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Thursday, January 19, 2012
Sox have shut up, but will they put up?

By Gordon Edes

BOSTON -- There are tickets to be sold, of course, a sellout streak to be protected, and sponsorships to be courted. That will never change on Yawkey Way. Not on Larry Lucchino's watch.

The folks on the baseball side of the Red Sox operations understand that. This is a business, after all, and Lucchino, along with Sam Kennedy, has few peers when it comes to keeping the turnstiles moving and the dollars rolling in. And the 100th anniversary season of Fenway Park will certainly aid and abet the accumulation of further riches.

Cherington I think we have more questions right now than Tampa and New York. ... The Yankees made moves to strengthen their rotation. Tampa has had a strong rotation. Ultimately the answer will be written on the field.

-- Red Sox GM Ben Cherington

But on the night of the Boston Baseball Writers dinner, which in these parts has served as the unofficial start of the coming season and comes exactly one month before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, you could sense a difference from years past.

Yes, the Sox trotted out their new management team, GM Ben Cherington and manager Bobby Valentine, to a warm ovation, and David Ortiz made a surprise appearance, but when it comes to the product on the field, you get the impression that the days of the hard sell are over.

The Sox of 2012, from new general manager, Ben Cherington on down, want results, not hype. Don't be expecting a repeat of Josh Beckett's prediction that the Sox will win 100 games. After consecutive third-place finishes for a team that trumpeted the arrivals of such big-ticket commodities as John Lackey, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and came up empty, perhaps some humility was inevitable.

But it goes beyond contrition. They won't come right out and say so publicly, but you sense from Cherington and his staff some fatigue with the selling -- coupled with the belief that the Sox fan base isn't much interested in hearing it, either. There is a credibility gap that needs closing, and that won't come from bold promises and catchy slogans.

A skeptic might say that it's hard to build up hopes on an offseason theme of "We're doing all we can to avoid the luxury tax," which appeared to be the guiding principle of the Sox moves this winter. The Sox passed on the big-ticket items that could have addressed their most pressing needs, especially in the starting rotation. That approach was cast in even starker relief last Friday, when the Yankees made two big moves, signing free-agent Hiroki Kuroda, whom the Sox tried to trade for last July, and engineering a trade for highly regarded right-hander Michael Pineda.

The Sox, meanwhile, have been stockpiling damaged goods like Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook and Carlos Silva in hopes that they'll hit with at least one, while crossing their fingers that Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves can successfully make the transition from the bullpen to the rotation.

Ben Cherington
GM Ben Cherington is hoping the Sox can bolster the rotation with veteran retreads like Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook and Carlos Silva.

You could make the argument that the Sox, despite projections of continued success for Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, have ceded their competitive edge not only to the Yankees, but to the Tampa Bay Rays, who with the addition of Matt Moore can now go six deep in quality arms, as well as the Texas Rangers (adding Yu Darvish) and Los Angeles Angels (poaching C.J. Wilson).

"I think we have more questions right now than Tampa and New York, for example," Cherington acknowledged in a media briefing Thursday. "Those teams probably have less competition (in the rotation) than we do. The Yankees made moves to strengthen their rotation. Tampa has had a strong rotation. Ultimately the answer will be written on the field.

"There have been very recent examples of teams that looked like they'd be struggling for depth in the offseason and found some ways to put it together. They did a good job of buying low on some guys and they figured it out."

Cherington didn't mention names, but it was an obvious reference to the Yankees, who looked dangerously thin in their rotation last winter, but wound up thriving with recycled veterans Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon and rookie Ivan Nova. That worked out better than anyone could reasonably have expected. The New York starters had an ERA of 4.03, fifth-best in the league, and Garcia, Colon and Nova combined to win 36 games.

There's luck involved, of course. The Sox have been down this road before, with the likes of John Smoltz and Colon and Brad Penny and Wade Miller, with negligible results. Cherington said the team could still add another arm or two, a search that may well continue until the season opener, but the finances argue against Roy Oswalt walking through that door. The Sox have talked with the Chicago White Sox about Gavin Floyd, but so far that's all it has been, talk.

Similarly, there is little doubt that the Red Sox need an outfielder, especially with Carl Crawford having wrist surgery. Free agent Cody Ross would make a nice fit, especially since he hits on the right side. But whether the Sox can sign him may depend on other corresponding moves that could potentially free up salary, one of which may be how much they wind up paying David Ortiz in arbitration.

Still, the Red Sox, who last season were picked by 33 of 45 ESPN "experts" to win the World Series in 2011, shouldn't mind the tamping down of expectations in 2012. Owner John W. Henry not long ago told reporters in Rhode Island that "we're going to have a great team," and while Cherington and his top aides share that conviction, they're not talking that talk. There's a recognition, again, that after finishing out of the money the last two seasons, that there's not much credibility in promising better this season.

They've made the moves they believe had to be made, which included a major overhaul of the team's medical operation announced Thursday, one in which team medical director Tom Gill was sacked and Mike Reinold was relieved of trainer duties, reassigned to be physical therapist.

Valentine, of course, is the biggest change. And, as Cherington noted, there will probably be more competition for spots than in recent years, especially on the pitching side, which is rarely a bad thing.

But on the night of the writers' dinner, this much is certain: The time for talk is over.

One of the youngest members of the Red Sox, rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway, declared as much Thursday.

"We've got a new season coming up," he said, "and we have the sense of unfinished business. And I think that hunger we all feel going into this year will be good."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for