On Wednesday night, at Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox will host the St. Louis Cardinals in game 1 of the 2013 World Series. To put some things into perspective, last season at this time the Red Sox were trying to figure out how they had gone from one of the preeminent franchises in all of sports to the laughing-stock of baseball. Just two years removed from bolstering an already potent roster with the top free agent class of the 2011 offseason, Boston had just finished last in the American League East. They had shipped away the high-ticket additions to the Los Angeles Dodgers for salary relief, and they had fired manager Bobby Valentine after one miserable season. With the architect of their two World Series championships in Chicago trying to rebuild the Cubs, the Red Sox found themselves in a position where it could be several years before they could re-establish themselves toward the top of the competitive AL East. The Yankees had just won the division title, the Orioles surprisingly claimed a wild card spot, the Rays had developed a winning formula, and the Blue Jays had made a huge splash in the offseason. The Red Sox appeared to be a roster whose top talent was on the decline and they would have to wait for the payoff for some of their top prospects.
After hiring new manager John Farrell, GM Ben Cherington started his process of reinvigorating a roster that had gone stale. While teams like the Angels, Dodgers, and Blue Jays jockeyed over the top names in the market, Boston took a more economical approach focusing on shorter deals with players from winning organizations. Many of the Red Sox acquisitions were looked upon in a positive light for the most part, but the move that puzzled the majority of the baseball world was the signing of Shane Victorino.
After finishing off his contract with the Phillies in Los Angeles, Victorino entered free agency with very little momentum from his contract year. Between the Dodgers and Phillies, Victorino finished with a career-low .255 batting average, .321 on-base percentage, and a career-high 80 strikeouts. Much like Hunter Pence, Victorino had been looked upon to make up for some of the production lost by the Phillies due to injury. When the fan-favorite was unable to do so in the eyes of the organization and the media, many started to sour on Victorino. As it became clear that the Phillies would not be making their 6th straight trip to the postseason, rather than allow Victorino to finish out his contract or give him an extension, the Phillies decided to try to collect a return for the centerfielder, and traded him to the Dodgers. In return, the Phillies received relief pitcher Josh Linblom and minor-leaguer Ethan Martin.
Less than a year removed from the Red Sox signing Victorino to a three-year/$39 million deal, their franchise has completed a 180 degree rotation. Boston finished the regular season tied for the most wins in baseball with 97 and a division title to go along with it. Meanwhile, the 32 year-old outfielder saw his career undergo a renaissance of dramatic proportions. With a .294 batting average, .351 on-base percentage, and 15 home runs and 61 RBIs, Victorino finished his best overall season since 2009 and became an emotional fixture on the Red Sox. If you were to ask any Red Sox fan what they would have expected from Victorino in 2013, they would have been ecstatic with those numbers.
Just two days away from hosting game 1 of the Fall Classic, one cannot help but think the Red Sox might be in a different position were it not for the acquisition of Victorino. In their game 6 victory over the Detroit Tigers, with two outs in the bottom of the 7th inning, Victorino put a stamp on yet another franchise when he hit a go-ahead (eventual game-winning) grand slam off Jose Veras. He became just the 2nd player in MLB history with two career playoff grand slams, with the other being in the 2008 NLDS off of C.C. Sabathia. While any Phillies fan could try to argue the significance of his 2008 home run, it is hard to deny that Saturday night’s blast over the Green Monster won’t surpass it in the eyes of Victorino.
So as the Red Sox ride their fairytale postseason to what could possibly be their third World Series title in nine years, the Phillies are coming off their second straight disappointing season with serious question marks regarding the play of their outfield. One can not help but wonder, looking back on things, if trading Victorino was a mistake.
Much like Jayson Werth, Victorino was a pleasant surprise that became an essential cog to the Phillies run of dominance. The former rule-5 draft pick served as an emotional spark plug and a crucial locker room element over the grueling 162 game schedule. One could argue he was the team’s best player, both offensively and defensively, in their run to the World Series. However, as the team desperately tried to win another title, many started to poke holes in Victorino’s game. Much like Jimmy Rollins, many criticized his free-swinging approach at the plate and his inability to draw walks. Many questioned why, even with world-class speed, he was unable to steal more bases. There were even those who criticized his increased power numbers, noting that his job was not to clear the bases before hitters like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard had a chance. With the Phillies core of ‘untouchables’ sidelined by injury in 2012, Victorino became a scapegoat for the team’s struggles.
