- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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This past weekend, Francona's successor, Bobby Valentine, headed for the Dominican Republic the day after he was announced as the team's new manager to make nice with David Ortiz, a trip you don't make unless you are committed to keeping Big Papi in place.
How the managers were deployed on the eve of the winter meetings illustrates how differently the Sox are approaching these meetings as opposed to a year ago. The Sox will cede the big stage to others, like the Miami Marlins, who made a splash Sunday by signing shortstop Jose Reyes to a six-year, $106 million deal.
You can't annually spend nearly $300 million on just two players -- Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez -- the way the Sox did last winter. The new general manager, Ben Cherington, is looking to keep what he has -- re-signing Ortiz, who has until Wednesday to decide whether to accept salary arbitration -- while looking to make needed but preferably thriftier upgrades to the roster.
Two reasons for this winter's approach:
-- A consensus that the team that fell apart at the end of 2011 is still built to win.
-- An acknowledgment that the team already has more than $131 million in payroll obligations to just a dozen players in 2012, with Gonzalez's salary more than tripling from the $6.3 million he was paid in 2011 to the $21.857 million he will receive in the first year of his seven-year, $154 million extension. Crawford also will go over $20 million after being paid $14.8 million in 2011.
The payroll commitment doesn't yet include Ortiz, who probably will command an average annual value close to the $12.5 million he was paid last season, or Jacoby Ellsbury, who almost certainly will set a record for the most money paid to a position player in his second year of arbitration eligibility.
That record was set last year by Hunter Pence, who took the Houston Astros to an arbitration hearing and won, receiving a $6.9 million salary, nearly doubling the $3.5 million he had been paid in 2010. Pence got that bump after a season in which he posted a .282/.325/.461/.786 batting line, with 25 home runs and 18 stolen bases.
Ellsbury, who missed almost all of 2010 because of fractured ribs, will start at a lower point ($2.4 million) than Pence did, but after a breakout season of .321/.376/.552/.928, with 32 home runs, 105 RBIs and 39 steals, it's not a question of whether Ellsbury will receive more than Pence, but how much more. It's safe to assume that Ellsbury's agent, Scott Boras, will skip right over the $7 million threshold; anyone care to bet he might just skip over $8 million to $9 million, as well?
So it simply doesn't make any sense from an economic standpoint for the Sox to be swimming in the deep end of the pool for another starting pitcher, which is why reports linking them to the pursuit of free-agent left-handers C.J. Wilson or Mark Buehrle seem grounded more in wishful thinking than reality. Not when the team is paying eight-figure salaries to three starting pitchers already -- Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka -- with Jon Lester due to reach that threshold a year later. (Don't put it past the Sox, of course, to happily drive up the price for another suitor.)
It's more plausible that the Sox, after losing Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies, would spend on a replacement closer. But the kind of contracts that have been handed out to Joe Nathan and Heath Bell have spurred the Sox even more to explore the trade market for a closer -- Brandon League, Huston Street and Andrew Bailey have all been mentioned as possibilities -- while keeping open the possibility of choosing their in-house option, Daniel Bard, to close. They could then supplement their bullpen with less expensive signings, like a Brad Lidge.
The same would appear to hold true, as well, for the Sox's search for a right-handed bat to complement their two young right-fielders, Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish. The qualifier is this: Spending money on a short-term commitment makes sense for a team trying to win it all, so don't be shocked if the Sox take a serious look at 35-year-old Carlos Beltran. As Dan Szymborski of the Baseball Think Factory pointed out in a recent article, when you adjust Beltran's batting line by park factors -- both the Mets and Giants play in pitcher-friendly parks -- Beltran's OPS+ of 156 was the highest of his career.
Beltran could lengthen the Sox's batting order, while also giving the Sox the option of entertaining trade offers for Reddick or Kalish, who could be used as part of a package to pry lefty Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland Athletics. The Red Sox are determined to see if there is a match there, but the Athletics would want a lot in return -- they acquired six young players for another top pitcher, Dan Haren, when they traded him to Arizona at the winter meetings four year ago.
The Sox are expected to look at other trade possibilities for starting pitchers. The Atlanta Braves, for example, would move Jair Jurrjens, and need a shortstop/third baseman, which the Sox could provide in Jed Lowrie, perhaps sweetening the package with another prospect. First baseman Lars Anderson is also expendable in a trade, though he has limited value.
Cherington has other unfinished business: He needs to fill out his coaching staff, especially with the hiring of a pitching coach. Valentine had a close relationship with Bob Apodaca when both were with the Mets, but Apodaca has been with the Rockies since 2003 and probably would be tough to pry loose, especially now.
The Sox may be making progress on hiring a new strength and conditioning coach. They've interviewed Jim Malone, who holds the same position for the Padres, where he is hugely popular with players. Malone has numerous ties to the Sox brass. He was the Mets' strength and conditioning coach in Valentine's last season as Mets manager in 2002. Red Sox assistant GM Mike Hazen knows Malone from time spent together in the Indians' minor league system, and Malone also knows top Sox aide Allard Baird, working as the Royals' minor league strength and conditioning coordinator when Baird was GM there. And, of course, he had Gonzalez when the Red Sox first baseman played for the Padres.
Last year, Malone, a Buffalo native who graduated from the University of Rochester, was re-elected president of the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society (PBSCCS). He also was appointed by the commissioner's office to serve on the Major League Baseball Strength & Conditioning Advisory Committee, the Medical Advisory Committee and MLB's Electronic Medical Records Advisory Committee.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.