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Sox getting good returns on smaller investments

By Nick Cafardo
May 29, 2011

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DETROIT — The Red Sox and Yankees can significantly reduce their risk in player acquisitions because they can throw money at front-line players.

The Rays, though, had to commit to Matt Joyce and Casey Kotchman, two guys who wouldn’t see the light of day in the Boston lineup.

But even teams with financial resources have to get lucky with a low-priced player or two because they simply can’t pay every player big money. The Sox decided to do this on a few fronts.

They earmarked catcher, lefthanded reliever, and spot starter as low-priced players.

They committed to catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and brought in Dennys Reyes, Rich Hill, Hideki Okajima, and Alfredo Aceves to add depth to the bullpen and starting rotation. Recently they signed Kevin Millwood to a minor league deal.

So far, those “cheap’’ spots have turned out well. In the past, that always hasn’t happened — the names Brad Penny and John Smoltz come to mind.

Saltalamacchia was the biggest gamble. Catching is such an important position that most teams want that spot settled before going into the season.

The Sox’ game plan didn’t involve keeping Victor Martinez, because of the money it would take. They already had their eyes on Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, and signing Martinez didn’t make financial sense. Based on what Saltalamacchia had shown after being acquired from the Rangers at the trade deadline last season, the Sox took the leap.

Saltalamacchia’s slow start reflected that of the team’s and he, like the high-priced Crawford, was pressing. Crawford pressed because of his enormous contract and being in a new market, while Saltalamacchia was stressed out because the team had given him the starting job and the last thing he wanted to do was mess up.

The Sox went with the odds with Saltalamacchia, a highly touted prospect who had yet to put it together. Many talent evaluators — one of whom is Rays assistant general manager Gerry Hunsicker — believe that talent eventually comes out in big-time prospects. The theory is that the talent has been restrained for a variety of reasons, but a player will reach his level as he enters his prime years.

As he was 25 when acquired, Saltalamacchia was a good risk and a good test of this theory.

While he still has an occasional bad throw and an 0-for-4 outing, the team is seeing a switch-hitter with power, who can be an offensive force. In the meantime, he has improved his receiving and handling of pitchers; being around Jason Varitek has helped.

The Sox certainly had their reservations about Saltalamacchia as recently as two weeks ago when they were looking for catching depth and considered signing Bengie Molina. But Saltalamacchia turned things around enough to where there’s no desperation to find a veteran backstop and the organization now feels much better about the decision.

Aceves was a pitcher the Sox long had their eye on.

He’s a righthander with a rubber arm who can pitch in a variety of roles. The Sox were grooming Justin Masterson for that spot but had to include him in the deal with the Indians for Martinez.

Aceves frustrated the Yankees last season with an assortment of injuries. He then broke his collarbone in an offseason accident and the Yankees elected not to tender him a contract.

As word spread through agent Tom O’Connell that Aceves had begun throwing, the Sox and Yankees became interested again. Aceves got only a minor league invitation from Boston, and elected to snub the Yankees. From the moment Theo Epstein signed him, he knew Aceves could be a factor.

What was surprising is that, though Aceves’s medical records weren’t encouraging because of his back issues, the Sox decided to sign him and see how far he could go before breaking down. Aceves has not complained of any back issues since he signed. And there appears to be no physical issues that warrant concern.

The Sox were hoping Aceves would provide depth in the rotation, and he has been called upon early to provide that. In recent starts against the Cubs and Tigers, Aceves allowed two runs in 11 innings.

On the reliever front, it was nearly impossible to find a situational lefthander that wasn’t cost-prohibitive. The Sox considered Pedro Feliciano (two years, $8 million plus an option), who had a good season with the Mets; Brian Fuentes (two years, $10.5 million plus option), who has been a closer; and Scott Downs (three years, $15 million), the former Blue Jay. But they were all expensive.

The Sox decided to re-sign Okajima, which was a surprise, sign veteran Reyes, and re-up Rich Hill.

Feliciano was signed by the Yankees and immediately went down with a shoulder injury and is lost for the season. Fuentes has been a horror show in Oakland, with seven losses and two blown saves. And Downs started the season on the disabled list for the Angels.

The Sox didn’t have much success with Reyes or Okajima, but Hill has been their salvation; lefthanded batters are 1 for 12 against him.

He also has been effective against righthanders and has proven reliable enough to be used as a set-up man for Jonathan Papelbon. And he’s far cheaper than the alternatives, making slightly more than the major league minimum of $414,000.

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

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