The Red Sox entered the offseason hoping to re-sign David Ortiz and add a starting pitcher, a first baseman and two corner outfielders. The team has spent aggressively to add a number of players who are viewed (aside from Ortiz) as complementary but who fall below the level of stars.
Shane Victorino was introduced as a new Red Sox on Thursday, speaking with evident (and hyperspeed) enthusiasm about being a part of a turnaround that will take a team that careened into a 69-93 abyss in 2012 back to contention. While he was talking, the Sox were closing rapidly on a two-year, $26.5 million deal with right-hander Ryan Dempster to acquire a pitcher who can reliably offer innings and with a mix of stuff and smarts to compete on a consistent basis.
(Even in his maligned trial with the Rangers at the end of 2012, Dempster had quality starts in 58 percent of his 12 outings while striking out more than a batter an inning.)
Of course, such maneuvers soon were overshadowed by the head-spinning news of Josh Hamilton’s five-year, $125 million agreement with the Angels and, to a lesser degree, by questions about whether the Napoli deal is in any kind of jeopardy due to issues related to his physical.
The Sox have not signed Hamilton or anyone else (aside from Ortiz) with an obvious ability to approximate his production. Instead of piling a single $125 million bet on Hamilton, the team has outspent his deal by about 20 percent in order to add a total of seven free agents thus far this offseason:
Mike Napoli: 3 years, $39 million
Shane Victorino, 3 years, $39 million
Ryan Dempster: 2 years, $26.5 million
David Ortiz: 2 years, $26 million
Jonny Gomes: 2 years, $10 million
David Ross: 2 years, $6.2 million
Koji Uehara: 1 year, $4.25 million
Total: $150.95 million
So, what to make of the Red Sox’ approach to the offseason, assuming that any issues with Napoli are resolved and his deal is finalized?
THE SOX ARE BETTING THAT THEIR CORE STILL IS VERY GOOD AND MERELY NEEDS THE RIGHT COMPLEMENTARY PIECES IN 2013
So much of the focus with the Red Sox has been on their offseason upgrades that it’s obscured any conversation about what the team already has on hand. Of course, that’s not unreasonable, given that they just endured a horrific 69-93 campaign with that very core.
Still, if healthy, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks give the team four players capable of delivering considerable impact. Pedroia’s been an MVP, both Ortiz and Ellsbury have been runners-up in MVP voting and Middlebrooks showed All-Star, middle-of-the-order potential in his rookie season.
That’s a formidable quartet, if healthy. That’s a considerable if, given that all four missed significant time in 2012 due to injury. Even so, the likelihood that all four will simultaneously be lost at the same time again is remote, particularly given that the injuries suffered by Ellsbury, Middlebrooks and Pedroia were of the traumatic rather than chronic variety.
If the Sox can complement those four players with a series of players capable of delivering average to above-average offense, then the team has the potential to have one of the top offenses in the American League.
The rotation is a bit more of a question mark. Still, while Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz suffered down years, the team is banking on a rebound for those two, continued improvement from what was a very promising debut year in the rotation for Felix Doubront and the hope that John Lackey and Ryan Dempster can offer a considerable upgrade over the deeply flawed back of the rotation from a year ago.
The Sox are under no illusions that Dempster is a top-of-the-rotation savior. But after a year spent searching unsuccessfully for reliable innings, there’s a great deal to be said for a pitcher who’s averaged 199 innings a season for the last five years, with sub-4.00 ERAs in four of those years, and whose ERA in that span compares favorably to that of other pitchers (like Kyle Lohse, James Shields, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson and Anibal Sanchez) available via trade or free agency this offseason.
FROM RISK TO RISK DIVERSIFICATION
The Red Sox received an unwanted object lesson over the last couple of years in what happens when huge long-term contracts go bad. The Tommy John surgeries for John Lackey and Carl Crawford tied the team’s hands in dramatic fashion, and when Josh Beckett’s shoulder and Adrian Gonzalez’s inexplicably unraveling offensive approach impacted their ability to produce, the Sox faced the prospect of several years of disappointment.
There are teams that can afford to miss on bets of $20 million-plus. The Dodgers seemingly qualify. The Yankees might, though they’re walking a tightrope for at least the next two years because of the giant mess that is Alex Rodriguez’s contract (with a chance that the deals for Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia similarly could turn into albatrosses).
The Angels seemingly are willing to bet that they can afford one or two bad megacontracts at some point in the life of the deals to Hamilton and Albert Pujols, both of whom are in the post-prime ages of their careers.
The Sox have decided to go a different route. There may be exceptions going forward if at the time they can identify the perfect player upon whom to make such a bet, though the club will be mindful that even when it finds such a player -- as the team thought was the case with Gonzalez -- it might be wrong.
The commitments that the Sox have made this offseason acknowledge the potential spectrum of outcomes with the players they’ve acquired. Obviously, if the players perform up to -- or even exceed -- their career track records, the Sox will be thrilled.
If, more likely, they perform slightly below that track record, then A) the team will have the financial wherewithal to make moves to address any emergent weaknesses and B) the Sox have acquired enough solid players that the roster is less likely to sag to the point of breaking.
And, if the players fall on their faces, the team can absorb that risk as well. If Dempster or Victorino are terrible and end up being released, it will come as a considerable surprise but it won’t tie the team’s hands for the long haul. Gonzalez and Crawford were different stories.
In essence, the Sox have gone from a team that stacked most of its chips on a couple of numbers to one that has spread them across the board. The upside isn’t as significant, but there’s a very good chance that the risk of a car wreck along the lines of 2012 has been diminished.
THE SOX ARE MAKING A HUGE BET ON THEIR FARM SYSTEM
The prospects -- both those that already are in the farm system and those that the team will land with the draft picks that it is hoarding -- better be really, really good.
Otherwise, the strategy of targeting the second tier of free agents who do not require draft pick compensation and of preserving prospect inventory rather than trading it for potential long-term centerpiece players will be for naught.
In that vein, it is worth noting that a long-term bet on a team’s own prospects represents a considerable risk in its own way. After all, none of the supposed top 10 prospects in the Red Sox system in the winter of 2009-10 -- the so-called “bridge” offseason -- has emerged to make a consistent big league impact for the Red Sox at the big league level.
If Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. and Matt Barnes and Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa aren’t what the Sox think they are, then that will be an even more devastating long-term miss than a bad free agent contract.
However, the upside also is tremendous. Most Red Sox officials feel that the 2007-08 teams represented the organization’s pinnacle, a time when the team featured above-average regulars across the board with waves of depth to support the squad at almost every position.
And it’s worth noting that the loaded Sox farm system of those years -- which yielded such talents as Pedroia, Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Lester, Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen and others -- was cultivated under the direction of current general manager Ben Cherington and assistant GM Mike Hazen.
So, the team is willing to bet again on its own homegrown players, with the potential payoff of not only a number of young, inexpensive, controllable standout players in their peak seasons but also the financial flexibility to add whatever players it wants on the market.
It remains to be seen whether the strategy works. But it is clear that the Sox have a defined plan about what they're trying to execute this offseason, and to date, they are executing it in methodical fashion.