Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Jason Bay is a Cautionary Free Agent Tale, and the Red Sox Made the Right Choice

The former Red Sox left fielder is the classic cautionary tale about high-priced free agents

Jason Bay came to the Red Sox from Pittsburgh in 2008 in the same deal that sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers.

Bay was an instant success in Boston, posting a .293/.370/.527 slash line, while belting nine homers and driving in 37 runs in just 211 plate appearances. Those numbers projected to something in the range of 30 homers and 100 RBI over the course of a full season.

The next year, Bay lived up to those projections by having a career year, in which he belted 36 homers with 119 RBI and a .921 OPS. That season, 2009, Bay was named #41 on the Sporting News' list of the 50 greatest current players in baseball.

After six seasons, in which he had averaged 30 home runs and 99 RBI, Bay was a bona fide star. And he was going to be paid handsomely as a result.

By having a career year, Bay had positioned himself nicely going into free agency. But negotiations between Bay and the Red Sox didn't go smoothly. First, the outfielder rejected the Sox offer of salary arbitration. The team then offered a contract that included language protecting them in the event that Bay's knees became problematic (a physical obviously showed something that gave the club some concern). But Bay balked at the offer.

Instead, on December 29, 2009, Bay agreed to a four-year, $66 million contract with the New York Mets, which also included a vesting option for a fifth year.

However, that contract quickly became an albatross for the Mets.

Over three seasons in New York (the team and the player eventually agreed to an early contract termination), Bay hit a grand total of 26 home runs (10 less than his 2009 season with the Red Sox) and drove in 124 runs. That amounted to an average of just nine home runs and 41 RBI per season.

Making matters worse, Bay batted just .223 over those three seasons, marred by a lowly .165 average in 2012.

The former star outfielder was an unmitigated bust in New York. Neither the player or the team was happy, but the player still got paid handsomely.

Bay then signed a one-year free agent contract with the Seattle Mariners before the 2013 season. The arrangement allowed him to play for the club nearest his home in British Columbia, making it a home coming of sorts.

Yet, once again, Bay faltered, posting a .204/.298/.393 line, with 11 homers and 20 RBI. He was designated for assignment on July 29, and was eventually released on August 6.

The career of the 2004 NL Rookie of the Year and three-time All Star had gone off a cliff. It was no aberration. For four seasons, Bay spiraled downward, looking like a shadow of his former self. And it wasn't because he got old. Bay's career was derailed by age 31, largely due to injuries.

As a member of the Mets, the outfielder suffered a concussion in 2010 and was limited to just 95 games. However, Bay was snakebitten once again in 2011 and started the season on the disabled list due to a rib injury that limited him to 123 games. But the worst was yet to come.

Early in the 2012 season, Bay broke his ribs making a diving catch and again wound up on the DL. Yet, that wasn't the end of his woes. Bay soon suffered another concussion that put him back on the DL. The combination of injuries limited him to just 70 games that season.

Interestingly, Bay's knees, which so concerned the Red Sox, were never a problem.

In the four years since he left Boston, Bay topped out at 123 games and averaged just 89 games per season.

Now comes word that Bay is headed to Japan in order to continue his baseball career. How the mighty have fallen. Bay has taken a long, slow ride into oblivion.

Bay is the cautionary tale about free agents. His may be an extraordinary case, but it is not isolated. Players are signed based on past performance. Unfortunately, that is not a very good indicator of future performance. Long term contracts (and Bay's deal with the Mets was just four years) leave teams with little flexibility, yet create great financial obligations.

History shows that the Red Sox made a wise decision by not falling in love with Bay and entering into a bidding war for his services. The Sox reportedly offered Bay a four-year, $60 million contract, yet he was seeking more. The Mets offered an additional $6 million, and that got it done.

However, the Mets' success in those negotiations ultimately turned out to be their downfall, and the Sox have been thanking their lucky stars ever since. It's fair to say the Sox dodged a bullet. But it was also an example of restraint.

The Sox placed a value on the player and refused to exceed that cost. They accepted the possibility that they might be outbid, and eventually they were. Goodbye and good luck, Jason.

As history shows, it was a wise choice.

The Red Sox received the 39th (Anthony Ranaudo) and 57th (Brandon Workman) selections in the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft as compensation. Workman pitched in the 2013 World Series for the Sox and will be on their Opening Day roster in 2014. Ranuado also has a chance of pitching for the club in 2014.

The Red Sox benefitted in more ways than one from their decision to let Bay walk. They saved money, gained financial flexibility and got two young players that may impact their roster for years to come.

In other words, though the Mets are finally free of Bay's contract, the Red Sox restraint in 2009 continues to pay dividends in Boston.

It's difficult to predict the future, and hindsight is always 20/20. Long-term, free-agent contracts are a gamble. The Red Sox have always been grateful that the Mets outbid them for Bay.

Meanwhile, the Mets spent four years regretting their pursuit of the outfielder (they still owed him $21 million when they parted ways after just three seasons).

That's food for thought in the aftermath of Jacoby Ellsbury's signing with the rival Yankees. While Bay was signed for four years at $66 million, beginning with his age 31 season, Ellsbury is signed for seven years at $153 million, beginning with his age 30 season.

That's why it will hardly be surprising if at some point in the next few years, the Red Sox are again feeling grateful that they were outbid (and thereby saved) by another New York team.

With a little perspective, restraint is often viewed as a virtue.

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