Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Updated: December 5, 9:12 AM ET
Character not enough for Red Sox

By Gordon Edes
ESPNBoston.com

NASHVILLE -- The template is borrowed from the San Francisco Giants. Or is it the St. Louis Cardinals? The Tampa Bay Rays? The Texas Rangers?

Or maybe it is merely a revival of the way the Boston Red Sox did business a decade ago, when they picked up a Japan-bound Kevin Millar here, a nontendered David Ortiz there, mixed in an unsung Bill Mueller and an overlooked Mark Bellhorn, blended them all together with the star quality they already had and created a powerhouse.

SportsNation

What do you think of the Red Sox's moves so far this offseason?

  •  
    19%
  •  
    49%
  •  
    32%

Discuss (Total votes: 18,896)

The Red Sox are not yet finished with the extreme makeover of the roster they had in place at the start of the 2012 season, but so far the operative theme is not difficult to discern: The whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.

Enough of trying to match the Yankees' megawattage, long-term deal by long-term deal.

Since the end of the season, the Red Sox have added four players: backup catcher David Ross, outfielder Jonny Gomes, first baseman-catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Shane Victorino. Napoli and Victorino came to agreement Monday and Tuesday, respectively, on the exact same contract terms: three years and $39 million.

Taken separately, each deal can be picked apart. Ross will be 36 by Opening Day. Gomes is a below-average glove and platoon hitter. Napoli batted .227 last season and has played just a handful of games at first. Among right-handed batters in the American League who whiffed 100 or more times last season, Gomes and Napoli ranked highest in frequency of K's, Gomes once every 2.68 at-bats, Napoli once every 2.816.

The switch-hitting Victorino, meanwhile, is coming off the worst season of his nine-year big league-career with a .704 OPS (career .770), including a 277 percentage-point difference between his OPS batting left-handed (.906) and right-handed (.629). At 32, his numbers suggest the start of an inevitable decline, especially for a player (like Carl Crawford) whose greatest asset is his speed.

And the Red Sox are paying Napoli and Victorino the same average annual value ($13 million per year) as they are David Ortiz. Hard not to argue overpayment.

But viewed through a different prism, each offers ingredients that the Red Sox are lacking. Napoli promises middle-of-the-order power from the right side in a ballpark perfectly tailored to his swing. Gomes rakes left-handed pitching and also will be taking aim at the Monster. Ross brings necessary experience and defense behind the plate and should help shepherd a starting rotation that experienced shell shock last season. Victorino still can run (39 stolen bases in 45 attempts), plays superior defense vital for any Red Sox right fielder and is versatile enough to play center field.

Shane Victorino
Shane Victorino brings speed, defense and high energy to the Red Sox outfield.

And all four come with sterling reputations as teammates.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon called Gomes "your next Millar." Kevin Millar didn't disagree. They're buddies. He had Gomes to his house over Thanksgiving and talked about how Gomes showed up driving a Hummer of gargantuan dimensions. "Forty-nine inch tires," Millar said. "A monster that had been in Iraq. He said he bought it on the Internet. He just liked it.

"You're gonna love him. Great teammate, great guy. All about winning."

Texas manager Ron Washington praised Napoli. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was just as complimentary about Victorino, calling him a high-energy guy who reminded Manuel of Kevin Youkilis in his intensity. And Jarrod Saltalamacchia said Braves catcher Brian McCann had nothing but accolades for Ross and how much he had helped him behind the plate.

All that talk about changing the clubhouse culture is proving to be more than just talk. These are complementary parts that might not make the cut for your Rotisserie team, but together they give the Red Sox the kind of connective tissue that was lacking in the September collapse of 2011 and utter chaos of the Bobby Valentine days of 2012.

Ben Cherington couldn't have defined their value better than Gomes did on his conference call with reporters last weekend.

"How does a big machine run? Well, a big machine runs with a lot of grease," Gomes said. "You get a tall building with all kinds of fancy windows, it's the foundation that keeps that building up. I always say, 'I represent the grease that runs the machine. I represent the foundation, not the star at the top.'"

There is risk in the Red Sox's approach, of course. All four could morph simultaneously into overpaid mediocrity; they're all at an age that makes such a scenario imaginable. Cherington tried to minimize the risk by topping out at three years with both Napoli and Victorino.

But even if they all perform at optimum levels, this still isn't going to work unless the Red Sox improve their pitching. Yes, the Giants, the Cardinals, the Rays, the Rangers didn't have an All-Star at every position as they went deep into October in recent years, but they all had pitching that made them the envy of their rivals.

The Red Sox have yet to upgrade their rotation. They made what was described as a competitive bid for Dan Haren, who signed a one-year, $13 million deal with the Washington Nationals, but would not match the Nats' dollars, their reservations guided by the drop in Haren's velocity last season that created a lack of separation between his fastball and splitter.

SportsNation

Should the Red Sox trade Jacoby Ellsbury this offseason?

  •  
    55%
  •  
    45%

Discuss (Total votes: 18,327)

They will not engage in the high-stakes bidding for the top pitching prizes on the market, Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez and Kyle Lohse, all of whom will command years and dollars well beyond what John W. Henry is willing to part with. They had an exploratory conversation with the Mets about knuckleballer R.A. Dickey but quickly backed off at New York's asking price.

One way the Red Sox might be able to acquire a pitcher is trading Jacoby Ellsbury. A Sox source acknowledged on Tuesday that they would consider trading their center fielder due to be a free agent after this coming season, though he called it a "long shot." For a brief time, a Cliff Lee-for-Ellsbury rumor flickered to life, but just as quickly it was extinguished. "Not a prayer," one source said with finality.

But follow these falling dominoes. Let's say the Rangers sign Greinke and let outfielder Josh Hamilton walk. The Rangers, built to win now, could look to Ellsbury as a replacement for Hamilton, and with Greinke on board could offer a pitcher in return.

Or, if the Dodgers sign Greinke, a realistic scenario, they would have a pitcher to spare.

A Sox source, by the way, insisted that even after signing Victorino, the Sox shouldn't be counted out of the running for Hamilton. They'd have to trade Ellsbury, and even then they might prefer to re-sign Cody Ross to play right and move Victorino to center if Hamilton demands more years than Henry would be willing to give.

None of this might materialize. The likelihood is it won't. But without a meaningful addition to the rotation, the Red Sox can feature all the character actors in the world and still stage a flop.