FORT MYERS, Fla. — The notion sometimes got lost. Amidst the obsessive monitoring of key negotiations this winter, or the disbelief at watching the Yankees hand out almost as much in guaranteed contracts to free agents ($446 million) as the other 29 clubs combined ($602 million), it was easy to overlook what was actually taking place in Boston.
In the end, the Red Sox offseason was less about need than it was about opportunity. Boston was able to pursue a read-and-react approach to the marketplace, looking for ways to improve the club rather than being at the mercy of the market out of a sense of desperation to address shortcomings.
Sox GM Theo Epstein suggested as much at the first event of the hot stove season. When he arrived for the G.M. Meetings in Dana Point, Calif., in the first week of November, he offered an apt description of the course that his team would pursue for the following three months.
“With the exception of the catching issue, which we have to deal with, we don’t have any glaring holes. We have some depth in some areas,” Epstein said at the time, while also offering a ho-hum confirmation that his contract status with the Sox had been resolved for years to come. “That doesn’t mean there’s not a strong desire that we need to improve in certain areas.
“We have solid organizational depth. Our team happens to be pretty well rounded. We can pick our spots where we want to get better.”
Throughout the winter, Epstein consistently emphasized the strength of the organization as a whole, suggesting that the shape of the franchise matters far more than any single transaction. He continues to deliver that message now that spring training has arrived.
“The longer I do this, the more I think it’s a faulty premise that teams are built in the offseason,” Epstein said this week in Fort Myers. “Teams are a product of the organization. You spend seven days a week, 365 days a year, building an organization.
“You take any version of the Red Sox. The 2007 Red Sox were a product of a lot of people contributing over a long period of time, not one offseason. That’s always going to be true.”
In that sense, it seemed appropriate that the only multi-year deals of the winter were given to retain homegrown products of that organization (Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis) rather than to players imported from elsewhere.
Even so, the Sox did not retreat from the idea of significantly altering their major-league team with players from outside the organization. In no particular order, an after-the-fact wish list of Red Sox offseason priorities might look something like this:
--Acquire premium hitter who can also improve team defense.
--Acquire catcher for 2009.
--Acquire catcher of the future. (may be met by catcher for ’09)
--Stockpile pitching staff with potentially dominant arms.
--Lock up young core to long-term deals.
Some of those goals were fulfilled, others were unmet, and still others remain works in progress. What follows is a summary of the fascinating winter of 2008/09, a time when the Sox made their largest offer ever to a player yet ended up trying to take advantage of a marketplace that sagged dramatically for all but a handful of elite players.
MARK TEIXEIRA AND THE LINEUP
The foremost saga of the offseason, of course, was the pursuit of switch-hitting first baseman Mark Teixeira. Teixeira represented one of the finest free agents available this decade.
The 28-year-old was widely viewed as the kind of elite power hitting threat (his 203 homers in his first six seasons are the fourth most of all-time) and disciplined hitter (.404 OBP in the last two years) whom the Sox craved. Teixeira, it was suggested, represented a potential means of shoring up an offense that lost some of its perceived thump with the departure of Manny Ramirez and the injuries to David Ortiz and Mike Lowell in 2008.
When Teixeira passed on the Sox’ eight-year, $170 million offer to take an eight-year, $180 million deal with the Yankees, the reaction was swift. Suggestions of the Red Sox’ offensive vulnerability were widespread, with some claims that the team was desperate to add power to its lineup.
Those criticisms missed the mark. There is no question that Sox would have loved to acquire Teixeira as the centerpiece of their offseason. The willingness of the club to give $100 million more to the 28-year-old than it has to any other player in a contract makes that fact obvious.
Still, had the Sox truly feared an acute offensive shortfall after whiffing on Teixeira, they could have aggressively courted free agents such as Adam Dunn (five straight years of 40+ homers), Pat Burrell (who has averaged 31 homers for the last four years) or Bobby Abreu (.405 career OBP). Each can impact a lineup; each will sign for far less money and years than Teixeira.
