That Jayson Werth signing looks great now. Werth may be older and be less "proven", in that he's been better than Carl Crawford in each of the last four years (but only four, which is the main criticism), but he's a much better bet to be a useful player in 7 years. For one, his game isn't based solely on speed. Second, he's not limited to one position (Crawford is solely a left fielder -- a great one, maybe, but he's going to a place where covering a lot of ground is worthless -- Manny Ramirez had adequate range at Fenway). Third, he's not receiving $20 million a year.
Crawford is a great player. There's little doubt about that -- though 2008 gives you some cause for concern, with the 89 OPS+ -- Werth's most recent season of that sort was 2005 (though he missed about half of 2005 and all of 2006 with injury). But he's a player whose gifts are so heavily skewed around one tool -- speed. That's a rare tool these days, fair enough, but it's also, as noted above, a tool that's not terribly useful defensively at Fenway Park and a tool that the Red Sox are certainly not lacking. Yes, Crawford may leg out infield singles, but when there are runners on, that just means there's a force at second instead of a double play.
Crawford doesn't draw a ton of walks, his defense is largely meaningless, and his power is good, but certainly not in the realm of $20 million a year kind of power. He's not Rickey Henderson. But the Red Sox are paying him as if he were. That this deal hasn't astonished everyone speaks volumes as to my prior theory. The Werth contract was crazy to people because it was the Nationals. Carl Crawford, who is one hamstring pull away from irrelevance and is coming off nine seasons of playing indoors (worked out great for Griffey) got the utterly insane contract. It may work in the short term -- to me, the Red Sox have to be World Series favorites in 2011 -- but I don't think the Crawford deal makes a substantive difference in that. After adding Gonzalez, they already had the best lineup and the best rotation (assuming Beckett does anything right this year. They even have depth in the rotation and at all the positions except catcher (which, of course, they may yet solve with Russell Martin). Their bullpen has some large question marks, but I have little doubt they'll cobble something together. I think they're going to end up bringing back Okajima or maybe even adding Arthur Rhodes, whose return to Cincinnati gets less likely by the day (in my mind, anyway). They are already giving away their first round pick to add Crawford, so there's not much disincentive to adding a Type A right-handed reliever like Grant Balfour.
Keith Law is coming out and saying that this deal will hold up, while saying Werth's couldn't possibly. I'd like to understand that logic, but I really can't. Since 1901, there are 201 seasons by a player in history between 30-35* stealing 35 or more bases; only 132 such seasons since World War II. Carl Crawford will be 30-35 for 5 of the 7 years of this deal.
*I originally forgot that I'd restricted it to 30-35 and thought that might have meant there were plenty of seasons where a player accomplished this feat after 35. nope. 22 since 1901.
There are 144 seasons by a player 31-35 doing the same feat; 98 since World War II. Carl Crawford will be 31-35 for 4 of the 7 years of this deal.
There are 94 seasons by a player 32-35 stealing 35 or more; 64 since World War II. Carl Crawford will be 32-35 for 3 of the 7 years of this deal.
I don't see much more of a need to belabor this. If Carl Crawford isn't stealing 35 bases a year, his game is what, exactly? He doesn't hit for prodigious power. His range in left field is a non-factor (and will obviously decay if he slows up at all). He doesn't have a great knack for getting on base through walks -- he's a lot like a player the Red Sox already have on their bench (Mike Cameron -- who's at least an exceptional center fielder). He's a great athlete, sure, but he doesn't have Darryl Strawberry/Eric Davis power in his wrists to just whip balls over the wall. So if and when he slows down, you're paying a load of money for a whole lot of adequate.
*Note: I thought the number of steals might be a bit arbitrary -- I picked 35 since it seemed like a number likely to land you into the AL's top 10 every year. It may be arbitrary -- but here's the ultimate reason to not be so intrigued at paying Crawford $20+ million a year -- his most comparable players are really not very good. Roberto Kelly and Ralph Garr are the good comps. The most similar by age is much more favorable -- Roberto Clemente for most -- but (1) I'm not seeing it, and (2) the next comparables are guys like Claudell Washington and Cesar Cedeno -- good players who have some combination of speed and power, but hardly superstars.