Yet, even upon his departure, Victorino remained a classy, loyal Phillie. He thanked the city in the newspaper and still was graceful to the organization that put him on the map. One could argue that he was an unfortunate victim of the Phillies top players declining more rapidly than what the team had prepared for.
With players like Victorino, it is difficult to quantify their value to a team. He was a passionate player who captivated a certain innocence that was rare in today’s MLB. For all of his struggles in the field and at the plate that he would sometimes go through, there was never a moment, clearly, that was too big for him and he was often at his best in the biggest moments. Even having spent zero time in the Phillies clubhouse during Victorino’s tenure, it is hard to imagine that there are players better than him as far as a locker room presence. Considering the relentless nature of the baseball schedule, Victorino’s limitless positivity and bright outlook probably helped the team get through some of their rare stretches of poor play. He holds a place in the hearts of every person who watched the Phillies on their magical 2008 run and many were devastated to see him go.
That being said, from the standpoint of the Phillies last season, they had a difficult decision to make with the then-31 year old. Victorino was in the final year of his contract with the Phillies. The team had a similar situation with shortstop Jimmy Rollins and had seen their payroll balloon toward the top of the league without the types of returns they had expected. Meanwhile, years of chasing a second title had devastated the team’s farm system, as they traded prospects and lost first round picks due to free agency. With the Dodgers under new management and looking to re-energize a dormant fanbase, the Phillies had a chance to partially solve a couple of their problems. On July 31, 2012, the teams completed the transaction and Victorino was a Phillie no longer.
As far as the compensation for Victorino, Lindblom is essentially a wash. Despite a generally solid showing in his time in Los Angeles, Lindblom was abysmal in Philadelphia. He posted a 4.63 ERA in just 23.1 innings and was traded in the offseason in the deal that brought Michael Young to the Phillies (who was ironically enough traded to the Dodgers in 2013). As far as Martin goes, one can look at the situation as a glass half-empty or half-full predicament. Martin was brought in to start to replenish the Phillies aging starting pitching rotation. He was generally looked at favorably within the Dodgers organization, and possessed the sort of talent that could help him get batters out. Martin performed well enough in the minor leagues to get an opportunity to start at the major league level. It became clear very quickly that, while still displaying a solid ability to pitch, Martin was not yet ready to start professionally. However, while the Phillies were experimenting through the completion of the 2013 season, they gave Martin an opportunity to pitch out of the bullpen. After giving up 23 earned runs in his 7 starts, Martin was noticeably more effective as a relief pitcher. He allowed only 3 earned runs in 7 appearances, blanking the opponent in 5 of them. Martin demonstrated electric, swing-and-miss potential on his pitches and looked like a different pitcher than when he started. Along with Jake Diekman and B.J. Rosenberg, Martin served as a bright spot in a bullpen that has been without one for the past two seasons.
What it comes down to with whether or not the Phillies were going to keep Victorino was the situation with Jimmy Rollins. Both Jimmy and Shane were in a year where they were either going to be extended and kept on the team, or traded. High-profile players such as Rollins and Victorino generally do not see their contracts run out while on the same team that gave them the contract. To varying extents, both these players were core member of the Phillies that served their role in the field, at the plate, and in the clubhouse. With both of them in their early-30s, neither was going to be given an extensively long contract, but both of their services had warranted either an extension, or a chance to contend. As much as I enjoyed Victorino’s tenure as a Phillie and as much as it pained me to see him jubilantly run around the bases at Fenway, knowing that he had just hit his most memorable home run as a pro, I still think that the Phillies made the right decision in trading Victorino.
