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Re-balanced and re-loaded Red Sox ready for another run


But they also know that to beat the Yankees, they simply needed more great players, and along those lines they made sure to get ex-Angels ace John Lackey in a year where only three prime-time stars were available via free agency, and for them it was really only two realistic ones since they basically already knew Jason Bay was a goner after negotiations with him took an unhappy turn last summer.

The Red Sox still aren't going to beat the Yankees' star power, but in an offseason where the New York lost Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon, and Boston added Lackey and made as many significant changes as any other team, they Red Sox closed the wattage gap to some degree. More practically, though, they now have the top trio of starting pitchers (who is a better No. 3 than Lackey?) and just might have the best defense in baseball.

Boston has indeed re-balanced things nicely. One big bat (Bay) is already gone and another one (the diminishing Mike Lowell, who will be in camp soon and working hard with the thought that he'll be dealt soon) is all but gone, and they have been replaced by longtime defensive whizzes Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre. They also signed Marco Scutaro, a late bloomer who's more than solid at shortstop, and moved Jacoby Ellsbury to letfield, reassuring him in the process that the move won't be permanent. "We were focused on building a balanced club,'' GM Theo Epstein says. "Our goal was try to be above average in hitting, pitching and defense. The years we've been able to accomplish that have been our best years -- '04,'07 and '08.''

No one can suggest they failed to do what they set out to do. Although, Epstein constantly hears criticisms from an intense fan base used to a lineup of bashers. He says, "We still like our offense. If we end up scoring a few fewer runs, we're going to allow a lot fewer.''

That should be true, thanks to the rejiggered defense that should reverse a season in which they let more grounders through the left side than any team in baseball. And also to Lackey, a Texas tough kid who was made for Boston. "It was time for a change of scenery,'' says Lackey, who happily went from a placid winning atmosphere to a rabid one. He loves it. And they should love him.

How good a competitor is Lackey? When equally tough Angels manager Mike Scioscia came to remove him from Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Lackey could be seen mouthing the words, "This is mine" in protest, even though the call had already been made. Lackey says he got over that right after they won the game. But had they lost, he would probably still be stewing.

The Red Sox, one of baseball's smartest front offices, understand they need impact players to beat the Yankees, so they spent time early assessing their chances at landing the very few available and thought-to-be-available stars at the beginning of winter. When they looked at Matt Holliday, Jason Bay, Roy Halladay, Adrian Gonzalez and Lackey, it didn't take too long before they realized that Lackey was their best hope.

Here's how they assessed their chances at the others ...

Holliday: One percent

They figured this would drag out and go too high, but on the off chance Holliday badly wanted to be in Boston, they offered $82.5 million for five years. They were willing to go a bit higher but weren't amenable to a deal for seven or eight years, and they figured -- correctly -- as it turned out -- that that's what he would get.

Bay: One percent

The Red Sox doctor said Bay failed their physical due to a bone-on-bone situation in his knee even though he remained asymptomatic so last summer they lowered their offer to Bay to two years from four and $60 million. They kept quiet about their medical exam out of fairness to Bay and figured someone would beat that two-year offer. Bay wound up getting $66 million and the full four years from the Mets, despite the fact that they knew about the knee situation from the start.

Halladay: Not great

The Blue Jays named Clay Buchholz, Ryan Westmoreland and Casey Kelly as players they liked. Even if they could have reformed that deal, the Red Sox ultimately suspected they'd have to badly overpay to get the Blue Jays to move him to an intradivisional power.

Gonzalez: Not too good (at the moment)

The Red Sox probably had a very good feel for the situation regarding Gonzalez because Epstein's former assistant Jed Hoyer is the Padres' new general manager. They are going to want a ton of prospects when they do trade Gonzalez, and most baseball people believe that will happen either this summer or winter since there's no sign any contract extension is within reach in San Diego. Gonzalez is said to want $20-million-plus per year. That's apparently not happening in his hometown. He looks like he might be on his way to Boston just in time, as the Red Sox are concerned about the drop off in Red Sox icon David Ortiz and could always move Kevin Youkilis to third base, as Beltre is expected to decline his second-year option.

That left Lackey, who quietly agreed to the same $82.5-million, five-year deal Holliday turned down. As a kicker, they got him to agree to pitch for the minimum salary in year six if he misses any of the first five with the elbow trouble that knocked him out of the last two Aprils.

Speculation was that Lackey wanted to be in California or possibly Texas, where the Abilene native could be close to his favored Dallas Cowboys. But his wife has strong ties to New England, and he badly wants to win, making the Red Sox his secret wish.

