Thursday December 9th, 2010

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Timing is everything, and though the news of the Red Sox signing free-agent left fielder Carl Crawford at the winter meetings didn't break until the deadline-unfriendly time of 11:30 p.m. ET, Boston's acquisition was a perfectly executed preemptive strike aimed at their archrivals.

Not only do the Red Sox claim the offseason's best available position player -- pending a physical, he comes at the princely sum of $142 million over seven years, the richest contract for an outfielder in history -- but they also keep him away from their competitors, seemingly without the competition even chiming in serious opposing bids.

For weeks there have been reports that signing Crawford was the Yankees' Plan B should they fail to sign left-hander Cliff Lee. In that scenario, New York would make a splash by signing Crawford and then trading one of its other outfielders -- Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson or Nick Swisher -- for a starting pitcher.

But Lee's agent left the winter meetings Wednesday afternoon without a deal in place, meaning the late-night agreement between the Red Sox and Crawford eliminated the Yankees' Plan B before they even got an answer about Plan A. The same is true for the Rangers and possibly for the Angels, though the Sox aren't in quite the same direct competition with those AL West heavyweights.

And then there was the Fox Sports report that the Red Sox were one of the mystery teams who offered a seven-year deal to Lee, which is something the Yankees reportedly are unwilling to do. But Boston apparently made the offer -- at a lower dollar figure than Lee would accept -- just so his agent could tell the Yankees that they had received a genuine seven-year offer.

That chicanery already may have driven up the Yankees' price on Lee, and now New York will undoubtedly break the bank to get him -- but may be doing so with a little pre-existing bad blood if the Yankees suspect Lee and his agent were willing partners in the Red Sox' charade.

Boston has now added both Crawford and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez this offseason -- each a franchise player on nearly any other team -- without sacrificing a player off the major league roster. General manager Theo Epstein has, however, spent approximately $300 million on the two players, each of whom received a seven-year contract.

Such expenditure continues to close the gap between the Red Sox and the Yankees -- at least in perception of bullying around the competition to sign every available star.

Though they had the two highest payrolls in baseball last season, they were still separated by some $64 million, a value that exceeded nine clubs' entire player budgets. Boston has already taken some $40 million off the books this season, with Adrian Beltre ($10 million), Mike Lowell ($12.5 million), Victor Martinez ($7.7 million) and the obligation to Julio Lugo ($9.3 million) as the primary culprits.

Some $50 million more in contracts will expire after 2011, in the form of J.D. Drew, David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Cameron, Marco Scutaro and others. Though the Red Sox are taking on huge sums of money, they are also about to start saving a lot, too.

Though Crawford is a four-time All-Star who in his eight full seasons has batted .299 with a .340 on-base percentage and averaged 13 home runs and 50 stolen bases per year, there are two legitimate concerns facing the Red Sox with this deal.

The foremost worry is that speedsters don't always age well. In the expansion era (1961 and later), there have been only 27 seasons in which a player in his age-34 or -35 seasons has stolen at least 30 bases, and that's how Crawford will be at the end of this contract. Part of his appeal has also always been his defense. Thanks to his speed, he has ranked in the top-five among all AL outfielders in Ultimate Zone Rating -- a measure of runs saved -- each of the past three seasons.

On the latter count, some of his range will already be diminished by the close quarters of Fenway Park's left field, where down the line the Green Monster stands only 310 feet from home plate.

On the former count, that speed may already a smaller part of Crawford's game. In the final two months of the season he batted exclusively third in Tampa Bay's lineup, rather than his customary second, and hit .323 with a .364 OBP and a .526 slugging percentage, which is 82 points higher than his career mark. In his 49 games batting third, he hit seven home runs, a rate of one every 27.4 at bats -- roughly twice as often as his career rate of one homer every 48 at bats.

It's a small sample size, but may still be indicative of Crawford's changing approach at the plate. He's unlikely to bat third in Boston but could excel as the No. 2 hitter behind Dustin Pedroia.

The second concern is how lefty-heavy Boston's lineup has become. As it stands now, five of its nine projected starters -- Crawford, Gonzalez, Drew, Ortiz and Jacob Ellsbury -- are left-handed batters. That's particularly a concern for teams in the AL East, where the Yankees could have three lefty starting pitchers in CC Sabathia, Lee and Andy Pettitte, presuming the latter two sign with New York. The Rays' ace, David Price, is a southpaw, as are three of the Blue Jays' starters (Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil and Marc Rzepczynski).

But it'll only be one season of such lefty-dominance for Boston, as Drew and Ortiz are likely gone after this season, and Ellsbury's name frequently pops up in trade rumors.

With this daring move, the Red Sox have risked retribution from the Yankees -- who, if George Steinbrenner were still alive, might be tempted to now not only sign Lee but also trade for Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder and every other All-Star on the market -- and they have opened themselves up to further criticism from small- and mid-market teams for their lavish spending, but in a strictly baseball context, their swift strike for Crawford is nearly flawless: it improves their club while hurting the Yankees.

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