Friday November 12th, 2010

This offseason the Red Sox should act like a big-market bully. That's how they've long been portrayed, even if they've had two relatively meek offseasons in a row. In 2009 they filled their roster with reclamation projects such as Brad Penny, John Smoltz and Rocco Baldelli after getting beaten for their first-choice player -- "the residue of not signing Mark Teixeira," general manager Theo Epstein admitted back in March.

In 2010 they espoused the un-hip M.O. of "run prevention," signing players such as Adrian Beltre, Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro, who were known as much for their gloves as their bats. Boston also signed starting pitcher John Lackey to a big contract, though he was a distant third last offseason compared to the other two aces that changed teams, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.

These are the Red Sox, with oodles of money to spend and prospects to trade, so if they badly want a guy -- a guy who happens to play the same position of a Yankee with a long-term contract, at least -- then the Red Sox should get their guy. That's why they should make trading for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signing free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth their utmost priorities this winter.

They ought to be able to add two stars without breaking the bank or cracking the luxury tax, making a Gonzalez-Werth campaign the winning ticket for the 2010-11 offseason.

There's no reason to think that Gonzalez, a year away from free agency, won't be a part of Boston's long-term plans anyway -- all the money that the club had planned to spend on signing Teixeira has presumably been sitting in a bank account, accruing interest and awaiting a first baseman's name -- but it would behoove Boston to trade for him now and make the most of 2011.

Left fielder Carl Crawford, of course, is a great player, but the Red Sox won't be able to afford both him and Gonzalez for the long-term, as both are likely to make more than $20 million per year. Werth might "only" cost in the range of $15-to-$18 million.

The Red Sox, of course, don't need to overhaul to be somewhere between good and very good. They did, after all, win 89 games last season despite being decimated by injuries. If outfielders Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and first baseman Kevin Youkilis are healthy, there's a significant improvement to the lineup already. Their incumbent starting rotation presumably will be better next season -- Josh Beckett's back should be stronger and it's hard to imagine a pitcher of Lackey's caliber having another down year.

The last time the Red Sox didn't make the playoffs, in 2006, they responded by spending a combined $173 million on J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka, a suitably bold statement for a franchise growing accustomed to big bucks and big winning.

It worked, too: Boston won the 2007 World Series.

However, those contracts -- a five-year, $70 million deal for right fielder Drew and a six-year, $52 million contract (plus a $51 million posting fee) for right-hander Matsuzaka -- haven't aged well, as thus far they've combined for three great years (Drew's '08 and '09 and Matsuzaka's '08) and five seasons teetering between ordinary and subpar.

(Side note: Had pitcher Yu Darvish not decided to return to Japan for another year, the Sox could have repeated history almost exactly by signing Darvish and Crawford -- i.e., the top Japanese starter and the top left-handed-hitting free-agent outfielder.)

Given Boston's strong returning core, the Gonzalez-Werth ticket would simply be a luxury -- but one that the Red Sox can afford without actually paying the luxury tax, a threshold that in 2011 is expected to be around $178 million. Boston paid the levy on payroll each year from 2004 through '07 but has not done so since and seems committed to avoiding it.

This offseason some $42.5 million in payroll is already off the books -- primarily through the free agency of Beltre ($10 million), Mike Lowell ($12.5 million), Victor Martinez ($7.7 million), Jason Varitek ($3 million) and the end of the obligation to Julio Lugo ($9.3 million) -- and even with an additional $15-18 million to be spent balancing the books from 2010 to '11 (on raises and arbitration), that still puts the Red Sox $25 million shy of their 2010 Opening Day payroll of $162 million, even after they picked up designated hitter David Ortiz's $12.5 million option.

Gonzalez will make only $5.5 million this year but when he starts making the big money in 2012, the hefty contracts for Drew and Ortiz will be off the books. If those players return, it'll be at a discounted salary.