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"It worked out great,'' Lackey says. "I ended up in a great place that has a chance to win.''

Great for him. And better for Boston.

One reason the Yankees were reluctant to go for a two-year deal for Johnny Damon might have had little to do with Damon and been a greater reflection of what they think of Carl Crawford. The Yankees love him. Crawford is almost sure to be too rich for the low-revenue Rays, and the Yankees jump to the head of the class for interested teams. Remember, too, that the Yankees passed on Matt Holliday. It all seems to set up nicely for Crawford.

After the shock of the Yankees' mild interest in Damon wore off, he got an $8-million deal in Detroit, not bad considering the treatment of 35-plus players with defensive limitations (Miguel Tejada got $6 million, and Vladimir Guerrero $5 million). It is curious, though, why Damon concentrated on the one-year option when there was a belief (including here) that two years was possible. "I'm happy. I think everything went smooth. We had options but Detroit was my first one for some time,'' Damon wrote by text.

In any case, he's sure to be happy to join Jim Leyland's team after Leyland stumped so strongly for him. It was Leyland and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch who teamed up to make it happen, despite some reservations from the front office.

With Damon off the board, there are still some quality players left. Here's a look at a few of them ...

• Jarrod Washburn. Washburn was halfway into what looked like a big season when he went to Detroit in trade and a bum knee derailed him in a brutal second half. He had an offer from the Twins before they signed Orlando Hudson for $5 million, and Milwaukee's $5-million deal with Doug Davis might eliminate him from any chance to play for his home state team. The Mets do not seem enthralled (and generally would prefer not to spend), while some other teams complain about the asking price. The Mariners seem logical in that Washburn connected with Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair and they appear to have a need for one more starter. The Royals also have shown interest.

• Jermaine Dye.. His lack of deal is surprising considering he hit more home runs the past five years than any American League outfielder. The Cubs offered $3 million before they signed Xavier Nady instead

• Felipe Lopez. Oddly, no one team has offered him a definite starting job after he hit .310 with a .383 batting average, bringing up the question of whether there are some outside issues. One executive with a former team said while Lopez stays out later than he should sometimes and isn't always giving max effort on the field (if not, than he must really be talented), he tries hard to guide the younger players and he'd take him again. The Cardinals have made the most sense, but the Padres do, too.

• Hank Blalock. He's turned his personal life around but he's now battling a low batting average and thoughts he benefited from Texas' ballpark. The Marlins and Rays are belived to have some interest in him, and the Indians were looking at him before turning to Russell Branyan.

• Kiko Calero. One of baseball's better middle relievers should be able to find a job. Almost any team could use a reliever who struck out more a batter an inning. But so far no takers have emerged.

• John Smoltz. Some are saying he may wait until mid-year. And why not? It's not like he should be desperate. Smoltz would love to return to St. Louis.

• Pedro Martinez. Effective for the Phillies last year, teams appear to be underestimating him for a second straight offseason. He outpitched Joe Blanton who got a $24 million deal. Whoever gets Pedro will look smart.

• Rod Barajas didn't exactly break the bank when he signed for $500,000 guaranteed plus a $400,000 bonus for making the Opening Day roster plus another $1.1 million in games played incentives. But he got a big-league deal from the Mets, a clear signal that they expect him to start, which doesn't bode well for Omir Santos. Texas was hoping to lure Barajas with a few hundred thousand more on a non-guaranteed contract and the lure of playing close to home for the former Ranger and Texas resident with five kids. Mets people like his home-run potential and decent arm but didn't seem that enthused, which enabled them to keep their bid low. "We'll be fine if he goes to Texas,'' one Mets person said hours before he instead went to the Mets.

• The Diamondbacks are trying to lock up star third baseman Mark Reynolds, who had the misfortune to miss becoming a "super two'' arbitration case this year by a few days. They are believed to have offered in the neighborhood of $11 million on a three-year deal.

• Victor Martinez said he "definitely'' wants to re-sign in Boston. Even as an average-at-best catcher his value is high as he's proven to be a No. 3 type hitter for Boston. Although should Joe Mauer somehow escape the Twins' clutches (it's unlikely he will), look for Boston to be first in line to sign him.

• Astros GM Ed Wade's contract was extended through 2012, and my only conclusion is that he should give a course in office politics. His streak of not reaching the playoffs is at a decade now.

• Bill Shaikin had a great story in the Los Angeles Times detailing the Dodgers plans to raise revenue by nearly double through 2018 while keeping payroll at practically the same level. If they actually do this, it would be a disgrace. The Dodgers are a storied franchise, not a personal piggy bank for their owner.