Red Sox can't wait for aces in free agency

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Red Sox can't wait for aces in free agency

If it hasn't already, the news that the Seattle Mariners had agreed with pitcher Felix Hernandez on a contract extension last week worth 175 million should make two important points.

One: Thanks to revenue sharing and the general health of the game, almost any team can afford the occasional mega-deal for a
player it covets.

Two: The days of waiting for an ace to hit free agency are essentially over. Big market teams accustomed to poaching All-Star starting pitchers who have outgrown their small- and medium-market teams had better change their approach.

The latter, of course, is a teachable moment for the Red Sox. Some fans were counting the days until Hernandez -- or Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw -- were eligible for free agency, believing that all the Red Sox (or the Yankees) had to do was unholster their checkbook and pick their choice of ace.

But the days of the game's best pitchers taking their talents to market are essentially over. When teams are faced with the prospect of losing a true No. 1 starter, they generally do what they must to retain such a valuable commodity.

In the last few years, Jered Weaver stayed with the Angels, Matt Cain got extended by the Giants and CC Sabathia remained with the Yankees. And is there any doubt that, sometime between now and the end of 2014, the Tigers and Dodgers will pay what they must to keep, respectively, Verlander and Kershaw?

Said one baseball executive: "When you have one of those guys, you have to do whatever it takes to keep them when the time comes."

In truth, this might not be as problematic for the Red Sox as it seems. Having been repeatedly burned on eight- and nine-figure free agent deals -- Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, John Lackey, etc -- to the point where they were driven to unload three big contracts last August, the Sox are naturally wary of such gambles.

That's especially true of the quality of pitchers who do reach free agency, who typically qualify as overpriced innings eaters (think: Mark Buehrle or Edwin Jackson) but often fail to be worth the investment made in them.

All of which will force the Red Sox to get creative in their search for the next starting pitcher to lead the team back to championship status. It's worth noting that, since the mid-1980s, of the four best Red Sox starters (Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Beckett), none was a free agent and only one (Clemens) was drafted and developed by the Sox.

Among the organization's top pitching prospects in the system, Matt Barnes is probably the closest to impacting the big league staff, and even he, having not pitched above high Single A, is probably a year and a half -- at minimum -- away from getting to Boston.

Henry Owens and Anthony Renaudo have similar developmental steps to take.

So, with Jon Lester -- signed through 2013 with an options for 2014 in place -- two years away from free agency himself, where do the Red Sox find their next ace?

They could use some of their top positional player prospects in a deal for an established front-line starter as they did in the deal for Beckett after 2005, or the way the Yankees did with Michael Pineda after 2011.

Or, they could use their first-round pick this June on a top-of-the rotation starter. With the No. 8 overall pick, the Sox will be selecting higher in the first round than they have since 1993, when they chose Trot Nixon.

But both paths have drawbacks and risks. To obtain a true elite young starter, the Sox would probably have to sacrifice shortstop Xander Bogaerts -- and possibly more. The Sox envision Bogaerts being a franchise player, around which they can build for the next decade. Dealing him for an ace would be an enormous risk and could potentially leave the shortstop position as the perennial black hole it's been since 2004.

And, if the Sox use their first-round pick to select a can't-miss starting pitcher, that means they wouldn't be able to select a power bat, the likes of which aren't usually available after the first dozen or so selections in the draft.

Every Red Sox World Series team of the last 46 years has been fronted by a true No. 1 starter, from Jim Lonborg in 1967 to Luis Tiant in 1975 to Clemens in 1986, to Schilling and Martinez in 2004 and Beckett in 2007.

Finding the next one will not be easy or cheap, and, as the Red Sox now know, it almost certainly won't come via free agency.

Market for Encarnacion is shrinking, yet Red Sox still don't seem interested

Market for Encarnacion is shrinking, yet Red Sox still don't seem interested

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- As the annual winter meetings get underway today, the market for arguably the best free-agent hitter may be -- against all logic -- lessening.

Edwin Encarnacion, who has averaged 39 homers a year over the last five seasons, should be a player in demand.

But in quick succession, the Houston Astros and New York Yankees, two teams thought to be in the market for Encarnacion, opted to go with older hitters who required shorter deals -- Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday.

Further, the Toronto Blue Jays' signing of Steve Pearce to a two-year deal Monday, coupled with their earlier acquisition of Kendrys Morales, closes the door on a potential return to Toronto for Encarnacion.

Seemingly, all of that would position the Red Sox, in search of a DH to replace the retired David Ortiz, to swoop in and land Encarnacion for far less than they could have imagined only weeks ago.

And yet, it appears as though things would have to change considerably for the Red Sox to reach agreement with Encarnacion.

While the first baseman-DH is known to be Ortiz's first choice as his replacement, for now, the economics don't work for the Sox -- even as Enacarnacion's leverage drops.

Encarnacion is expecting a deal of at least four years, with an average annual value around $20 million.

The Red Sox, industry sources indicate, are very much mindful of the luxury tax threshold. The Sox have, however modestly, gone over the threshold in each of the last two seasons, and even with a bump due to last week's new CBA, the Sox are dangerously close to the 2018 limit of $195 million.

Should the Sox go over for a third straight year, their tax would similarly ratchet up.

That, and the fact that Encarnacion would cost the Sox their first-round pick next June -- for this offseason, compensation for players given a qualifying offer comes under the old CBA rules -- represents two huge disincentives.

It's far more likely that the Sox will seek a cheaper option at DH from among a group that includes Pedro Alvarez and Mike Napoli. Neither is in Encarnacion's class, but then again, neither would cost a draft pick in return, or the long-term investment that Encarnacion is said to be seeking.

Boomer Esiason witnessed Pete Rose hire people to sign autographs

Boomer Esiason witnessed Pete Rose hire people to sign autographs

Boomer Esiason tells Toucher & Rich a story from his early days in Cincinnati when he witnessed Pete Rose overseeing five guys he paid to sign a stack of photographs for fans.