Scott Boras stood atop a platform in one of the back rooms at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and described THAT player -- a "get-on-my-back", carry-the-team-more-times-than-not, middle-of-the-order hitter.
"You're talking about franchise players," he said from the Winter Meetings, obviously using his soon-to-be $180 million client, Mark Teixeira, as the impetus for his analysis. "Guys that are extraordinary players and can put teams on their backs and take them places. The other thing about these players is that they have the ability to pay for themselves. There's a demonstrated evidence that these players put people in the seats, they boost TV ratings, they single-handedly in many ways make their clubs different and in doing so help them win.
"It creates greater fan interest and normally in a free agent market you don’t have those players available."
The Red Sox wanted that guy, for all the reasons Boras stated and more. In this case, Teixeira's case, the player would not only be that entity, but would remain so for years to come, and all the while helping (not hurting) the club on the defensive side of things.
It was, however, the Yankees who got the player, a notion the Red Sox can live with for the time being. They have David Ortiz. They have Kevin Youkilis. They have J.D. Drew. They have Jason Bay. And they have Mike Lowell. They have their middle-of-the-order guys.
But that wasn't the point. Teixeira was about the future as much as he was about the present (which currently has the Yankees' slugger hitting .222 with three homers). So the question remains: How can the Red Sox find a middle-of-the-order answer for the Yankees' first baseman?
The answer isn't easy to find.
Lowell's deal is up at 2010, while the Sox lose control of Ortiz and Drew following the '11 season. And Bay, of course, is in the midst of his contract year as we speak. A saving grace for the Red Sox is the presence of Youkilis, the home-grown cleanup hitter who is under contract through '13.
So where is the middle-of-the-order help coming from? Well, one thing that should be recognized is that the Red Sox aren't necessarily banking on a Manny Ramirez-type presence, still emphasizing somebody who will complement their lineup's approach, supply enough punch to keep the line moving, and still not hurt the club in the field. That is Youkilis, and that was Teixeira.
But, philosophy or not, every lineup needs a little punch. There hasn't been a World Series winner this decade which hasn't had at least one 30-home run hitter. But with teams locking up their young sluggers earlier than ever (see Ryan Braun and Evan Longoria), plucking one of these meat-of-the-order guys off the free agent market has become increasingly difficult.
Heading into next offseason, for free-agent middle-of-the-order guys you have the rapidly-aging Carlos Delgado and Vladimir Guerrero, the Sox' own Bay, and the potential prize of the market, Matt Holliday (the 29-year-old Boras client). That is just a sampling of the kind of scarcity of big bats teams might be finding in years to come thanks to the flurry of deals for pre-arbitration-eligible players.
And, of course, there will be the Yankees to deal with any time such a player becomes available, which certainly will make teams hesitate to rely on the free-agent avenue to fill that No. 3, 4 or 5 spot in its lineup.
So, with those dynamics in place, the Red Sox' most feasible hope for long-term, middle-of-the-order solutions might be to look to their own commodities in the minors. Yet while the organization's drafting and player development has been been universally praised, one look at the lack of power bats in the Sox' minor league system offers a reminder exactly how hard it is to secure such talents.
"No doubt about it, if you have a legit middle-of-the-order bat it's a luxury and a premium to have," said Red Sox scouting director Jason McLeod. "We certainly are trying to address power in our system, but we're going to keep stockpiling as much pitching as we can, and have done a good job of that over the years.
"I don't think you can let yourself get away from taking the best player, who you have evaluated as the best players available, and stick with that. Unless you fee good about a college hitter who has done it for three years and pretty much know you're going to get this or that, like the (Matt) LaPorta's of the world. But if that guy isn't there you have to pick the best player."
It hasn't been as if the Sox haven't correctly identified those types of middle of the order prospects before. They had originally drafted one of the game's best power bats currently in the minors, Cleveland's Matt LaPorta, but were unable to sign him. The same with the second overall pick in last year's draft, Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez, whom the Sox originally took in the 14th round in '05.
And there is some hope for Youkils-type progressions from some of the Sox' current minor leaguers, starting with first baseman Lars Anderson (currently in Double-A Portland, and including Single-A outielders Anthony Rizzo and Jason Place, Single-A third basemen Will Middlebrooks and Michael Almanzar, and Double-A outfielder Josh Reddick. Although none -- not even Anderson -- is close to having the ability to be inserted into the middle of a major-league lineup right now.
The dearth of big boppers in the Sox' minor-league system speaks to the reality that has become analyzing young talent. The safest bet in acquiring such hitters comes when the draftee has a few years of college under his belt, along with a couple of summers using wooden bats. But those "sure things" aren't usually going to last even into the latter part of the first round.
There are the riskier propositions, the high-school hitters with power potential. The Red Sox went down this route in '06, making South Carolina slugger Jason Place their first overall pick. Place is just 20 years-old, playing for Single A Salem, and did hit 19 homers in the hitter-friendly California League last season. He is off to a solid (2 HRs) start this season. But his average in '08 was just .246 after hitting .214 the year before and he clearly has a ways to go before being identified as a legitimate top prospect.
It speaks to how valuable the extra time of watching the player can be. For example, even after getting Anderson in the 18th round (partly because of a poor season leading into the '06 draft), the Red Sox used the months between the draft and the drop-dead signing date to identify the ever-improving potential of the slugger before ultimately investing in him.
"It's more difficult with high school hitters because you have less of a history with them," McLeod said. "With the college players you have three years of college performance, you have a couple of summers with the wood bat. By that point you have a pretty good idea. Some guys stand out, the (Evan) Longorias, and I don't want to say it's easy because drafting hitters in general is tough. It's a different dynamic drafting a high school kid versus a college kid.
"A kid like Place, he had undeniable big, raw power, big bat speed, but he was a high school right-handed hitter from a smaller town and area. He did play on some travel teams, but it's still a limited snap-shot of what you're getting scouting that kind of kid versus college kids.
"(LaPorta and Alvarez) are certainly bitter pills to swallow but it's all part of what we do. We certainly are trying to address the power issue in the organization. We have some guys who fit that mold, with Lars standing out at the top of that list. I also think Anthony Rizzo has a very good opportunity to be a power guy. Jason Place has as much raw power as anybody and there have been small steps he has taken, and he's off to a good start this year."
Teixeira would have been one solution for the future, but that didn't work out. It's time to start formulating Plan B, whatever it may be.
"Teixeira, there are so few of those types of players," McLeod said. "He is in the top five or 10 of all hitters in baseball. At the amateur level we try and project that type of guy and hope we do hit on that track of player, but realistically there aren't that many of those types of guys out there. When I go out there and am looking at a first base power prospect it's kind of easy to say to yourself, 'Gosh, is this guy going to hit 35 home runs?' And then you look in the major leagues and see how many guys do hit 35 home runs. We have to set our sights to be a little more realistic."