And the Red Sox have the prospects to trade and could quickly replenish the farm system through the draft by limiting their Type A free-agent additions to Werth -- who comes at the cost of a first-round draft pick -- and then receiving picks for letting their own Type A players -- Beltre and Martinez -- sign elsewhere.

Epstein is now presented with a veritable choose-your-own-adventure story of how to assemble the 2011 Red Sox. The five-man rotation is set, barring a trade, but the bullpen only had two reliable relievers for most of last year and reports each passing day say that Boston seems less likely and less interested in retaining the services of Beltre and Martinez. There could be concerns over the injuries to Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury lingering -- or that Ellsbury is used as trade bait -- which would open new lineup possibilities.

There's even more flexibility given Youkilis' ability to play either first base or third, though he has already said this offseason that he's preparing to play third, perhaps indicating that either word from management or his own intuition is steering him toward the hot corner.

The options facing Epstein are many. How best to navigate the months ahead? Allow us to put on our GM cap and sort through the decisions that the Sox need to make in choosing who, and who not, to add this winter.

Decision 1: The cost of Adrian Gonzalez

Gonzalez is a perfect fit for Fenway Park -- as explained below -- but he would come at a cost of more than money. Choosing whether to meet the Padres' rightfully steep price on Gonzalez will be the first choice Epstein must make because a deal for Gonzalez will surely be quickly followed by a long-term, franchise-defining extension. Though he's recovering from shoulder surgery and won't swing a bat until March, Gonzalez is otherwise risk-free and will only turn 29 in May, meaning he and Crawford are the only players to whom the Sox are likely to offer a contract of six or more years.

Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, a former Epstein assistant, has acknowledged publicly that he won't be able to re-sign Gonzalez long-term and that he'll at least listen to offers in the offseason. San Diego's unexpected success last season means Hoyer is probably more reticent to trade Gonzalez and kill what optimism may exist in the fan base, so he'll need to be blown away.

It would presumably take a package of at least three highly-rated prospects, though not necessarily the No. 1 guy, starter Casey Kelly. Boston would likely have to trade probably three players from this group: Ellsbury, Ryan Kalish, Josh Reddick, Lars Anderson, Anthony Rizzo, Jed Lowrie, Reymond Fuentes, Anthony Ranaudo, Drake Britton.

The cost is worth it because Gonzalez's opposite-field swing is tailor-made for Boston's Green Monster, the high wall placed in shallow left field, just 310 feet from home plate.

The average major-league left-handed batter has a .400 average and .722 slugging percentage on balls hit in play that are pulled; to the opposite field, the average lefty has a .333 average and a .471 slugging. In other words, a lefty is always better pulling the ball, and even though he'll still get a lot of hits to left field, he suffers a significant reduction in power.

But not Adrian Gonzalez. In 2010 he had a .342 average and .693 slugging percentage when he pulled the ball, rates that are slightly below what's typical; but when he hits the ball to the opposite field, he raked, compiling an otherworldly .516 average and .968 slugging percentage. He could easily hit 40 doubles and 40 homers if he got away from vacuous PETCO Park and moved to Fenway.

Decision 1A: Who are the alternatives for Opening Day first baseman?

If Epstein decides that the cost of prospects to deal for a full year of Gonzalez is too steep, does he simply sign a stopgap until the trade deadline, at which point he revisits a Gonzalez trade? Does he hand the job to the rookie Anderson? Does he keep Youkilis at first and sign or trade for a third baseman? Or does he change his mind about Gonzalez and acquire another star-caliber player like Adam Dunn or Prince Fielder (also via trade)?

If he does sign a free-agent first baseman, it shouldn't be guys like Paul Konerko, Aubrey Huff or Carlos Peña, all of whom will want multi-year deals. Better could be someone like Derrek Lee, who might be more apt to accept a one-year deal in hopes of rebuilding his value after a down season.

The non-Beltre third basemen on the market are sufficiently uninspiring (hello, Jorge Cantu, Pedro Feliz and Nick Punto) that Youkilis will most likely be a third baseman this year -- until Epstein decides instead to install Lowrie there and cue the Gonzalez countdown.

