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Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said Thursday he expects the team's payroll to be among the highest in baseball when all is said and done this offseason despite the fact that he has just $45 million in guaranteed salary on the books so far for 2013.
Getting that payroll into the top three or so in baseball (where the Red Sox usually rank) would mean the team would probably need to spend more than $100 million this winter between signing arbitration-eligible players (think Jacoby Ellsbury and Andrew Bailey) and filling open roster spots through either free agency or trades.
"It's harder to predict this offseason than it has been in previous offseasons because in previous offseasons we've been closer to that, closer to where we'll end up," Cherington said in an interview on Boston sports radio station WEEI. "Especially last offseason, when we were making more cosmetic changes.
"I know that we'll have a very strong payroll, a large payroll. I know that we're going to add to it this winter. I'm confident in saying that we'll be amongst the larger payrolls in the game. Exactly where it ends up, exactly what rank we are, I don't know that yet. I think it just depends on what we do. We're not going to shoot for an arbitrary payroll number just to say that we're going to get to this. We just have to look at each opportunity as it comes and figure out whether it's the right thing for the Red Sox."
Notably, the Red Sox are in the market for corner outfielders, a first baseman and pitchers to fill out the starting rotation and bullpen. Cherington wouldn't bite when asked if any addition he made would be of the "big splash" variety.
"I think we're going to make moves that are going to improve the team," said Cherington, who reiterated his theme of the team staying disciplined in its spending and focusing on the long term instead of solely on success in 2013. "It's hard to say whether they're going to be defined as splashy moves or not. You never know. We're going to take each opportunity and look at it case by case.
"There may be opportunities that are bigger in scale that would fit that definition that we feel are the right moves but we don't know that yet. What I do know is that we're going to continue to act as a team. We're committed to building the best team we can for 2013 but doing it in a way that doesn't get in the way of what we think is going to be a longer period of success after that."
Speaking of big splashes, Cherington said the Miami Marlins were among the teams he had trade talks with before they ended up sending most of their big-name, high-salaried players to the Toronto Blue Jays in a blockbuster that will help shape the AL East in 2013.
Did he ever seriously consider making the kind of deal the Jays made in acquiring Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, along with $165 million in future salary? It doesn't sound like it.
"The scope of that deal was bigger than we were expecting," Cherington told WEEI. "As far as we're concerned, we have standards and we have a limit to what we'll do in a trade and free agency, and we're going to try to stick to that and have faith in our process and that over time the best way to build a team is through getting the right veterans here, being disciplined but getting the right veterans here through free agency or trade and continuing to develop from within."
The reason the Red Sox have such flexibility this offseason (and so many holes to fill) is because of their blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers that unloaded Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and their roughly $250 million in future salary.
Cherington wouldn't rank whether his first priority is to add starting pitching, a first baseman or an outfielder, but did say he's talked with "just about every agent of any prominent free agent."
And that includes speaking with the agent for outfielder Josh Hamilton, the prize of the free-agent crop, who is expected to command a long-term, nine-figure contract on the open market.
Cherington said he is not yet talking money with potential free agents, saying at this point the discussion is more about weighing upside versus risk, personal preferences and to "get more information as to what guys are looking for and how it might fit in on what we're doing. Now is the time that we try to hone in on the guys that we feel make the most sense for us."
The Red Sox project to have at least one spot in the starting rotation to fill, but Cherington predicts the bigger impact will come from starters currently on the roster who underperformed in 2012.
"We have guys that are talented and fully capable and committed to being good," Cherington said. "But we'd like to add to that. Whether it's through free agency or a trade, we're actively engaged in trying to find the right guy to do that, so that's a priority.
"But we also need to add to the outfield and figure out first base. It might be a combination of guys in both areas. I think the Giants are a good example of a team that figured out how to get production in the outfield and even at first base over the last several years with a combination of players. That might be one way to look at it. We'll see what comes to us."
The Sox are in negotiations to retain right fielder Cody Ross and, according to sources, have done background work on free agent Mike Napoli, who could catch or play first base.
One thing for sure is that Cherington's plate is full. He estimated he made more than 40 calls per day as he starts building the 2013 Red Sox. Most conversations, he says, don't go anywhere.
"For every 200-300 calls maybe one move is made. That's just the way things happen," he said. "Ninety-nine out of every 100 ideas don't go anywhere."
It's difficult to envision what the Red Sox's finished product will look like on April 1 with so much still undetermined and so many holes still unfilled. Cherington, however, is confident the teams he fields in 2013 and beyond will be better than the 69-win last-place squad from 2012.
"I think we'll be looking at a Red Sox team that's going to be a contender (in 2013)," he said. "I'm not ready to put a win total on it. ... I know we're going to be good in the long run and I know we're building something that's going to be good. Exactly what that turns into in 2013, time will tell. I know we're going to be better, I know we're going to be improved. And I think we're going to have a team that fans are going to enjoy watching a lot more and that has a chance to contend."