he collected two hits and two RBI. Just sayin'.