The Tampa Bay Rays -- and the hardy fans who follow them -- are right to laugh at this column. Or throw things at their computer screens after reading it. For this column is about teams with payrolls between $130 million and $200 million, which still can't get every shiny toy in the display case that they want. The Rays are your grandma who grew up in the '30s and saved rubber bands and re-used aluminum foil. They don't care about the whining of the one percent.
But the Boston Red Sox made a curious move over the weekend -- they traded away their presumptive starter at shortstop. They did it without a fantastic contingency plan. They did it to save $6 million, which they plan to now give to Not . It's the kind of move that a lot of teams might make when they're reaching the upper limits of their payroll. But this is the Red Sox we're talking about. They're a superpower. They don't trade away $6 million shortstops to save a buck. They trade for $6 million shortstops to keep their $19 million shortstops company, like the goats that hung out with Seabiscuit.
And if the Red Sox really had to free up some money -- absolutely, positively had to, lest the bank take away the bean farm -- there was a team in San Francisco in dire need of a shortstop. Last season, Giants shortstops hit .210/.265/.299. If you want to get sabermetric, that means that they fared poorly when compared to a drunk Carlos Zambrano. The presumptive starter for 2012, Brandon Crawford, is projected to hit .225/.291/.336. That is, they'll almost certainly be completely feckless at the position again.
Marco Scutaro was a sacrifice fly away from hitting .300 last year. He can take a walk, as evidenced by his .353 OBP over the past four years. According to the advanced metrics, he's at least an average fielder.
The Giants couldn't use him. If the Red Sox were looking to shave salary, they certainly called the Giants to gauge interest. The Giants committed $5 million to their second bullpen lefty early in the offseason. They're at their payroll limit. There's no way they could have added a starting shortstop on a reasonable, one-year deal. There's no way they could have beat an offer of Clayton Mortensen, a 26-year-old who hasn't cracked a 4.00 ERA in the minors since 2007.
It's an amazingly curious move by both organizations. But the Red Sox and Giants have reached their payroll limits for the offseason. There's no creme brûlée after the gourmet dinner that few others can afford. There are a couple of loose Altoids in the back of the glove box if you're desperate. Go nuts.
The Yankees were supposed to be up against the same artificial payroll barrier. Then they signed Hiroki Kuroda immediately after shoring up their rotation with a low-cost alternative. They had their cake and ate it too.
The Red Sox and Giants had to back away, palms up, loudly proclaiming that they needed to put their wallets back in their pants. If you go by the the research that's available, there's a huge benefit to an extra win for a team between 80 and 90 wins. They're probably going to be pretty danged close to a playoff spot, which means that they'll be close to the extra revenue that a playoff berth brings.
Instead, two teams that just missed the playoffs last year are willing to bet that they don't need the help of every additional win they can get, costs be damned. The Rays are right to think, yeah, welcome to how the other half lives, you rich, bloated twits. I dare say that Prince Fielder would make the Rays a better team, and his salary would bring them to the same tier that the Orioles or Astros are in. And, brother, they probably can't afford to be in that Orioles/Astros tier. And they'll compete anyways, with a good chance of winning. It can be done.
Which is a sentiment that might help the Giants and Red Sox in the future. But right now they're flawed teams that apparently can't afford to acquire or keep modest improvements. It's a freaky game of chicken. And they could be right! Or they could be very, very wrong. As David St. Hubbins once said, it's a fine line between stupid and clever. There's about a half-billion dollars between these two teams that says that everything's coming up clever. Best of luck.