Red Sox big splashes make them compelling again


Red Sox big splashes make them compelling again

By Sean McAdam

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It was August of 2006 and, as luck would have it, the New York Yankees were in town. The Red Sox were falling from contention, the Yankees had just acquired Bobby Abreu at the trade deadline, and general manager Theo Epstein was facing the music.

"We are not the Yankees,'' insisted Epstein at the time. "We feel our best way to compete with them year-in and year-out is to keep one eye on now and one eye on the future and to build something that can sustain success. We've gone toe-to-toe with those guys taking that approach. I think we're one or two games under .500 against them since '03 and have won one more World Series than they have. So we're not going to change our approach and try to all of a sudden build an uber-team."

And yet, four years later, the Red Sox very much resemble an uber-team.

Although the Red Sox haven't yet gotten Adrian Gonzalez's signature on a long-term contract extension, when they finally do the franchise will have laid out a staggering 300 million to two players -- Gonzalez, and of course, free agent outfielder Carl Crawford.

In a stunning show of both their resources and aggressiveness, the Red Sox stunned the baseball world with their signing of Crawford, emerging as the winners of a bidding war some believed they had dropped out of when they acquired Gonzalez in a trade with San Diego last weekend.

The off-season isn't over, but already, the Red Sox have made the biggest trade acquisition (Gonzalez) and signed the best position player (Crawford) on the market.

In so doing, the Sox changed the landscape in the American League East for the short- and long-term. Crawford is signed through 2017, with Gonzalez soon to be secured through 2018 (seven-year extension, plus 2011 contract in place).

After missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2006, the Sox are apparently determined to change their makeup, and with it, the rest of the division.

Tampa Bay has now lost Crawford, Carlos Pena and reliever Joaquin Benoit and will soon lose Grant Balfour and Rafael Soriano, too. The Yankees, meanwhile, are placed on the defensive, knowing that they must land Lee.

Of the projected starting nine for the 2011 Red Sox, the lineup now boasts All-Stars at first base (Gonzalez); second base (Dustin Pedroia); third base (Kevin Youkilis); left field (Crawford); right field (J.D. Drew) and DH (David Ortiz).

In the last two offseasons, once Gonzalez's extension is made official, they will have committed 446.5 million to four players -- Gonzalez, Crawford, Josh Beckett and John Lackey.

The investments in both Crawford and Gonzalez will take the Red Sox' payroll to about 157 million, including a scheduled arbitration raise for Jonathan Papelbon and increases for 0-3 players such as Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Daniel Bard. And, the Red Sox insist, they're not done yet, with bullpen upgrades still to come, as well as maintaining interest in catcher Russell Martin.

"If things come together the way we expect,'' Theo Epstein said Thursday, "we'll be really satisfied. You go into every winter with a Plan A and sometimes it's hard to pull that off and you move on to Plan B or C. But adding an impact player was very important for where we were for the short, medium and long-term. Adding two -- as long as they were the right players, in the right spots, in the right situations -- would be even better.

"I'd like to think we don't do anything purely on a short-term basis. The moves we make have to make sense from a short-term standpoint, medium-term standpoint, and long-term standpoint. It has to make sense on the field in terms of talent, the way the parts fit together, the makeup of the players, the long-term roster and payroll forecast. A lot of thought went into whether we could be aggressive as we needed to be on certain fronts and whether it was viable.

"The more we assessed those different variables and crossed those different perspectives -- and we did this objectively over months and months and months -- we realized there was a shot, if things came through the right way, we could be pretty aggressive on a couple of players we really liked.''

Though Epstein insists the Red Sox don't like to make reactionary moves, it's hard to view the events of the last week in a vacuum. As in 2006, when the Sox also failed to qualify for the postseason, they spent freely to lure J.D. Drew from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It's also difficult to dismiss the team's dip in popularity in the crowded and competitive Boston marketplace. The club's ratings -- both on TV and radio -- are down significantly, and where once the Sox had to worry only about competing with the Patriots, the resurgence of the Celtics (one title and another trip to the NBA Finals in the last two years) and, to a lesser extent, the Bruins, had created more of a sense of urgency.

And delayed though it might have been, this winter spending spree can be seen as a counter-response to the Yankees' unprecedented splurge two winters ago when they outspent the Sox for Mark Teixeira and added starting pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett -- a commitment of 423.5 million.

The Sox now have a powerful left-handed-leaning lineup that features speed and energy in the top-third of the lineup (Ellsbury, Pedroia, Crawford), power and selectivity in the middle (Gonzalez and Youkilis) and plus defenders -- or at least the potential for such -- at all three outfield spots and three of the four infield positions.

And yet, despite the cost of doing business in the last week, Epstein maintained Thursday that the additions of the last week do not signal any philosophical conversion.

"Sometimes things align that allow you make big moves and sometimes they don't,'' he said. "If things come together a certain way, we'll have executed a little bit better than we have in the past. That said, I think it's fundamentally important that the basis of your thought process as an organization has to be principles and discipline. We have had those over the years and we still do.

"In other words, we didn't have to set aside principles and discipline or do things we don't believe in in order to execute some of these moves. I think it's aggressive, but we've been operating within our belief system.''

