Red Sox waiting, or done wading?

BOSTON -- In past years, this would be done already.

The Red Sox would have decided that Josh Hamilton was the piece they absolutely wanted and would have struck an agreement. Or watched him sign with the Yankees.

This time, though, Red Sox owner John W. Henry gave GM Ben Cherington explicit instructions. Under no circumstances, Cherington was told, will we repeat the Carl Crawford exercise. You will offer Hamilton three years max, no more. If someone decides to give him more years than that, good luck to them.

From the outside, it looked like mere window shopping. Of course, Hamilton was going to get a longer deal than that. As Jon Paul Morosi of FoxSports.com pointed out earlier this week, even if Hamilton got just half as much as Albert Pujols, last winter's big prize, he would be looking at a five-year, $120 million deal. And while Hamilton is no Pujols, he's at least half the player that Pujols is, isn't he?

But here we are, the winter meetings in our rear-view mirror, and Hamilton remains in play and the list of suitors is rapidly shrinking. The Rangers, the odds-on favorite to re-sign Hamilton, were knee-deep in negotiations with pitcher Zack Greinke and reportedly in trade talks with Arizona for a center fielder, Justin Upton. The big-market Phillies traded for a center fielder, Ben Revere. The big-market Nationals traded for a center fielder, Denard Span. The big-market Braves, who tend to be more careful with their dollars, traded for a center fielder, B.J. Upton. The richest teams on the planet, the Yankees and Dodgers, already have center fielders in Curtis Granderson and Matt Kemp.

Suddenly, the team identified as the Rangers' chief competition for Hamilton was ... the Seattle Mariners? And, according to reports, the Mariners were offering Hamilton -- you got it -- a three-year deal.

The Red Sox don't look like such outliers anymore, do they? Those couple of clandestine hours Ben Cherington and John Farrell spent with Hamilton and his wife on Monday afternoon might yet prove to be something more than just a social visit. Boston's decision not to dive over baseball's fiscal cliff feet first might yet prove the value of a little discipline where before there was little.

And that's the biggest reason to reserve judgment on the moves the Sox have made so far in the offseason, although as an assemblage of complementary parts, Cherington has fared quite well by plucking Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, David Ross and, on Thursday, right-handed reliever Koji Uehara off the shelves. Sure, he paid retail, but given a market that has generated three-year deals for Marco Scutaro and last winter's non-tender, Jeff Keppinger, discounts are virtually impossible to come by.

There has to be more, of course, and Cherington promises there will be. The team needs at least one more left-handed bat. It needs at least one more starting pitcher. It needs some of that deep depth Larry Lucchino was talking about before the meetings. And if the Sox truly want to compete in 2013, they have to remain in the running for Hamilton.

Because they are bound to practice restraint, the Sox can't make explicit their keen interest in Hamilton. Not when the commonly expressed opinion in the halls of the cavernous Opryland Hotel was that Hamilton most likely would remain with the Rangers.

And that's why Cherington said Wednesday that it was not his "intent" to trade the team's incumbent center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury. Trading Ellsbury isn't solely dependent on whether the Sox land Hamilton but certainly makes it more palatable. And Ellsbury isn't likely going anywhere unless the Sox can bring back a pitcher in return.

There were few voices in Nashville lavishing praise on Boston's moves to date. The hallway gossips pretty much agreed the Sox paid too much for aging talent that's clearly trending downward -- a sentiment shared by a good segment of the chattering classes back home.

That perception changes dramatically if the Sox still have a big move left in them -- Hamilton or someone else who has yet to surface. Put another star on the Sox marquee and that supporting cast suddenly looks Oscar-worthy.