LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Red Sox shocked the baseball world, or at least the portion of it that managed to hold on to their drinks around the lobby bars of the winter meetings hotel here when the news broke in the last hour of Wednesday. Boston somehow turned $142 million into stealth money, agreeing to make Carl Crawford the second-highest paid outfielder in baseball history with hardly a moment of preparation by those outside their own suite. It was a rare "wow" moment in a Twitter-mad world.
"[Bleeping] Theo," one GM said of Boston general manager Theo Epstein. "What a brilliant move."
The Sox waved some money at Mariano Rivera and they danced with Cliff Lee -- diversionary tactics designed to take time off the free agent clock and to drive up prices -- and traded for Adrian Gonzalez, a huge deal that gave the impression their spending was exhausted. Meanwhile, they swooped in on Crawford just as the rest of baseball figured he would wait for Lee to sign, and then alight in Anaheim with the Angels. They blew up any timetables by putting the seven-year deal on the table, ready-made for a quick decision.
Crawford never was a Yankee priority -- not with Lee still out there -- and one New York source groused that Crawford never wanted to go to Boston. Well, sure, and CC Sabathia never really wanted New York. The money and the audacity of the Red Sox to build a monster lineup for years to come would change anybody's mind real quickly.
"It's not an outrageous number," said one GM. "Even before [Jayson] Werth I thought Crawford was at least $120 million, so this isn't much more over seven years. Put it this way: I don't know what the Angels were thinking. I thought [owner] Arte [Moreno] was going to pony up."
The Red Sox have built a lefty-heavy lineup that especially can demolish righthanded pitching -- all the more reason why lefthanders Lee and Andy Pettitte are must-haves for the Yankees.
"Now the Yankees will respond with Lee and trading for Zack Greinke," said another GM. "[Jesus] Montero, [Eduardo] Nunez . . . doesn't matter what it takes now. And they'll go get [lefty reliever] Scott Downs now because of that [Boston] lineup."
The Red Sox have five of their eight starting position players controlled through 2013 and none of them are older than 31: Crawford, Gonzalez (assuming his extension), Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis.
How in the world could they afford almost $300 million in investments for Crawford and Gonzalez? (Both are 29 -- entering their prime years.) Boston shed about $40 million in payroll this year (Mike Lowell, Victor Martinez, Adrian Beltre, Julio Lugo) and could lose as much as $56 million after next season (J.D. Drew, David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Cameron, Marco Scutaro, Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek).
Come springtime, the Red Sox will be the most fascinating team to watch. Before then, however, the Yankees, Rangers and Angels are the teams to watch in the next day or so. One of them is likely to get Lee. And for the two clubs that don't, the winter will become only more desperate.
Along with $10 million, the Chicago Cubs handed first baseman Carlos Peña one of those "Wheel of Fortune" Free Spin cards that Adrian Beltre enjoyed from the Red Sox last season. The one-year contract to a veteran coming off a down year is another chance at the really big money by taking better numbers into the free agent market next year.
The one-year gambit worked well for Beltre, a righthanded hitter whose home OPS shot from .646 at Seattle's Safeco Field in 2009 to .881 at Boston's Fenway Park last season. (Beltre hit even better on the road with the Red Sox.) A huge multi-year free agent deal now awaits him at age 31.
Peña, 32, batted .196 last year for Tampa while hitting 28 home runs. He averaged 39 homers over the previous three years. How likely is it that Wrigley can do for Peña what Fenway did for Beltre? It's going to be a lot harder.
Only six lefthanded hitters ever have hit 30 home runs for the Cubs -- and none since Fred McGriff in 2002. Here are the only 30-home run seasons by a Cubs lefthanded hitter in the past 35 seasons:
It sure looks like Wrigley is not the place for Peña to start bombing upward of 40 home runs again. Then again, Chicago has been oddly devoid of lefthanded sluggers of any kind for many, many years.