But this much is clear: The Red Sox are, as a group, a lot more expensive and, for that matter, a lot more compelling than they were a week ago.

And that is no accident.

Sean McAdam can be reached at Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

MLB players' union agrees to pitchless intentional walks

MLB players' union agrees to pitchless intentional walks

NEW YORK - There won't be any wild pitches on intentional walks this season.

The players' association has agreed to Major League Baseball's proposal to have intentional walks without pitches this year.

"It doesn't seem like that big of a deal. I know they're trying to cut out some of the fat. I'm OK with that," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said.

While the union has resisted many of MLB's proposed innovations, such as raising the bottom of the strike zone, installing pitch clocks and limiting trips to the mound, players are willing to accept the intentional walk change.

"As part of a broader discussion with other moving pieces, the answer is yes," union head Tony Clark wrote Wednesday in an email to The Associated Press. "There are details, as part of that discussion, that are still being worked through, however."

The union's decision was first reported by ESPN .

"I'm OK with it. You signal. I don't think that's a big deal," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "For the most part, it's not changing the strategy, it's just kind of speeding things up. I'm good with it."

There were 932 intentional walks last year, including 600 in the National League, where batters are walked to bring the pitcher's slot to the plate.

"You don't want to get your pitcher out of a rhythm, and when you do the intentional walk, I think you can take a pitcher out of his rhythm," Girardi said. "I've often wondered why you don't bring in your shortstop and the pitcher stand at short. Let the shortstop walk him. They're used to playing catch more like that than a pitcher is."

Agreement with the union is required for playing rules changes unless MLB gives one year advance notice, in which case it can unilaterally make alterations. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed hope Tuesday that ongoing talks would lead to an agreement on other changes but also said clubs would reserve the right to act unilaterally, consistent with the rule-change provision of the sport's labor contract.

Some changes with video review can be made unilaterally, such as shortening the time to make a challenge.

"I know they were thinking about putting in a 30-second (limit) for managers to make a decision," Francona said. "I actually wish they would. I think it would hustle it up and if we can't tell in 30 seconds, maybe we shouldn't be doing it anyway."

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

As if there weren’t enough storylines with the 2017 Red Sox, there figures to be the lingering possibility that, at any point, one of the franchise’s greatest hitters will return to make a push for his fourth World Series title.

As Pedro Martinez keeps saying, he won’t believe David Ortiz is retired until season’s end.

And with that possibility comes a good ol’ fashioned sports debate: You’re maybe the biggest lunatic in the whole wide world if you’re hoping for the latter.

There are exactly two potential downsides to Ortiz coming back. One is that the team would be worse defensively if it puts Hanley Ramirez in the field, a tradeoff that seemingly anyone would take if it meant adding Ortiz’ offense to the middle of the order. The other is that we would probably have to see Kenan Thompson’s Ortiz impression again . . . which, come to think of it, would be the worst. Actually, I might kill myself if that happens.  

All the other drawbacks are varying degrees of noise. It basically boils down to the “what if he isn’t good?” fear. Which may be valid, but it shouldn’t be reason enough to not want him to attempt a comeback.

Ortiz is coming off a 38-homer, 127-RBI 2016 in which he hit .315 with a league-best 1.021 OPS. It's probably the best final season of any hitter over the last 50 years.

We also know Ortiz is 41 and dealt with ankle and heel injuries so vast in recent years that he was “playing on stumps,” according to Red Sox coordinator of sports medicine services Dan Dyrek. There is the possibility that he was almost literally on his last legs in 2016 and that he doesn’t have another great season in him.

Unless Ortiz is medically incapable and/or not interested in returning, what would the harm be in rolling the dice? Is it a money thing? It really depends on just how intent the Sox are on staying under the luxury-tax threshold, but it’s hard to imagine that holding them up given that they’ve bobbed over and under the line throughout the years.

The one unacceptable argument is the legacy stuff, which expresses concern that Ortiz would tarnish his overall body of work if he came back for one last season and was relatively ineffective.  

If you think that five years after Ortiz is done playing, a single person will say, “Yeah, he’s a Hall of Famer; it’s just a shame he came back that for one last season,” you’re absolutely crazy. The fact that one could dwell that much on a legacy shows how much they romanticize the player, meaning that in however many years it's the 40-homer seasons, and not the potentially underwhelming few months in 2017, that will stand the test of time.

But he’ll have thrown away having one of the best final seasons ever for a hitter.

Oh man. That’s a life-ruiner right there. A 10-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion totally becomes just another guy if you take that away.

Plus, the fact that he’s a DH limits how bad it could really be. You won’t get the sight of an over-the-hill Willie Mays misplaying fly balls in the 1973 World Series after hitting .211 in the regular season. Ortiz will either be able to hit or he won’t, and if it’s the latter they’ll chalk it up to age and injuries and sit him down. Any potential decision to put him on the field in a World Series would likely mean his bat was worth it enough to get them to that point.

The Red Sox, on paper at least, have a real shot at another title. Teams in such a position should always go for broke. Ortiz has absolutely nothing left to prove, but if he thinks he has anything left to give, nobody but the fans who dropped 30-something bucks on T-shirts commemorating his retirement should have a problem with that.