It was an offseason so extravagant that it was ripe for parody.
Red Sox CEO and President Larry Lucchino infamously told the New York Times, “The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.” The Onion offered one of its most memorable sports headlines: “Yankees Ensure 2003 Pennant By Signing Every Player In Baseball.”
It was the winter of 2002-03, the first in which Theo Epstein served as the Red Sox general manager. During the offseason, it seemed that the Yankees were constructing an overpowering force, adding Japanese star Hideki Matsui to an already potent lineup, and beating the Sox in the Jose Contreras sweepstakes to solidify a potentially dominant rotation.
Teams across Major League Baseball cried foul, suggesting that the Yankees were engaged in fiscally irresponsible behavior at a time of economic hardship and declining revenues and salaries. Many conceded baseball pre-eminence to New York, not just for the 2003 campaign but for years to come.
The Red Sox had no apparent moves with which they could counter. While the Yankees spent freely on a four-year deal for Contreras and a three-year deal for Matsui, Boston was left to bottom feed.
The result was arguably the most successful offseason under Epstein & Co. The Sox acquired five players with a track record of accomplishment but whose recent struggles or injuries had driven down their values.
A pair of pitchers coming off of injuries (Chad Fox (signed for $500,000) and Robert Person ($300,000)) contributed nothing as Red Sox. Another pitcher (Brandon Lyon), whose Blue Jays team gave up on him after a 2002 struggle, became a stabilizing bullpen force and, later, a key trade chip in the deal that landed Curt Schilling.
Third baseman Bill Mueller, after missing much of 2002 due to knee surgery, signed a two-year, $4.2 million deal. His made-for-Fenway stroke led to a batting crown in ’03.
Finally, there was the remarkable David Ortiz. After a season in which he had missed several weeks with a broken hamate, the Twins were unable to find a team willing to trade for the slugger. So, Minnesota released him, Boston signed him, and Ortiz transformed from disappointment to legend as a member of the Sox.
The total cost of those five players was less than $5 million for the 2003 season. Their impact was felt in a playoff appearance that year, and a World Series trophy the next.
THE 2008-09 OFFSEASON
In execution rather than design, the Sox have followed a similar blueprint this offseason. The team came up short of the Yankees in the bidding for Mark Teixeira (an outcome that may have been a foregone conclusion regardless of the team’s efforts and offer size). Otherwise, the Sox have taken a pass on the upper-end of the market in favor of the buy-low bin.
The Sox have signed—or are close to signing—four free agents who are expected to contribute in the majors this year. All have been for players who have performed at an elite level in recent years, but who suffered substantial downturns, injuries or both in 2008:
JOSH BARD: After the Sox traded Bard to the Padres (along with reliever Cla Meredith in exchange for catcher Doug Mirabelli in a deal that Epstein describes as his most regrettable), he thrived in 2006 and 2007. Though playing in a park that murders offensive numbers, Bard had the fifth-best OPS (.830) among big-league catchers in 2006-07 (minimum 700 plate appearances).
But in 2008, Bard fell off a cliff. He made just 47 starts while dealing with a pair of trips to the D.L. for a severe left ankle sprain and a strained triceps, and performed poorly (.202 average, .549 OPS) when playing.
Based on last season, if Bard can merely return to a .700 OPS, he will be one of the 30 best offensive catchers in baseball. If he comes even closer to the heights that he achieved in his first two years in San Diego, he will be something more.
With a non-guaranteed $1.7 million contract, the Sox have almost no financial risk as they try to figure out whether Bard will be Jekyll or Hyde. Bard, naturally, is eager to prove that his prior success is no fluke.
“When I’m right, I’ve proven that I can play this game at an elite level,” he said. “Pointing to injuries would be easy. I take full responsibility. I was injured twice. Those were real things. Yes, it was tough to come back from.
“Ultimately, I didn’t perform the way I needed to or wanted to. Coming into next year, this offseason I’ve worked on a lot of things I saw. Being on the D.L. for nine weeks, it gave me a chance to watch a lot of video and see the things I needed to improve on. I am anxious and hungry to get out there and re-establish myself.”
BRAD PENNY: Like Bard, Penny—who will undergo a physical today as the final hurdle en route to finalizing a contract with the Sox—was dominant in 2006-07, notching two All-Star nods and a couple of 16-win seasons.
A year ago, Penny might have commanded A.J. Burnett money: five years at more than $15 million per season. Instead, after missing much of 2008 with right shoulder tendinitis, the 30-year-old took a one-year, $5 million guarantee from the Sox to try to prove that he is healthy enough to once again thrive.
ROCCO BALDELLI: The start of Rocco Baldelli’s career suggested a potential Hall of Fame track. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the player to whom he most closely compared as a 21-year-old rookie was Tris Speaker; at 22, it was Carl Yastrzemski.
Then, a startling rash of injuries derailed an exceedingly promising career. Baldelli missed all of 2005 after first tearing his ACL while playing baseball with his brother in the offseason, then injuring his elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery when coming back.
