Commentary

Red Sox need to redefine strategy

This time, they say, they'll be disciplined and smart -- but what does that mean?

Updated: August 28, 2012, 6:47 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- So, we are entering a new era of "disciplined" decisions for the Boston Red Sox, if Ben Cherington is to believed, which by definition implies that the choices made by his predecessor and friend, Theo Epstein, to add Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford for a combined outlay of nearly $300 million were not. Neither was extending Josh Beckett's contract by four years and $68 million.

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What does discipline imply, then? That the Red Sox will no longer be shelling out megabucks on talent? That would be popular with baseball's version of Tea Partyers -- do away with all that wasteful spending, and cut ticket prices while you're at it. Attractive concepts in theory, of course, but then reality creeps in. These days, you have to spend not only to keep up with the New York Yankees, but with places that were not known for throwing around money. There are 19 players currently under contract for $20 million a year or more, a list that includes Cincinnati's Joey Votto ($22.5 million a year) , Minnesota's Joe Mauer ($23 million), and San Francisco's Matt Cain ($21.25 million).

Nine players are under long-term deals with total payoffs higher than the $154 million the Sox gave Gonzalez, including three first basemen -- Albert Pujols ($240 million), Votto ($225 million) and Prince Fielder ($214 million). At the time the Sox dealt for, and then signed, Gonzalez, they congratulated themselves for anticipating the market for such sluggers and saving tens of millions. Funny, but they would have called that a disciplined decision.

So, the cost of signing premium players is inflating at a rapid pace, and if we can take Cherington at his word that the Sox are not just intent on shaving payroll and prepared to tolerate a "bridge year" until their top prospects have ripened, the Sox will have no choice but to spend.

It could be that being disciplined and aggressive just means making decisions that will have better outcomes than the ones Theo Epstein made.

Here's another reason: There is a growing trend among clubs to be more scrupulous about trading their young players, precisely because the high-end players are growing more expensive by the hour -- giving more value to a team's younger, home-grown talent. That's why the Sox signed such players as Jon Lester. Dustin Pedroia and Clay Buchholz to long-term deals at far less money than they would command if they had the leverage of free agency. So if the Sox expect to address their most pressing needs, like the starting rotation, they may have no choice but to target at least one big-ticket player.

If discipline won't necessarily be measured by dollars spent, then perhaps there will be a change in how the Sox decide which players in whom they will invest. OK, but let's look at what went into the decision to sign Crawford and Gonzalez. Epstein assigned one of his top aides, Allard Baird, to all but tail Crawford for the better part of a half-season, preparing a dossier on everything from how many swings Crawford took in batting practice to how he liked his eggs.

Epstein's numbers-crunchers in the home office could provide all the salient specifics necessary to predict performance; it was up to Baird and others to take the measure of the man. This was not a decision hastily made; Cherington told ESPN Boston's Jackie MacMullan, even after Crawford went bust his first season, that he was one of the biggest advocates for the deal.

A similar vetting occurred for Gonzalez. Another top Epstein lieutenant, David Finley, was the scout who originally signed Gonzalez for the Florida Marlins, and Epstein knew Gonzalez from the time he scouted him as a high schooler in San Diego. The Red Sox felt they knew Gonzalez as well as anyone outside of his immediate family.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Ellsbury
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesThe Red Sox would be wise to hold onto Jacoby Ellsbury, even though he is unlikely to agree to a contract extension.

Disciplined decisions? In both cases, the Sox appear to have done their homework, assessed their needs in a systematic fashion, identified the players that best would address those needs, and aggressively acted to acquire the players they had targeted. Cherington said Saturday that the Sox would remain aggressive going forward.

But it could be that being disciplined and aggressive just means making decisions that will have better outcomes than the ones Epstein made. It's probably also a signal that the Sox will proceed more cautiously when there's obvious risk involved, as in the case of Josh Hamilton, the Rangers' gifted outfielder who has had a host of health issues, or pitcher Zack Greinke, who hardly seems suited to thriving in the crucible that is Boston.