Dunn isn't a bad play at first base. Though he's a terrible fielder, he prefers to remain in the field. The Red Sox could live with him there for a season while Ortiz is under contract and then shift Dunn to DH in a year (or two) when Ortiz leaves the organization. And Dunn is a sufficiently productive player that Boston could potentially forget about Gonzalez.

Decision 2: What to do about the outfield?

A year ago a starting outfield of Ellsbury, Cameron and Drew seemed pretty good, and the Red Sox could simply go to battle with last year's projected starters, with Kalish in a supportive, fourth-outfielder role.

But Werth would make an excellent right fielder at Fenway Park. He covers a lot of ground and has a strong throwing arm. He hits for power, and in the Red Sox's lineup wouldn't need to be any more than the No. 5 hitter, the role he typically filled in Philadelphia. Like most of Boston's hitters, he's patient at the plate, leading the majors in pitches per plate appearance in 2009 and ranking fourth in '10. Finally, the Red Sox are among the teams with a reasonably favorable history with his agent, Scott Boras, and Werth's personality (and beard) would play well with the club's rabid fan base.

To make room, Drew could easily slide to left field, and in centerfield the Sox would have at least two of the group including Cameron, Ellsbury and Kalish to choose from.

As a contingency plan, the Red Sox reportedly were interested in Royals outfielder David DeJesus before he was traded to the A's, suggesting that Boston might not be set on revamping its outfield through free agency and may be looking outside the box for ideas. A rumor from earlier this week -- one that was summarily dismissed -- featured a multi-player deal with the overpaid Matsuzaka and the Cubs' overpaid outfielder Kosuke Fukudome at the center of it. What might make more sense is offering Dice-K for a different overpaid outfielder, the Mets' Carlos Beltran.

Decision 3: How can they improve the bullpen?

By the end of 2010 the Red Sox could count on set-up man Daniel Bard and -- most of the time -- closer Jonathan Papelbon. Though Bard was more effective, there's no way to delicately change their roles without upsetting Papelbon, who also enters his walk year before his impending free agency.

Hideki Okajima, who was disappointing in the second half, returns and this time will be joined by rookie Felix Doubront as the second lefty. Scott Atchison was re-signed as the pen's long man.

Though a nice front end, the rest of the bullpen needs to reconstructed and done so without signing any Type A free agents. That means Boston will stay away from Rafael Soriano, Matt Thornton, Scott Downs, Matt Guerrier, Dan Wheeler, Jason Frasor, Frank Francisco, Grant Balfour Arthur Rhodes or Takashi Saito. Of course, if they can somehow lure that other Type A free agent -- the Yankees' Mariano Rivera -- they should do that, but it won't happen.

Still, there are plenty of good options among Type B free agents -- who don't come with the cost of a draft pick -- including Joaquin Benoit, Jesse Crain and J.J. Putz, as well as a few relievers who spent much of '10 closing but could find an earlier-inning role in Boston: Brian Fuentes, Kevin Gregg, Octavio Dotel, Kerry Wood.

Decision 4: Who is going to catch?

With Martinez all but gone -- and the Tigers are prioritizing his signing -- the most likely candidate is Blue Jays catcher John Buck, a sturdy defender, a well-regarded leader and an occasional power hitter, as he showed while hitting 20 home runs last year. The Sox believe that Jarrad Saltalamacchia, the former Rangers prospect whom they traded for last year, can still become an everyday catcher, and the addition of Buck ought to form a solid platoon.

The Red Sox certainly need a defensive upgrade after opponents ran rampant on them the past two years. Boston allowed the most steals in each of the past two seasons, surrendering a combined 320 steals -- 59 more than any other AL team over that time span. Buck threw out 24.2 percent of base stealers last year, a middle-of-the-pack number, but far better than Martinez's 14.7 percent rate.

Other viable options include Miguel Olivo or Bengie Molina, if he doesn't retire. Gerald Laird is great defensively but so poor offensively that he likely isn't a match.

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