He made an impressive return in mid-2006, hitting .302 with an .872 OPS in 92 games, but then played in just 63 games over the past two years while dealing with fatigue and muscle weakness caused by what was diagnosed by a mitochondrial disorder. That diagnosis, however, was altered last month, suggesting the likelihood that—instead of being a constant lineup uncertainty—he might be able to resume a normal playing career.
ESPN.com was the first to report last night that Baldelli and the Sox are on the cusp of finalizing a deal to allow the Rhode Island native to play for the team he followed in his youth. The deal is believed to feature almost no guaranteed money, but plenty of incentives should Baldelli recapture some of his past potential as a fourth outfielder for the Sox.
JOHN SMOLTZ: Reports late last night indicated that the future Hall of Famer is likely to land in Boston on a one-year deal with a guaranteed $5.5 million that could bump up to $10 million based on performance.
Smoltz has been a freak for much of his career, a pitcher who remained a dominating power pitcher (44-24, 3.22 ERA, 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings) from 2005-07, up through his age 40 season. Last year, however, it appeared that surgery to repair a damaged labrum might spell the end for the pitcher.
But the intensely competitive Smoltz has defined that prognosis. At the beginning of December, he threw his full arsenal of pitches off a mound in front of Braves manager Bobby Cox.
“I've never seen John so fired up about something in my life,” Cox said at the winter meetings. He loves challenges, and he's got a big one ahead of him. But what I saw for the very first time out off the mound was incredibly good.
“I didn't think there was anyway he could throw like he did. It kind of brought some bumps on my arm because he was throwing so well, and I wasn't for sure if he was supposed to be that far ahead or not, but he is…He’s way ahead of schedule.”
LOW-RISK, UNCERTAIN REWARD
Clearly, there is potential for the Red Sox to enjoy major return on their investment this offseason. The four contracts will cost the club less in guaranteed money than what the Yankees will pay to Burnett alone this season.
All the same, the 2002-03 precedent is by no means a guarantee. Indeed, recent experience in Boston suggests a far more modest return.
The buy-low offseason strategy has been at least a part of the Red Sox’ offseason strategy in every offseason. It has paid major dividends in just one additional case, when Mark Bellhorn was plucked off the scrapheap from Colorado and became one of the best offensive second basemen in the American League in 2004.
Since then, the team has not had impact returns on the players—mostly pitchers—who were roughly one year removed from elite performance. The conga line of Matt Mantei, Wade Miller, J.C. Romero and Bartolo Colon harbored immense promise when they arrived in Boston, but none made it through a full season.
Yet even in those cases, the Sox harbor few regrets. Colon, for instance, was better than league average (4-2, 3.92) in his seven starts last year, and cost the club just over $1 million for between 20-25 percent of a season’s work—roughly half of what the team might have had to pay a “healthy” free-agent signing.
Though Miller did not regain the dominant form that he showed in his heyday with the Astros, he gave the Sox about a half-season of passable rotation filler for roughly $2 million—at the time, about half of what average to below-average starting pitchers were commanding for a year, and without any financial commitment beyond his single season in Boston.
Many teams simply can’t endure an injury to one of its top four starters. The Sox have proven capable of reaching the playoffs even with a short-handed rotation, in part due to the presence of pitchers who have been capable of delivering cheap innings that approximated the league average in quality.
It would be easy to look at the Red Sox offseason with skepticism. In a time when most Major League Baseball teams are tightening their purse strings, the Yankees have committed more than $420 million to secure the services of the three most sought-after free agents of this winter. It is natural to conclude that New York has reclaimed divisional superiority.
But to do so would be overly simplistic. Plenty of time remains for the Sox to maneuver, whether using their sudden starting pitcher surplus to more aggressively pursue a catcher in the trade market, or looking to vulture an impact player—whether prior to or during the season—from a financially strapped club.
Yet even if the Sox do not make any flashy moves, the low-risk, high-reward strategy might—emphasis on might—prove just as impactful as the Yankees’ winter. Perhaps the Sox are going to spend the coming years getting dominated by Burnett, Sabathia and Teixeira. Or perhaps the Yankees will be left to regret those long-term commitments, if not in 2009, then perhaps in 2012 or after.
Only time will tell. For now, the only thing that is clear is that the Sox have assumed almost no additional risk this offseason, while giving themselves at least a chance to improve upon the 95-win club of a year ago.
The events of this winter have been fascinating, to be sure. But they don’t necessarily tell us much about what 2009 might bring. As Epstein said at the winter meetings, “We’re not trying to win the offseason. We’re trying to win during the season.
“Sometimes uneventful offseasons can be the right path to help you win during the season and sustain success,” he continued. “We’re trying to make the club better, but we’re not trying to make a splash. We’re not trying to win the offseason. We need to focus winning year-in, year-out during the season.”
Part of that effort, clearly, consists of adding depth and potential impact talent on the cheap. In a few months, more evidence of the merits of that strategy will be available.
Alex Speier is a senior writer for WEEI.com.