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Making Sense of Boston's Moves

There was no mistaking the bottom line just before Christmas: Losing Mark Teixeira really hurt the Boston Red Sox.

Oh, Boston wasn't hiding it. The city's sports talk callers pulled out their metaphorical violins and went on sports suicide watch, passing on yuletide cheer for another healthy dose of offseason pathos. Sayonara A-Rod syndrome, Teixeira-itis is all the rage.

Still, a front office with two World Series titles under its belt can only dwell on missed opportunities for so long, and the Red Sox engine jolted into action last week, signing three proven, veteran pitchers and two proven, veteran position players. The message was simple: If the Yankees thought Boston would overcompensate for missing on its top offseason target, they were wrong. Instead, the Red Sox are going to re-allocate the money targeted for Teixeira ona handful of calculated risks, players who could bring huge reward for relatively modest cost.

Primary among those signings is former NL Cy Young winner John Smoltz, who was lured away from the only team anyone thought he'd ever call his own -- the Braves -- for a chance to win now with Boston, and to win while making twice as much money as he would have earned in Atlanta is his incentives break right.

To call Smoltz a "calculated risk" would be an understatement. He missed a majority of 2008 with a tendon injury, and he's not expected to be back and game=ready until June, at the earliest.

Still, Smoltz could provide just the kind of lift Boston's rotation needs two months into its season. He's a borderline ace who could step into a spot vacated by a struggling starter in the opening day rotation. In fact, that's a very likely scenario. Or, if everything is going miraculously smoothly on the mound, Smoltz can flex the versatility that made him Mr. Brave in Atlanta: He can head to the bullpen, where he can set up closer Jonathan Papelbon, or step in for him if, in Boston's nightmare scenario, Papelbon has a recurrence of his past shoulder problems.

Brad Penny's signing represented more of an attempt to steal lightning from opening day on. The former Dodgers ace clearly still feels he has a lot to pitch for, and Boston is likely to slot him into the No. 5 hole from day one, barring a major resurgence from youngsters Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden in spring training.

Like Smoltz, Penny's deal is full of incentives, which means that one of the two pitchers is unlikely to hit a majority of the contract kickers. That will make the payroll more manageable for Boston, which means they're essentially sinking only $10 million to assume that either Smoltz or Penny will work out as a productive member of the rotation.

Now, imagine the unthinkable. What if Smoltz and Penny both hit it right and have resurgent seasons? Suddenly the Red Sox would boast a rotation with five one-time aces: Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Smoltz and Brad Penny. That's not a bad run out for any team, and the Red Sox might have set it up by laying out a measly $10 million.

Not surprisingly, GM Theo Epstein and co. took a similar approach to filling a late-inning role in the bullpen, signing former Dodgers closer Takashi Saito on a one-year deal after a season in which he missed significant time with an elbow ligament injury. If Saito is healthy, he could pitch in a set-up role (or a seventh inning role, depending on how the Red Sox use Justin Masterson).

As with the rotation, the Saito signing gives Boston plenty of arms and options out of the pen, something the Red Sox were short on at times last year. It's entirely possible that the Red Sox could trot out Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, Takashi Saito and Jonathan Papelbon from the fifth inning on in a single game next year. Are they likely to do it? No, of course not. But it's possible.

The same goes with Boston's signing of outfielder Rocco Baldelli -- a Rhode Island native who was desperate for a chance to come play for his boyhood team -- and Mark Kotsay, a versatile member of the '08 Red Sox team that came up just short in the ALCS. The Baldelli signing, announced on the same day as Smoltz's, makes him a fourth outfielder who's almost sure to see time. After all, between J.D. Drew's chronic injury woes and Jacoby Ellsbury's occasional bouts of inconsistency, Baldelli will get a chance to be a significant contributor at some point in the season. It's almost a certainty.

That was the story the Red Sox gave to Kotsay, too, when he signed last week after failing to find an everyday outfield job. Kotsay made it clear that was his priority after the ALCS, but when no one came in to sign him, the Red Sox pounced, convinced by Kotsay's ability and willingness to play multiple positions in the playoffs last year when injures depleted Boston's roster. Kotsay's likely to see time in the outfield and at first base, though other injuries could move him elsewhere, too.

So, what have we learned about Boston's post-Teixeira approach. It's simple, really: As much as things have changed, they're still the same on Yawkey Way. For this Red Sox front office, talent acquisition is a matter of numbers and upside. The more potential impact players the Red Sox can stockpile, the better. Whether they pan out or not is another issue entirely, but Boston is going to keep trying to sign former stars with a chance to change the team's fortunes, and its going to do it with slightly more guaranteed money than other teams, more than happy to let them make even more if their performance deems it necessary.

By Cameron Smith  |  January 12, 2009; 11:04 AM ET
Categories:  Red Sox  
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Posted something about this on NJ, but it is interesting to note on the Penny and Baldelli signings that both mentioned Boston's training / PT / medical programs as one of the reasons they signed with the Sox. Penny in particular noted their work with pitchers.
A good year will allow him to reestablish his value.
Baldelli has mentioned the medical help he received from Boston even before his signing.
Boston is know for its strength metrics for its pitchers that are designed to preserve arms. It is interesting to compare their preservation of Papelbon to how the Nats burned through the Chief.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | January 13, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

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