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Tilting the balance of power

Crawford signing puts Sox in front

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Yankees have listened all week about how great the Red Sox are.

Now even they have to believe it.

After the Red Sox signed Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million deal — one of the highest ever for an outfielder — late last night, bringing their total expenditures to $296 million for Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, it’s clear that the Sox are the best team in the American League East and perhaps the majors.

The Sox had stayed relevant on Crawford all week, doing their due diligence on his medical records, and decided that a long-term commitment was well within their means and smart business.

Any concerns Sox fans had about the team being unable to invest in the baseball team after ownership purchased the Liverpool soccer team had to be laid to rest. Any criticism about the team not re-signing Victor Martinez . . . well, never mind, all is forgiven.

The Sox lineup is now good beyond words.

Crawford, a pure No. 2 hitter, may either take that spot from Dustin Pedroia (who could move down in the lineup), or he could bat in the middle of the order. Crawford, a tremendous left fielder, has never wanted to be a leadoff hitter, and it’s doubtful the Sox will turn him into one.

Wherever he bats, the Sox now have a 50-to-60 stolen base threat to go along with Jacoby Ellsbury, who after an injury-filled season could get back to the 70-steal range of two years ago.

The Sox now have options, and could even deal Ellsbury for some other pieces to the puzzle.

For the last two days, general manager Theo Epstein has been hesitant to say the Sox were out of the Crawford hunt, indicating “anything was possible.’’ But when he met with the media at 7:30 last night, nothing seemed imminent.

Crawford had met with the Yankees Tuesday night, and it was thought the Angels had become the top bidder for Crawford’s services. But the Angels have been outbid on major free agents in recent years, and the Crawford signing is another example.

And even the Yankees had glowing comments about Gonzalez.

Yankee manager Joe Girardi said, “Great player. I think he improves their team. He’s a middle-of-the-order hitter. Very good defensive first baseman, very good player. The Red Sox are a club like ours that are always going to do everything they can to get better, and that is exactly what they did.’’

Now Crawford.

What will the Yankees do to counter?

Yesterday they made a six-year, $140 million offer to free agent lefthander Cliff Lee. The Yankees have to consider this a desperate situation — although general manager Brian Cashman, when asked about the Crawford signing, told the Associated Press late last night, “It’s not going to change the way we allocate our money’’ — and will likely do to Texas what they did to the Sox on Mark Teixeira: outbid them.

There are rumblings that there are two mystery teams out there with seven-year offers, but that might be a negotiating ploy by Lee’s agent, Darek Braunecker, who left the meetings yesterday.

“Hannibal Lecter in a straitjacket right now, waiting on this Cliff Lee thing,’’ Cashman told the New York media yesterday. “It’s kind of restricting my movements a little bit.’’

Cashman added, “I’ve respected the fact that it’s going to take a while. I’ve said many times, when we make the decisions here, we don’t care how long it takes as long as we make the right decision. If it takes time, so be it.

“He’s someone who is worth waiting for. We certainly hope that he picks us, but it doesn’t mean he will. We understand there’s competition, so we’ve put our best foot forward.’’

The Yankees need Lee, because there is no alternative, especially if you believe that someone like former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke is not going to OK a deal to New York. And of course there’s no chance Carl Pavano, the next best free agent pitcher, will rejoin them.

“There’s very little fallback for them,’’ said an American league executive. “It’s necessary because there’s still the possibility that Andy Pettitte doesn’t come back. If that happens . . .’’

Then the Yankee rotation has problems.

So it’s Lee. It must be Lee.

“He’s a guy that wins,’’ Girardi said. “He’s a guy that gives you innings. He’s a guy that knows how to pitch on the big stage. Everything that you’d want, and a guy that you would ask to help you win another championship.

“This is a guy that has great command, never beats himself, he holds runners. Has a mixture of four pitches that he can use at my time. He’s the complete package.

“It was a guy that we tried to trade for at the deadline. It’s a guy that we followed very closely. But the one thing that the Yankees always do if something doesn’t work out, they always have other options and they’ll consider other options.’’

At this point, neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees are complete teams. Boston has a lot of work to do rebuilding its bullpen and the Yankees must address their rotation.

The prevailing thought is that the Rays may take a step back in the AL East. Yesterday they lost power-hitting first baseman Carlos Pena, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Cubs. They may trade Jason Bartlett to the San Diego Padres for pitchers Cesar Ramos and Adam Russell.

They have lost Crawford and the majority of their fine bullpen. They lost setup man Joaquin Benoit to the Tigers and will not be able to re-sign closer Rafael Soriano, and middle men Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, and Chad Qualls. They may keep Dan Wheeler as one of their setup men.

But right now the Rays are a blip on the AL East radar. It’s Boston vs. New York. And right now the Red Sox are winning big.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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