Red Sox balancing priorities

This week's pasta-to-the-wall story was Jason Bay turning down a four-year $60 million contract offer from the Red Sox, which was actually a July story, reported then. Bay and agent Joe Urbon have long wanted to see what the open market might produce, which the Red Sox appreciated, and have been waiting until the opening of the hunting season Friday to see how it shakes out with Bay and Matt Holliday.

Boston would like to sign one of them, but not at a length that would hamstring the team five years from now. David Ortiz and Mike Lowell each has his contract up at the end of the 2010 season, which would open the designated hitter role for Bay, if they wished to utilize him there.

But the Red Sox are not a free agent-crazed organization. In the past two years, Boston has accounted for three percent of the major league free-agent dollars spent. The Yankees, in contrast, have accounted for 29 percent. Oh, they have distinct advantages over small-market and lesser-revenue franchises. They won bidding wars for Daisuke Matsuzaka and 19-year-old Cuban shortstop Jose Iglesias (if the Rangers and Cubs ownerships had been stabilized, they would have been outbid). They were willing to spend $2M and $3M for high school outfielder Ryan Westmoreland and pitcher Casey Kelly -- currently their two hottest prospects, who at the time were headed to Vanderbilt and Tennessee -- because owner John Henry is willing to take Bud Selig's call and doesn't defer to the commissioner's office's attempts at draft price-fixing. Mets and Dodgers fans can only wish Henry were their owner.

After winning in 2004, Epstein has tried to tread the tightrope between contending annually and creating what he hoped would be a developmental machine, a tightrope made more treacherous by the fact that the Yankees can outspend them by $70M on the major league level and match them in amateur free-agent dollars. The fact that they won the World Series again in 2007 with Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury playing significant parts was a testament to the organizational philosophy.

Several small-market general managers who saw Oakland, Minnesota, Cleveland and others compete in the early part of this decade say it was because of those clubs' ability to recognize market bargains, scout and develop well. "When Theo took over," says Cleveland's Mark Shapiro, "he adopted the principles of the small-market teams. That's where a well-run big-market operation has an advantage. They can afford to take chances in the draft or in the international market or on hiring the best coaches and instructors on the minor and major league levels. Now you see other big-market teams emulating what the Red Sox started."

Epstein will sign big free agents, and he will take low-risk, high-reward gambles on pitchers like John Smoltz and Brad Penny that small markets will not. This winter's focus is on Bay or Holliday -- if each gets five years elsewhere, the Sox may have to cobble together a mix of Jeremy Hermida and a couple of free agents like Xavier Nady or Rick Ankiel or see if there's a contract being moved. Lowell has come out and said he wouldn't be surprised if he were dealt. The Red Sox could go in a number of directions with Lowell, possibly trading him if Adrian Beltre is signable. Lowell could also be returned to his spot at third or moved to first with Kevin Youkilis crossing the field to third. The Red Sox may get involved with one of the free agent pitchers like Ben Sheets, Rich Harden or Erik Bedard. John Lackey is the top pitcher on the market, but he hates Fenway.

But understand how much Epstein respects the Marlins and small-market teams that are built on the scouting and development of talent.

"One of the most impressive things in the game right now is the discipline and the job that teams like Florida, Tampa Bay, Oakland and Minnesota are doing. Everyone in the game, regardless of market size, learns from them. Look at Florida," Epstein says. "They lose a player, and they don't look back. They move on to the next young player and make the best of their situation."

The Boston organization would love to move on to a prospect like Logan Morrison of the Marlins, but when first baseman Lars Anderson hit a speed bump in Portland last season, it left them with a gap at the top of the organization. The Red Sox feel they have a number of significant prospects that will begin filtering into Double-A in 2010 and be the next generation by 2012. "We all have some sort of five-year plan," Epstein says. "But we are dealing with human beings. Some take longer than others for various reasons and circumstances."

While Jason Varitek returns in 2010, the Red Sox believe 25-year-old Mark Wagner can be ready to back up by midseason and in the future. Wagner hit .301 with an .887 OPS in Portland, then struggled when he was called up to Triple-A Pawtucket, but has pleased Red Sox scouts who have gone to the Dominican Republic to watch him play winter ball. Boston's development people think both Tim Federowicz and Luis Exposito are legitimate catching prospects.

As they wait to see how Jed Lowrie's wrist rehabs and sift through the available free-agent shortstops -- from Alex Gonzalez to Omar Vizquel to Marco Scutaro (if he isn't offered arbitration by the Blue Jays) -- Iglesias may not be projected to be on the fast track to the majors, despite his impressive offseason. J.D. Drew's contract is up after 2011 and one of two left-handed-hitting outfield prospects -- 21-year-old Ryan Kalish (18 HR, 22 SB, .821 OPS in A and AA) and Josh Reddick (who is trying to learn the strike zone) -- should be ready to step in. By then, they hope one of their first-base prospects -- Anthony Rizzo or Anderson -- will be developed and ready.

With the possibility of Josh Beckett leaving after 2010 and Papelbon after 2011, the Red Sox hope the 20-year-old Kelly and 19-year-old Stolmy Pimentel come quickly as front-end starting prospects. And that Alex Wilson, Kyle Weiland, Stephen Fife and others emerge as relievers or starters alongside Lester, Pedroia, Ellsbury and Youkilis, who are tied up through 2013 to 2015.

The layers of an organization that is trying to sell out every game and compete with the Yankees while maintaining a consistent developmental flow at the same time are complex. Having lost its assistant general manager, Jed Hoyer, to San Diego, Boston is now trying to hold onto a vital piece of its long-term plans, scouting director Jason McLeod, who has been offered the No. 2 role behind Hoyer in his hometown of San Diego.

The negotiations with Bay (or Holliday) and other free agents like Beltre or Sheets, the search for a shortstop and bullpen depth are the second train on a parallel track, with agents' and others' agendas leaked to anyone that will listen.

If one were to ask which name has received more mention in the Red Sox baseball operations basement this offseason -- Bay or Iglesias – you would probably get an even vote. That's life in a world in which you're trying to emulate the Marlins while competing with the Yankees and holding ticket prices.