First, let's get this out of the way: Carl Crawford is, at the very least, a good baseball player. In some ways, he's a very good baseball player. I'm not trying to take anything away from him.
But he has never been a great baseball player. Not ever. Not so far. Yet the Red Sox just signed him for great-player money and a contract that is probably two years too long, if we're only looking at performance on the field. Let me give you a few reasons why:
- Item: Crawford just finished his age-28 season, which means that we've probably already seen him at his best. He may well sustain that level for several more years, which will certainly be valuable to the Sox, but it's unrealistic to expect him to raise that level, or to raise it by much. He won't get faster, he probably won't translate his speed into 70-steal seasons, and he probably won't raise his walk rate or his home run rate by enough to make a big difference. At this point, he is who he is, for better and for worse.
- Item: Crawford plays left field, which means that he must -- absolutely MUST -- hit the crap out of the ball to justify great-player money. Yet he's never cracked the top 10 in the American League for either on-base percentage or slugging percentage. (Contrast this to Adrian Gonzalez, playing at another slugger position, whose career OBP is 31 points better, and whose career SLG is 63 points better.) Crawford's been in the top 10 in total bases once, and he's about 15-20 extra-base hits per year below truly elite numbers. Leading the league in steals and triples isn't enough to make up for this.
- Item: Crawford is clearly well above average as a defender, with superior range, a sure glove, and enough assists to tell you that he throws pretty well. But good left fielders will never be worth as much defensively as similarly good defenders in center or right. If Crawford put up identical numbers, but as a center fielder, it would mean substantially more.
A lot of discussion among this group has centered on Crawford's personality traits: Is he a focused "grinder"? Is he misdirected? Is he a loafer or a malcontent in the locker room? To all of that I answer: Who knows? And who knows how he'll react as a newcomer to a club with a strong culture and several outspoken leaders? If pressed, my guess is that he'll be fine -- less of a clubhouse gem than, say, Victor Martinez or Kevin Millar, but also much less of a head case than Manny Ramirez.
I understand the economics of the game, and no doubt Crawford will put more butts in the seats at Fenway, and get more people to tune in on television. The financial structure of the franchise requires continual sellouts at Fenway, and lots of ad revenue from broadcast venues. So his contract might make sense from the perspective of selling more tickets. It just doesn't make sense from the standpoint of his performance on the field.
In this off-season, Adrian Gonzalez is the steak. Crawford is just the sizzle.