There are two Ben Cherington quotes that may end up defining the Red Sox' approach toward building a pitching staff this offseason.
The first came in early November when the stink of beer and chicken was just starting to get washed off the 2011 season.
"This offseason is going to be more about fixing what's under the hood than it is about buying a new car," Cherington said following his day-long interview with then-managerial candidate Sandy Alomar Jr. "We're going to make moves and we're going to build pitching depth and we're going to be active."
Then came Monday's directive.
"Our needs are a lot different this year than they were last year,” Red Sox general managers Ben Cherington told reporters from his suite at the Hilton Anatole Hotel on the first day of the baseball winter meetings. “We may be less likely to go out and sort of set the market this year than we were last year. The timing of things may be different."
Translation: There will likely be no C.J. Wilson, Mark Buerhle, Roy Oswalt or even Hiroki Kuroda. Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Matt Capps and Joe Nathan are all no longer options, and, in the Red Sox' eyes, may not have been to begin with.
As the agents come and go, from suite to suite, the Red Sox are seemingly waiting to see which free agents are left standing. Why? Because they can.
As WEEI.com's Alex Speier documented Monday, money won't be flowing as freely as we saw during the '10 offseason, it would seem in part because of a hesitancy to cross the luxury tax line, not necessarily for this season (because that may be a foregone conclusion) but for the future, when penalties from the new CBA truly kick in.
This is why any approach toward jumping into the race to acquire one of the more pricier relievers will depend somewhat on how much money is being allocated to the likes of David Ortiz (who has to decide whether or not he will be accepting arbitration by Wednesday at midnight).
While admitting that budgetary issues always play a factor in the Red Sox' approach, Cherington did downplay the immediate need to draw back due to luxury tax concerns.
"It's something we're aware in the sort of long-term projection of the payroll and managing the long-term payroll forecast. And it has been that way every year that I can remember," Cherington said. "The changes that have occurred are things we need to factor in and we will, and it does effect planning to some degree. I would say it hasn't changed our approach this offseason to any large degree, but it is something we need to manage over a longer path."
Yet, there was no mistaking the difference in approach the Red Sox figure on taking when it comes to paying pitchers on the free agent market.
"You never say never, but I think it's more likely we'll be pursuing other options," Cherington said during his session with the Boston media at the baseball winter meetings. "We always want to stay involved to the extent we have the latest information and keep your options open because you never know what may come your way and how that may change things. I would say it's less likely we'll be involved in those top tier guys as relative to the past."
But, besides straight-up money, there is another reason the Red Sox might play the wait-and-see game when it comes to molding a group of pitchers: Daniel Bard.
When reached by phone Monday night, Bard reiterated that he has no preference when it comes to filling the role of starter or closer heading into the 2011 season. Fresh off talking to new manager Bobby Valentine early in the day, the righty said: ""I really didn't give an actual preference," Bard said. "I did make it very clear to them that I have no reservations about moving to the rotation. I told them I'd take any role they choose to give me and run with it, whether that's starting or closing. I guess by making it clear that I would be willing to start may have made it seem like a preference, but I just want to make it clear that I felt like I could thrive in either role."
There's no certainty that Bard will be able to excel in either new role like he did in his previous lot in life, but simply having a pitcher with the potential to execute on a similar level is a luxury most teams can't boast. Toronto, for instance, also needs a closer, but don't necessarily have a great back-up plan if the game-enders keep getting plucked out of the market. And there are plenty of teams in the same spot as the Red Sox, needing to fill out at least the last two spots in their starting rotation. But few have the kind of arm that Bard could potentially bring to the party if the starting pitching pool runs dry.
For now, according to Cherington, both player and team will have to wait to see how exactly Bard will be preparing come the new year.
"There’s always the chance that isn’t determined now but later on or in spring training. We certainly want to give Daniel a chance to prepare for spring training in the right way, and so we’ll figure that out, but it’s a factor," the GM said. "It’s something that will sort of weigh against different opportunities that are out there with respect to acquiring this pitcher or that pitcher.
"I don’t think it has to be made now. I think we have to talk about how to prepare him for spring training. That’s something we’ll need to do pretty soon. I don’t think we have to have his role completely defined. Maybe we will. I don’t think we have to. I do think it relates some to decisions we’ll make on pitching this offseason."
Is it somewhat of a risk to watch the money-spending baseball world go by? Sure. Does it offer some discomfort for an organization whose payroll is unmatched by every team not wearing pinstripes? Absolutely. But the circumstances have to be put in perspective.
They weren't going four years with an option for Papelbon. And a similar approach was taken toward Bell (who was never made an official offer by the Red Sox prior to signing his three-year, $27 million deal with Miami). They didn't feel comfortable giving multiple years for a reliever the age of Nathan (which might mean bad news for those Francisco Cordero fans), and Capps simply was valued more by the Twins than the Sox.
There are still some left -- Frank Francisco, Brad Lidge, Jon Rauch, Ryan Madson, Francisco Rodriguez and a bunch of maybe-but-not-quites. When the music stops (or at least gets faint), there will be some assurance with the idea that Bard represents that big-ticket item at the end of the bullpen. The guess here is that the best chance Bard has of moving out of the bullpen lies with the ability of the Red Sox to trade for either Huston Street or Andrew Bailey, both of whom are being available by their respective clubs.
There are no guarantees, a notion that was relayed by Orioles manager Buck Showalter when talking about his club's own approach toward Jim Johnson, whom may be moving from late-inning reliever to starter.
One initial focus has been on starting pitching, but it's very obvious from talking to other clubs that that's exactly what they're looking for, too," Showalter said. "It's a premium. You look at what Tampa's done and the depth they have in the starting rotation, and they build a bullpen. Neither one of them is easy, but it's a lot more challenging to put together a rotation in the off-season than it is a bullpen."
Even with the potential of Bard and Aceves as starters, there are no certainties. One or both could end up back in the bullpen, and if they don't the Sox would still be needing to secure some sort of legitimate starting depth. Last year, they were able to sell Aceves on the potential opportunity, but other than journeyman Brandon Duckworth, there weren't too many free agent starters who saw enough opportunity to sign up with the Sox.
This time is a bit different, as the Red Sox could be offering much more realistic chances for starters looking to jump-start their careers (for whatever reason) due to the vacant spots left by injuries to Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey.
"I think it does represent an opportunity for guys who are at different points in their career, maybe less proven, needing to bounce back from something, for whatever reason, maybe a little bit of a down cycle," Cherington said. "It is a little different conversation when you have opportunity."
Money. Bard. Opportunity. Add them all up and they might you lead to the next Red Sox pitching staff.