Having reset the roster in late August, the Red Sox effectively had two paths open to them for 2013. The first path, best described as Win Now, would have entailed bidding heavily on free agents like Greinke, Hamilton or Sanchez, and in all three cases offering contracts of five or more years. This was never likely, given that it was not even six months ago that the Red Sox pulled the ripcord with a first-time-in-major-league-history $250M trade in an attempt to dig us out from just these sorts of contracts. But you’d never know it from the baseball writers, who are disappointed in the Red Sox for not pursuing one big ticket item or another.
The second option available to the club – “Compete Now, Win Later” – was probably the only realistic one given John Henry’s feelings on free agency risk. The basic idea is to overpay in the short term for middle tier free agents – smaller contracts that individually represent fractional risks – in an effort to buy time for the farm system. While Keith Law among others had the Red Sox organization in the bottom half of minor league talent entering 2012, it was a good year for many players in the system. From Barnes to Bogaerts to Bradley Jr, several Red Sox prospects took steps forward last season – some quite significant. Add to that two legitimate, high ceiling arms in De La Rosa and Webster, acquired via the Dodgers trade, and the Red Sox farm system looks better than it has in recent memory, particularly at the upper levels of the system.
The club cannot hope for much help in 2013, however. The roster will see contributions from a variety of prospects next season, of course, but the bulk of the real pitching and positional talent is at least a season away. Lavarnway is probably major league ready now, at least offensively, but Bogaerts, Bradley Jr, Brentz, Iglesias, Shaw, et al need consistent at bats. Both for the player to grow and for the club to assess whether they’re pieces for the roster or pieces with which to acquire talent for the roster. Likewise, our potential crop of starting pitchers is either young and inexperienced (Barnes, Owens), coming off of injury (De La Rosa) or both. It’s probably realistic for the club to hope that of Barnes, De La Rosa, Webster and possibly Owens, Workman and Ranaudo, they’ll find a young starter or two.
Just not this year.
If we assume that the Big Ticket Free Agent plan was never an option, both because the club’s been burned by it recently and because this year’s crop of free agents all came with question marks, Cherington’s course was clear. After last year’s implosion, bottoming out in 2013 by betting everything on the likes of Kalish, Iglesias and Lavarnway wasn’t in the cards. Which meant plugging holes with pieces like Dempster, Napoli, Victorino and Stephen Drew. None are superstars, but neither are any of them being paid like it. Thirteen million might seem like a lot to you, and it sure as hell sounds like a lot to me, but in today’s game that’s the going rate for a mid tier free agent – just ask 37 year old Torii Hunter.
Rather than place all of their financial eggs in one or two baskets, then, the Red Sox front office has obtained bona fide major league candidates for left field, right field, first base (assuming Napoli is finalized), shortstop, catcher, set up man and the fourth spot in our rotation. The aggregate cost has us back within hailing distance of the luxury tax threshold, but it seems inevitable that a few bodies will yet be moved along (my bets would be Salty and at least one reliever). For around $13M less than what Greinke will cost the Dodgers, then, the Red Sox added Dempster, Drew, Gomes, Napoli, Ross, Uehara and Victorino. While I might quibble with some of the individual signings, or their terms, it’s difficult to build the case that Cherington’s dollars would have been better invested in Greinke given the number of holes he had to fill. You pay the cost for a Greinke or a Hamilton or a Dickey if you’re a win or two away from contention; you don’t if you gutted your roster coming off of a 69 win season.
It remains to be seen what the “Compete Now, Win Later” strategy yields in 2013, but Cherington’s approach to the roster is as logical as it has been unexciting. Worst case, they’re improved from last season, best case they’re the 2012 Baltimore Orioles and challenge for a Wild Card spot. Either way, they’re better in 2014 than if the Red Sox had spent like drunken sailors – in dollars or prospects – seeking a quick fix to a long term problem.
It may not be popular, and it will mean the end of the sellout streak, but it’s the sensible approach.