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Did you hear that Mike Cameron doesn’t play for the Red Sox anymore? If you didn’t, don’t worry about it. His departure wasn’t met with much fanfare. His trade to the Marlins was as quiet as his play for the Sox. Touted as a strong veteran presence when he arrived, his legacy with the Red Sox will be that he was one of Theo Epstein’s more mediocre signings.
Even without looking at statistics, his terrible play is evident from that transaction. He was traded for either a player to be named later or cash, which means that the Sox were willing to accept almost anything to take him off his hands. In fact, the Sox will still pay $3 million of the $3.6 million that remains on his contract. Luckily, we do have statistics to quantify the particulars of this trade.
Since 2004, when he began playing in the National League, his Wins Above Replacement vacillated between starter and reserve numbers every year, with 2006 being the only year he approached All-Star numbers. It was far-fetched to assume he could even replicate those numbers in a move to the much stronger American League. To the surprise of few people, his 2010 numbers indicated that he was a middling reserve player and his 2011 numbers indicated that he was worth less than a replacement player.
WAR only accounts for batting though, and one of the big reasons Theo brought Cameron to the Red Sox was for his defense. He did win three gold gloves and was an elite centerfielder for a significant portion of his career. However, he won his first gold glove when he was 28 and didn’t come to the Sox until he was 37. Defensive skills at any position deteriorate significantly by the time a player is that old. In centerfield, the position that is most reliant on foot speed, that deterioration is magnified. It was folly to expect that the elderly Cameron could provide gold glove defense. That was the team’s expectation though, so much so that the fleet Jacoby Ellsbury was displaced to leftfield. The results did not back that switch up. In 2010, Cameron was passable. In 2011, his Total Fielding Runs was 125 below average. Basically, over the course of this season he would have accounted for 125 more runs than the average outfielder. Even though his sample size was small and those numbers are inflated, they do give an indication of just how atrocious he was defensively.
A bad signing has to have more than mediocre performance though. A player needs to be paid a disproportionally high amount of money for his services. Regrettably for Cameron, he fits in that category as well. The highest salary of his career was $10 million in 2009. His second highest? $7.75 million in 2010 with the Red Sox. He came close to that in the mid 2000s, but that money was during the prime of his career. There were perhaps two seasons in his prime when he could legitimately command that much money, but there was no reason to pay him that much this late in his career.
Was he a terrible signing for the Red Sox? His contract was a horrible allocation of resources, but given its short length, it was not particularly damaging to the organization. For reference, it was a little worse than Brad Penny’s one-year, $5 million contract in 2009. Both players were terrible, but because the Sox have so much money, the contracts did not have the deleterious effects that they might have had on a small-market team. In Kansas City (everyone’s go-to small market team), the Cameron signing would have had a terrible and resounding impact. In Boston, the signing can be absorbed and the team can simply move on. Would you care to join me in forgetting that it even happened?