Keeping in mind that Rollins was in the middle of an exceptional 2012 season (one of the few Phillies who was performing), there are still factors at hand that made keeping Rollins over Victorino the correct, albeit difficult choice. The Phillies probably could have garnered a better return for Rollins, although with the slop they received in return for Hunter Pence, now the Giants other franchise player, one can have his doubts. For one, Victorino had started to shift away from the player that made him unique in the Phillies lineup. When the team was it its best, they had several players who could hit 20 home runs on a dependable basis. Victorino’s approach at the plate, which was one of going with pitchers deliveries and slapping base hits around the park, forced opponent’s to adjust throughout the lineup and note the speed of Rollins and Victorino on the base paths. After an excellent 2011 season, where basically the entire Phillies lineup produced, Victorino found himself in a position where his power would be more depended on, rather than a pleasant surprise. Whether it was because he was trying to force things at the plate or whether he was generally struggling overall, Victorino could not replicate his success without Utley and Howard in the lineup and appeared frustrated when he wasn’t able to put the team on his back. Even as Victorino still remained a fixture in the outfield, some of the speed that had made him so unique early in his career had started to leave him and he was no longer the all-encompassing centerfielder that had helped him win three gold gloves. Unlike Rollins, who has never let the scrutiny of others affect his approach to being a professional, the Phillies struggles, including his, genuinely seemed to hurt Victorino as the team he had helped win a championship sunk deeper in the standings. A player who appeared as if he would never be unhappy playing the game of baseball had finally started to show signs of irritability and his 2012 struggles only further indicated it.
In my opinion, after it was clear the Phillies were not the contender they had been for the 2007-2011 stretch, Victorino was a player that needed a new start. He could have taken a lesser extension with the Phillies and ridden out his career as another fan-favorite who represented a different time in Philadelphia baseball. He probably would have been a key figure in the transition from Charlie Manuel to Ryne Sandberg and maybe, been able to turn things around if the team started winning. However, Victorino was always an emotional player who seemed to reflect the mood of the city when he played. It is always great for sports franchises when their players love playing in that city. No player enjoyed being a Phillie more than Victorino did when the team was doing well. Yet, it also seemed like he was a player who put the unexpected struggles of the 2012 team solely on him and allowed his play to suffer because of it. It is clear now that Victorino still had the sort of skills to serve as an everyday player on a contending team. However, it is hard to say whether or not he would have been able to do so while the media, fans, and outside world continued to bash the Phillies as they continued to distance themselves from contention. Someone was going to have to take a risk on whether or not they thought Shane still had the tools to contribute on the field the way he did in the clubhouse, and the Red Sox are in the World Series partially because of it.
At the end of the day, the Red Sox were an ideal organization for Victorino. On a team that had gotten in hot water for trying to load up on superstars, they were able to reverse their fortunes by fielding a club of ‘everymans’ who loved being part of a special season. Even with a scrutinized contract, the Red Sox roster did not need Victorino to be a $13 million player. With solid hitting from top-to-bottom and a manager that drastically altered his team’s approach at the plate, all the Red Sox needed Victorino to be was a contributor capable of something special. The reason Boston has been so great this year is that they’ve had almost every regular player step up for them in a big spot and deliver. No longer did they need David Ortiz to be the only person delivering big hits for them. Victorino has always been capable of being that player. With how the Phillies roster was trending, he would not have had the opportunity to be that player. Had Victorino remained with the Phillies on an extension, he would be trying to save the franchise that took a chance on him and allowed him to stay in the same city for his entire career.
I will admit I was rooting against the Red Sox to make the World Series, but considering their opponent, I will be pulling for them to bring home a championship. I was extremely grateful of Victorino’s time in Philadelphia and seeing him in a different uniform is probably the weirdest of any former Philadelphia athlete currently on a different team. With all of that in mind, had the Phillies kept Victorino, all I could imagine was growing to resent him as the team fell further out of relevance with an aging roster providing no signs of relief. So as far as Victorino goes, I’ll be rooting for him and his teammates to beat the Cardinals in the World Series and will grow to get used to the fact that his biggest hit in his career will be one in a uniform other than the Phillies pinstripes.