But the Sox made no more than cursory inquiries on those players. Unlike Teixeira, for whom the team would have cleared a space by dealing away one key component (Mike Lowell) and shifting another (Kevin Youkilis) across the diamond, the Sox were unwilling to reconfigure the roster for one-dimensional players who might help the offense but hurt the team’s defense.
Teixeira fits the new mold of a player whom the Sox target: an elite lineup force as well as a Gold Glove-caliber defender. In 2003 and 2004, the Sox were comfortable pursuing players who could help the team in one facet or the other. That is no longer the case, helping to explain why the Sox dismiss talk that they are desperate for anything.
“I wouldn’t characterize us as desperate to find offense whatsoever,” said Epstein. “What we’re interested in is how valuable players are and how they contribute to wins. That means how they contribute to run scoring and how they contribute to run prevention, unless you’re talking about the designated hitter, and we have one of those.
“We evaluate all players in terms of what they can contribute in run-scoring and run-prevention, try to figure out how valuable they are to acquire them,” added Epstein. “I couldn’t care less how many runs we score. I care how many games we win.”
CATCHING PRESENT, CATCHING FUTURE
The only area that the Sox had no choice but to address was catching. Jason Varitek’s free-agent status brought the organization to a crossroads. Would it remain committed to the man who has caught more games than anyone else in franchise history, or would the team wean the pitching staff from the captain?
Ultimately, despite the drawn-out drama of the negotiations between the Sox and the catcher, this saga was decided fairly early. Once the Sox offered Varitek arbitration on Dec. 1, it became all but inevitable that the catcher would come back to Boston on terms dictated largely by the club. Varitek, who agreed to terms with the Sox on Jan. 31, will remain in Boston for 2009, and most likely for 2010 (if either he or the club exercise an option for next season).
Josh Bard, who signed a non-guaranteed $1.7 million deal for 2009, represents an option to serve as backup. It is, however, worth noting that Bard’s skill set (switch-hitter who is better against southpaws than right-handed pitchers) overlaps with Varitek’s. George Kottaras, a left-handed hitter who is out of options and who has, at different points in his minor-league career, represents a better complement to Varitek, at least in theory.
The backup question aside, Varitek’s return gives the Sox greater freedom to look for a deal for another young catcher — whether inside or outside the organization — on their own terms, rather than paying a perceived premium driven by need.
(The team declined deals that would have sent pitcher Michael Bowden to Arizona for catcher Miguel Montero, or that would have shipped Clay Buchholz to Texas for power-hitting backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia. According to multiple major-league sources, the Sox’ rumored interest in Rangers catcher Taylor Teagarden was greatly exaggerated.)
“We don’t have to make a deal just to make a deal,” said Epstein. “We’re willing to be aggressive to find a young player who helps address a position of need long-term, but at the same time we don’t feel like we have to overpay for that. We’d rather be patient and find the right deal.”
DEEP DEPTH ON THE MOUND, ON THE CHEAP
In many ways, pitching seemed an organizational strength for the Red Sox by the end of 2008. Presuming a return to health from Josh Beckett, the Sox seemed set to feature a front three (Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka) or legitimate Cy Young candidates, a solid No. 4 in Tim Wakefield and an ensemble of young talent — Justin Masterson, Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden — who project as solid to dominating big-league starters.
Even so, the Sox remained interested in adding to that group at the start of the offseason. The team wanted, at the least, to kick the tires with the high-end free-agent pool of pitchers, including CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe.
All the same, the Sox treated the idea of a multi-year deal with a free-agent pitcher with understandable caution. More often than not, such deals are financial boondoggles, a fact that Epstein noted at the G.M. meetings, even before his club was allowed to exchange dollar figures with free agents.
“Adding big-name starting pitching through free agency always sounds great on paper,” said Epstein. “But the reality is that those deals often don’t work out for the club. It just can be a risky transaction on day one, let alone looking back at it after the fact.
