DALLAS – Eager to find out what the Red Sox will do this winter? Too bad.
Yes, the winter meetings tend to kick the baseball world into a more active phase of the offseason. But as they get ready to pack up and head back to Boston on Thursday, the Red Sox have seemed largely content to sit back and watch as other teams charge headlong into the fray.
That is not necessarily a sign of indecision. It is not a reflection on players’ reluctance to deal with a Boston front office that is in transition. Instead, it appears to be a part of the organization’s blueprint for how to make the most out of resources that appear relatively limited this winter.
One variable was removed from the roster equation with the decision by David Ortiz on Wednesday night to accept salary arbitration. Yet that outcome came as little surprise, given the absence of a market beyond Boston for the slugger. Moreover, even with Ortiz back in Boston as a middle-of-the-order presence, the team has other needs.
Most prominently, of course, the club must add at least two pitchers this offseason, whether starters or late-innings relievers. The ability of the Sox to steer Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves into the rotation or bullpen as if part of a shell game represents a significant asset.
The Sox are flexible in their needs. As such, they can hang back and read and react to the marketplace rather than re-enacting the charge of the light brigade and careening headlong into it.
“I think there’s some waiting going on,” said GM Ben Cherington said on Wednesday afternoon. “A lot of times the deals happen, someone’s got to be motivated. It’s either a team or a player or an agent for some reason. Someone’s got to be motivated to get the deal done in order for it to happen more quickly. I’m not sure that at this point in the offseason there’s a great deal of motivation other than obviously in a few cases we’ve seen.”
A year ago, the Sox were the boldest team in the majors, concluding two huge deals (the Adrian Gonzalez trade and the Carl Crawford signing) before the end of the winter meetings (though it is worth noting that, throughout the month of November, the Sox were criticized for their relative inactivity). A quick-strike scenario is not repeating itself this year.
“Our needs are a lot different this year than they were last year. We may be less likely to go out and sort of set the market this year than we were last year,” Cherington said at another point in the winter meetings. “The timing of things may be different.”
In that regard, it is worth noting how impressed some Sox officials were with the way in which the Rays rebuilt their bullpen last year. Tampa Bay lost several relievers via free agency (Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler), accumulating a ton of draft picks in the process, yet managed to rebuild its relief corps, forging a 3.73 bullpen ERA that ranked sixth in the American League.
Tampa Bay built that relief group with shrewd trades and made one key free agent signing with a one-year, $3.25 million deal for Kyle Farnsworth. That signing occurred last Jan. 12.
Last offseason offered an interesting glimpse of how the market shifts over time. Whereas this year’s free-agent class is flush with closers, last year’s was rich in middle relievers.
A year ago, 11 big league deals of at least $2 million a year were signed by relievers through Dec. 15. Of those, three (27.3 percent) were for three years; seven were for two years (63.6 percent) were for seven years; and just one (9.1 percent) was for one year.
From that point on, however, the market standard shifted. There were 14 deals signed by relievers for at least $2 million a year from Dec. 16 through the end of the offseason, starting with the two-year, $12 million deal signed by Bobby Jenks with the Red Sox. Of those, just one (the Yankees’ head-scratching deal with Rafael Soriano) was for three years (7.1 percent); six were for two years (42.9 percent); seven (50 percent) were for one year.
That undoubtedly represents in no small part upon the fact that the consensus top free-agent options are the first ones signed, and that by the middle of December, it is lower-lying fruit that remains on the true. Nonetheless, there were some very good relievers who remained available into late-December and January, including Farnsworth, Grant Balfour (who signed a two-year, $8.1 million deal) and Chadd Qualls (who made 77 appearances after signing a one-year, $2.55 million contract).
The options that remain available in January are typically imperfect. But that does not mean that they can’t be valuable.
“Guys that have some imperfections, whether it’s a skill or durability or whatever reason, those guys cost less,” noted Cherington. “We need to, as I've said before, certainly on the pitching side of things, we need to find some guys that look like they have a couple hickeys but we could do something with and help them be better.”
The Sox need not look far for evidence of that notion. The team’s best value signing in free agency last year came in early-February, when the team signed Alfredo Aceves -- coming off injuries during the 2010 season and offseason -- to a one-year, $650,000 deal.
There have been other years in which the Sox have enjoyed huge returns by waiting to sign players in the latter stages of free agency, including the one-year deal for Adrian Beltre in 2010 (which became official just after New Year’s) and, perhaps most notably, the acquisition of Ortiz in January 2003.
Of course, the Sox have also had plenty of poor returns on signings that came after the All-Star break. Perhaps most memorably, in 2009, after the Sox missed out on Mark Teixeira, the team signed Brad Penny and John Smoltz to contracts in January. Both pitchers were dumped before the end of the year after pitching poorly.
All of that suggests that it is virtually impossible to predict what will happen with this year’s class of free agent closers and relievers. But while the Sox have watched Jonathan Papelbon leave and have seen other game-ending relievers such as Joe Nathan, Heath Bell, Matt Capps, Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Sergio Santos and Huston Street come off the board while coming nowhere near the asking price on any of them, last year offers a reminder that options remain.
The right pitcher becomes a bit harder to find, but the pitchers who are available also tend to represent less financial risk because the bidding for their services is subject to less competition. Conceivably, that could end up being the case even with a premium arm such as Ryan Madson, a closer with tremendous stuff who continues to search for a job at a time when his potential destinations appear to have dwindled.
"I’m kind of in the musical chairs game. I kind of find that I only need one chair,” said Madson’s agent, Scott Boras. "I think a lot of teams have made movements in a direction to get a back-end guy, but I don’t think there’s many closers available like Ryan Madson at his age and such. There’s still, I think, a grand need for that type of player, particularly if you intend to be a postseason club."
Bard and Aceves give the Sox flexibility. The same can be said, to a lesser degree, of Felix Doubront, who will be trying to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2011 campaign in which he at times flashed the impressive stuff that convinced the Sox that he can one day be a big league starter or meaningful bullpen contributor, and Andrew Miller.
And that flexibility, at least in theory, buys the Red Sox a valuable asset: Time. Whether that allows the Sox to find some pitchers who can be characterized, in relative terms, as bargains, or whether that yields busts, remains to be seen.
Yet those two extremes offer a reminder. Even though the Red Sox’ offseason to date appears to date has been an exercise in inactivity, it is premature to characterize it as a success or failure. It is natural to judge the offseason based on what has -- or, more particularly, what has not -- happened to this point, but the reality is that until roughly the time that the Sox show up in spring training in mid-February, the offseason will be a work in progress, a moving target that cannot yet be judged.