Will Ben Cherington hold the line?
Red Sox GM figures to stick with winning formula from last offseason
ORLANDO, Fla. -- It's appropriate that both the general managers meetings that open Monday in Orlando and the winter meetings that commence in the same locale about a month later are within jogging distance of Fantasyland.
Thirty teams are dreaming big, although it remains to be seen whether the model adopted by the Boston Red Sox last winter -- eschewing the biggest prizes on the market for lesser, complementary pieces -- will be embraced by other clubs seeking to emulate the extraordinary strides made by the Sox in one dizzying worst-to-first leap.
Of more interest to Red Sox fans, of course, is whether GM Ben Cherington will remain faithful this winter to the philosophy of modest moves that worked wonders for him last year (it was a year ago Sunday that the Sox came to terms with the first piece of their puzzle, catcher David Ross, followed 11 days later by the signing of outfielder Jonny Gomes, the first moves in the rebuilding) or will succumb to the budget-be-damned impulse the Sox have followed in past years.
What makes that discussion especially relevant in the coming weeks is that some of the players so vital to the Sox's success this season -- most notably Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Napoli -- are among the free agents expected to reap some of this winter's greatest financial rewards.
By this point, it should be widely understood that Ellsbury is not coming back to Boston unless the Sox make an exception and sign him for top-of-the-market years and dollars. Agent Scott Boras will make the most of market precedents the Sox themselves helped to establish when they gave Carl Crawford a seven-year, $142 million deal three years ago. Someone will give Ellsbury that kind of money; it's very doubtful it will be Boston.
Napoli, however, would seem to be a candidate to fall within the kind of parameters the Sox set last winter, when they showed a willingness to overpay in terms of dollars in exchange for shorter years. The Sox struck such a deal with Napoli on the first day of the winter meetings in 2012, coming to terms on a three-year, $39 million deal, which subsequently blew up when Napoli failed his physical because of a degenerative hip condition.
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Napoli's performance this season, when the hip condition did not surface as an issue, would seem to put him in line for, at minimum, a similar deal this winter. It should also work in Boston's favor that he appears so eager to return.
Napoli and Ellsbury both received qualifying offers of $14.1 million from the Red Sox, which places Boston in line to receive a first-round draft pick as compensation if they sign elsewhere. Shortstop Stephen Drew received a similar offer; all three players have until 5 o'clock Monday to accept a qualifying offer, which would make them a signed player for 2014.
None is expected to do so, as all three players figure to have other suitors. Teams interested in Ellsbury will not be stalled by the loss of a compensatory first-rounder; that also figures to be the case with Napoli, one of the few power bats on the market. Drew could prove to be a more interesting case, although he should benefit from a soft free-agent market at his position.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, also a free agent, did not get a qualifying offer, for the simple reason the Sox didn't want to risk him accepting it, placing him at a salary level they have little interest in paying him. That should not be interpreted, however, as the Sox deciding against bringing Saltalamacchia back.
The most attractive free-agent catching option is Brian McCann, late of the Atlanta Braves, but he will come at a much higher price than Saltalamacchia would and will require more years. The Sox are looking for a bridge to take them to their catcher of the future -- Blake Swihart, perhaps in some combination with Christian Vazquez -- so signing McCann for four or more years, while also having to surrender a first-round draft pick, would seem to be a questionable proposition.
Saltalamacchia had 54 extra-base hits last season, including 40 doubles (a club record for catchers), and an .804 OPS. On the defensive side, he made noticeable strides, even though John Farrell opted for his better defender, Ross, in the World Series, a decision made easier by Saltalamacchia's October slump. His return, while not assured, is eminently plausible.
On the trading front, Cherington can expect to field inquiries about his starting pitchers, though teams likely will be far more inquisitive about some of the team's young arms (Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, Henry Owens) than the pieces he probably would be more open to dealing, such as Ryan Dempster or Jake Peavy. The Sox value their young arms, which isn't to say they wouldn't move any of them, although Barnes, Ranaudo and Owens almost certainly are not going anywhere. There would seem to be little downside, from a depth perspective, to keeping Dempster and Peavy, neither of whom is signed past 2014.
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What the Sox do in the coming weeks will be dictated in good measure by what happens with their own free agents; once they have clarity there, they will know what holes must be filled. In the meantime, the inquiries they reportedly are making about the likes of Carlos Beltran and Tim Hudson and Carlos Ruiz are nothing out of the ordinary; the Sox have a history of making contact with just about everyone on the market.
Coming decisions also will be shaped by their judgments on Jackie Bradley Jr.'s readiness to take over in center field (indications are a qualified yes) and their willingness to entrust the left side of the infield to rookie Xander Bogaerts at short and Will Middlebrooks at third. Middlebrooks' name often is bandied about as trade material, but the Sox still project him as a useful corner piece with 25-home run power, not an easily found commodity.
With so many good young players who potentially could be included in a trade package, there has been speculation that the Sox would take a run at Marlins slugging outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, but one Marlins source reiterated Sunday he believed there was "no way" Miami would move him.
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