Last season, for instance, the Cubs ranked 13th in the league in home runs by lefthanders. Every club ranking in the bottom half of that category failed to make the playoffs, including the least proficient, the Marlins, whose lefties hit -- get this -- eight home runs.
This lack of lefty punch is nothing new for the Cubs. Here is their league rank in home runs by lefties since 2003: 15, 9, 9, 13, 16, 12, 11, 13. And in the 135 seasons in franchise history, Chicago has developed only two homegrown lefthanded 30-home run hitters: Billy Williams, who was signed in 1956, and Rick Wilkins, who was drafted in 1986.
Tyler Colvin (20 homers in 2010) and now Peña give the Cubs some real hope for lefthanded power. They just might turn out to be the first lefty tandem with 20 homers each for the Cubs since 1974, when Williams and Rick Monday did it.
For Peña, in addition to the Free Spin card, the Cubs also presented him with the best opportunity to win among his options. Indeed, Peña told reporters that he was flattered by the two-year contract offer made by the Baltimore Orioles. There was only one problem with the story: "We never made him a two-year offer," one Orioles source said. "We never made him an offer period."
After a season in which he finished second in the league in homers, fourth in OPS and fifth in MVP balloting, White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko put himself up for bidding on the free agent market -- and got a raise of just $500,000. And that's after taking a hometown discount in his last contract.
Konerko's deal with the White Sox of three years and $37.5 million gives him an average annual value ($12.5 million) not much better than his expired five-year deal ($12 million). The market just wasn't convinced Konerko would leave the White Sox, especially when he preferred a spring training base near his Arizona home. The Nationals jumped in on Konerko at the end, but had little chance at a deal.
But mostly, it's another example of how baseball has devalued players as they age through their mid- and late-30s. Konerko turns 35 in March. Last season, not one player 35-and-older who played a defensive position full time hit more than 20 home runs.
Carl Pavano has been called the best starting pitcher available after Lee, but the drop in quality and price is so precipitous the comparison is not relevant. The Brewers are interested in signing Pavano, but don't want to do so at more than two years plus an option and at about "Jake Westbrook money." Westbrook re-signed with St. Louis for $16.5 million for two years.
The Twins, though, are pushing hard to bring Pavano back and could make three years more likely. If they sign Pavano, said one industry source, the Twins could trade another pitcher, such as Kevin Slowey, to open room on the payroll.
Clubs are increasingly convinced Greinke will be traded soon after Lee signs, with interest from the Rangers, Dodgers, Nationals, Blue Jays and, if they lose out on Lee, the Yankees. "The Rangers feel like they need a name, a star, in their ballpark after coming off the World Series," one executive said. "And Greinke would be the guy if they don't sign Lee. They have the young players to do a deal. But there's another team out there nobody has mentioned that has four quality young players ready who are going to be in it, too." . . . The Rangers could be after third baseman Adrian Beltre if they trade Michael Young. The Rockies want Young to play second base. Colorado is one of the eight clubs Young designated as those to which he would accept a trade, according to a clause in his contract. Young will make $16 million a year over the next three seasons, and the Rockies would have to "get creative" with the money to make it work, according to a team source. "He's our kind of player." . . . The Cubs inquired about pitcher Matt Garza from the Rays, but when Tampa Bay asked about Colvin and Sean Marshall, the talks went nowhere . . . When Atlanta asked Milwaukee about outfielder Lorenzo Cain, the Brewers asked for pitcher Mike Minor. The Braves offered pitcher Brandon Beachy instead. End of discussion . . . The Phillies are looking for bids on pitcher Joe Blanton, a righthander with a 4.42 ERA the past two years and $17 million due over the next two years . . . The Nationals' attendance remained relatively flat in 2010 after taking a 22 percent dip after opening Nationals Park in 2008. So where is their spending money coming from all of a sudden? "Revenue sharing," said one rival owner matter-of-factly. "They've been doing well with it and now they're spending it."