It's exceedingly rare, perhaps unprecedented, for the GM of a big-market team to be able to hit the reset button and have the great flexibility Cherington now has. The Sox have just five players owed guaranteed money next season, totaling just more than $45 million: John Lackey ($15.9 million), Jon Lester ($11.63 million), Dustin Pedroia ($10.25 million), Clay Buchholz ($5.75 million) and Jose Iglesias ($2.06 million). Before the trade, that figure was more than $100 million. Leftover financial obligations to Beckett, Gonzalez, Crawford and Kevin Youkilis ($1 million buyout) put that figure closer to $49 million, using figures supplied by Baseball Prospectus.

Players under the Sox control next season include:

Arbitration eligible: Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Aviles, Andrew Bailey, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Craig Breslow, Ryan Sweeney, Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, Rich Hill.

Selected non-arbitration eligible: Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Lavarnway, Ryan Kalish, Mark Melancon, Felix Doubront, Pedro Ciriaco, Mauro Gomez, Junichi Tazawa, Danny Valencia, Clayton Mortensen.

Free agents: David Ortiz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, James Loney, Cody Ross, Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla, Scott Podsednik.

So, Here is how the team looks post-mega trade for 2013:

C -- Ryan Lavarnway, Jarrod Saltalamacchia
1B -- Open
2B -- Dustin Pedroia
3B -- Will Middlebrooks
SS -- Mike Aviles, Jose Iglesias
LF -- Open
CF -- Jacoby Ellsbury
RF -- Ryan Kalish
DH -- Open

SP -- Jon Lester
SP -- Clay Buchholz
SP -- Felix Doubront
SP -- John Lackey
SP -- Franklin Morales
SP -- Rubby de la Rosa (player to be named in Dodgers deal)

Bullpen: Andrew Bailey, Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Mark Melancon, Clayton Mortensen

Moves the Sox should make:

1. Re-sign David Ortiz and Cody Ross to extensions. That's already on the team's to-do list. Give Ortiz a two-year deal and let him end his career here without any further contract angst. Ross will be looking for three years but may need to settle for two plus an option. At 31, that's not a bad investment.

2. Target a top-of-the-rotation starter. Two possibilities come to mind -- Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez. Lee will come with a stiff price ($25 million per for the next three seasons) and has been anything but dominant this season; the Sox have made countless runs at Hernandez, and each time have been told by Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik he's not available. It's worth trying again, with the newly acquired Allen Webster and soon-to-be-a-Sox Rubby de la Rosa the type of young pitchers Zduriencik might consider as centerpieces of a package for his ace. This may be where discipline comes in: You try to avoid giving up either in a prospective deal for Lee, who turns 34 Thursday and is having an off season. For arguably the best pitcher in the game, of course, they're in play.

[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
Norm Hall/Getty ImagesArizona outfielder Justin Upton is exactly the kind of value the Sox are looking for: He's young (25), affordable and has a high ceiling.

3. Hold on to Jacoby Ellsbury, even though he probably won't sign an extension and will test free agency in a year. Without Gonzalez and Crawford, you need Ellsbury's offense. If you're out of contention in July, you try to move him.

4. Explore a deal for Justin Upton. On the face of it, the Arizona outfielder represents exactly the kind of value Cherington says the Sox are looking for: He's young (25), cost-controllable (signed through 2015 with $38.5 million left on his contract) and with a huge ceiling (he was fourth in the MVP voting last season, though his performance fell off this season). If the Diamondbacks are indeed willing to consider moving him, the Sox should be at the top of the list of potential suitors.

5. Patch and fill at first base and in the outfield. Nick Swisher, who is a free agent at the end of the season. The Yankees outfielder might even bring a little of the "Idiot" vibe to Fenway Park. The monster first basemen are all spoken for, but there will be serviceable pieces out there. Assuming bounce-back years from Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, and a maintenance of status quo by Ortiz, Ross, and Middlebrooks, this team should still score runs. Add a dynamic player like Upton into the mix, and any dropoff might not even be noticeable.

6. Don't get impatient with the next wave of young talent. It's coming. Kids like Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts and Bryce Brentz are advancing rapidly, with ETAs closer to 2014 than '13. The Sox have, with rare exception, given their kids time to develop; they should continue to hew to that course.

7. Save a few bucks for a rainy day. The Sox didn't have enough flexibility last winter to add a Hiroki Kuroda or Edwin Jackson. That shouldn't be the case moving forward.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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