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Saturday, December 4, 2010
Updated: December 5, 12:21 PM ET
Masterstroke all part of Sox master plan

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- There is no mercy rule in baseball. Time and again, the Boston Red Sox have exploited that truth. Acquiring slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who will mean to the Sox in the coming decade what Manny Ramirez did in the last, is only the most recent example of Boston's bloodless capacity to prey on the weakness of others.

Adrian Gonzalez
The Red Sox have made a habit of taking advantage of weaker teams, and the Adrian Gonzalez situation is no different.

The Montreal Expos could not afford to keep Pedro Martinez. The Cleveland Indians could not stack their dollars high enough to keep Ramirez. The Oakland Athletics knew they were merely renting Johnny Damon. The Arizona Diamondbacks turned their pockets inside out, then cut ties with Curt Schilling. The Florida Marlins tossed Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell overboard like ballast. The Pittsburgh Pirates took pennies on the dollar for Jason Bay.

And the San Diego Padres are about to part ways with Gonzalez, their native son, beloved both for his play and his pedigree, because their bottom line was an impossible boundary to navigate.

This is the Darwinian reality of Major League Baseball, and the Red Sox, only slightly less than the New York Yankees, have become masters at exploiting the advantages that go to the strongest.

Still, it is a rare and remarkable event when a plan falls as perfectly into place as the one drawn up by Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein months ago, or even years ago. Gonzalez is the centerpiece of that plan, which gives the Red Sox certainty at virtually every position on the diamond for at least the next five years.

Gonzalez, liberated from the punishing dimensions of Petco Park, may prove an even more formidable anchor to the Sox lineup than the one they envisioned Mark Teixeira would be two years ago, thus salving the deep wound left by Yankees when they snatched Teixeira away. Gonzalez's opposite-field swing could not be more perfectly calibrated for Fenway Park, and visions of 40-home run seasons cannot be dismissed as dementia.

Now, the precise meaning of "bridge year" is revealed in all its stunning dimensions, even recasting the decision to lavish a long-term deal last winter on pitcher John Lackey. Even then, Epstein likely recognized the possibility that the successful execution of his plan to acquire Gonzalez would necessitate losing Casey Kelly, the team's No. 1 pitching prospect. Acquiring Lackey for five seasons cushioned that blow.

Victor Martinez, as nice a player as he is, cannot come close to delivering as rich a return on a long-term investment as Gonzalez will. Adrian Beltre, who brought toughness and tenacity along with an unexpectedly potent bat, no longer is a fit in Boston, his position usurped by Kevin Youkilis, who moves across the diamond to make room for Gonzalez.

But their departures come with further bounty, with the Red Sox set to accumulate four high draft choices as compensation for their signing elsewhere. The Red Sox pick up another draft pick for losing infielder Felipe Lopez, giving them five picks out of the first 50 in a draft that the Sox project to be awash in desirable talent. And so, the system replenishes itself, the Sox replacing the promise they are surrendering in Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Reymond Fuentes with promise deferred.

And even as the Padres lay claim to players they hope ripen like those the Texas Rangers extracted from Atlanta when they traded Teixeira to the Braves -- Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and Matt Harrison were all central to the Rangers' transformation from also-rans to American League champions (new Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was in that deal, too) -- the Red Sox were able to keep two young players that fit right into their blueprint of the future.

Ryan Kalish is penciled in as the starting right fielder when the contract of his opposite in temperament, J.D. Drew, expires after 2011.

Jose Iglesias, the Cuban defector with the safecracker's hands and dancer's grace, should end the shortstop shuffle of recent years, his ETA also penciled in for 2012, if not sooner.

Theo Epstein
Theo Epstein still has work to do at the winter meetings, his agenda likely including trying to find reliable bullpen arms and taking a run at outfielder Jayson Werth.
There is unfinished business. Epstein still needs to refashion the bullpen -- and if nothing else, wasn't that an entertaining tweak of the Yankees when he offered Mariano Rivera a two-year, $30 million deal? The trade for Gonzalez should not preclude the Red Sox from adding one of the two free-agent outfielders they have been courting, Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth, though it is unlikely Epstein is willing to make two commitments of eight years or more, which it probably will take to sign Gonzalez to an extension and add Crawford.

Werth, however, makes more fiscal sense, and brings right-handed power lost by the subtractions of Martinez and Beltre.

But look at the rest of the roster, and this is a team built not only for winning in 2011, but for the foreseeable future. Lackey, Beckett and second baseman Dustin Pedroia are signed through 2014, with the Sox holding an option on Pedroia for 2015. Jon Lester is signed through 2013, with the club holding an option on Youkilis for that season.

Saltalamacchia and Jacoby Ellsbury are not eligible for free agency until 2014. The young bloods -- Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, Kalish, Jed Lowrie, Iglesias, Josh Reddick -- will all still be under Red Sox contractual control.

And with the contracts of David Ortiz and Drew eligible to come off the books after next season -- almost $27 million between them -- the Sox will be well positioned to keep making big plays.

A perennial championship contender? Team Henry promised as much when they bought the Sox in 2001, and as they move into their 10th season as masters of the house, they have done nothing but remain faithful to that goal. Even if it comes at the expense of their weaker brethren.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.