“If something makes sense to us, we’ll try to add a starting pitcher. In an ideal world, sure, the more the merrier. We’ll turn it into a strength, use one of them in a trade in the middle of the season. We try to create redundancy at all positions…
But finding value with the top free agents is sometimes hard to do. We’ll explore it all, but our expectations are realistic about the chances of landing a guy like that.”
The Sox ended up taking a pass as Sabathia (7 years, $161 million), Burnett (5, $82.5 million) and Lowe (4, $60 million) signed for huge money. Instead, the team minimized its risk by signing Brad Penny (1 year, $5 million) and John Smoltz (1 year, $5.5 million), a pair of pitchers who ranked among the best in baseball as recently as 2007, but whose 2008 seasons were marred by injuries.
Presuming that Penny has rebounded from his shoulder tendinitis, and that the Sox enjoy an injury-free spring, the team could open the year with as many as eight legitimate starting options, with future Hall of Famer Smoltz waiting in the wings.
The bullpen, which went from a regular season vulnerability to a late-season strength in 2008 thanks to Masterson’s emergence, also received low-cost reinforcements. The Sox parted with Coco Crisp to acquire Ramon Ramirez (2.64 ERA, 70 strikeouts in 71.2 innings in 2008), and signed former Dodgers closer Takashi Saito to a one-year deal.
Prospect Daniel Bard, who overwhelmed minor-league hitters after his conversion to the bullpen last year, will wait in the wings to bolster a crew that includes closer Jonathan Papelbon, setup options Saito, Masterson, Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen as well as left-handed option Javier Lopez.
Of course, the performance of bullpens and specific relievers are subject to great uncertainty. That being the case, it seems entirely sensible that the Sox have taken a low-cost approach to assembling as many potentially dominant arms as possible.
The entire Sox bullpen, as currently constructed, will cost less than $13 million — less than the Yankees will pay Mariano Rivera, and only slightly more than what closers Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan will receive in 2009.
Moreover, not only did the Sox keep their stock of pitching prospects intact, but they made a move to add to the ranks of Buchholz, Masterson, Bowden and Bard by acquiring Japanese amateur Junichi Tazawa.
THE YOUNG CORE AND FINANCIAL FLEXIBILITY
Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis both started for the American League All-Star team. They were named first and third, respectively, in A.L. MVP voting. And they both signed long-term deals to secure their futures as members of the Red Sox around whom the team can continue to build.
Pedroia agreed to a six-year deal with a team option that could keep him in Boston through 2015. Youkilis is under team control for the next four years, with a team option for 2013. Both players achieved security, while the club can receive up to a dozen years of combined service from the two players for $105 million — or $75 million less than what the Yankees will pay Teixeira for the next eight years. There is a relevance to the comparison. Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman recently offered an interesting response when asked about his team’s potential interest in pursuing Manny Ramirez.
“We’re tapped,” he told reporters. “I have no glue.”
Last summer saw a nearly unprecedented mid-year trade market. Dominant pitchers (led by Sabathia) and hitters (most notably Teixeira, Manny Ramirez, Jason Bay, Dunn) were moved, along with several players with Hall of Fame resumes near the end of their careers, at a time when Major League Baseball’s revenue forecasts were rosy.
Now, the sinking economy seems likely to serve as a drag on salaries, and perhaps to force some clubs to part with premier talent (whether salary dumps of still talented veteran players at the end of their contracts, or deals for costly but near-prime talent that would require legitimate prospects).
The Sox are not tapped. The team has glue. Aside from Pedroia and Youkilis, the team has no salary commitments to players beyond the 2011 season.
That puts the club in a solid position going forward, whether during this season or following it. The team did not have to react — or overreact — to weaknesses this offseason. As such, the Sox are in a position to address needs as they emerge (or opportunities as they arise) during and after the coming season.
“If you look at the personnel that we have in place, the farm system that we have, the amount of controlled years that we have, the contracts that we have on the books, then combine them with flexibility going forward, I’d like to think that we’re in a decent position,” said Epstein.
It remains to be seen how that will translate once the players actually take the field. What is clear is that the Sox viewed this past offseason as an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to the organizational principles that have gotten then to the playoffs in five of the last six years.