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The purse strings get a bit tighter over at Fenway

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / December 11, 2011
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The bottom line is this: You must have a good closer to win the American League East and make it deep into the playoffs.

The Red Sox lost Jonathan Papelbon, one of the best closers in baseball, and have yet to replace him. Part of the issue here is the feeling that a closer is easy to find, and that you can piece something together and get a good bullpen the way Tampa Bay did last season.

But the Red Sox have learned the hard way that the bullpen-by-committee approach can slap you with a harsh dose of reality.

The simplest solution is to sign former Phillies closer Ryan Madson and be done with it - instead of giving up players to get Oakland closer Andrew Bailey.

The options aren’t abundant.

If there is one guy who should be concerned about this, it’s Bobby Valentine. Most baseball people agree that he’s the right person for this job, but the job is going to be really tough if he can’t trot out a top closer in the ninth inning - and top setup men before that.

Don’t forget, even though he spent eight years with the Texas Rangers, Valentine has a National League manager’s approach. His emphasis will be trying to win the game in the final three innings, and for that he needs top relief help.

Unfortunately for Valentine and general manager Ben Cherington, they have come into the offseason with budget restraints that are uncharacteristic of the Red Sox.

The Sox don’t want to go over the $178 million luxury tax threshold, but as agent Scott Boras (who represents Madson) has said, “The luxury tax is a success tax. It was designed so a few teams would have to pay it. How many teams’ revenues are $300 million over their payroll?’’

Boras appeared to be referring to the Sox and the Yankees as two of those teams.

John Henry and his partners have never been afraid to go the extra mile on salaries. Their spending is second only to the Yankees’, though the Angels may be approaching the threshold as well.

Henry and partners shelled out almost $400 million the past few years for John Lackey, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez, so these are not owners who should be accused of holding back on payroll. They also spent $175 million in player acquisitions for their Liverpool soccer club.

But this offseason, there has been a bit of hesitation.

Because David Ortiz will re-up for $14 million-$16 million after accepting arbitration, the Sox will be able to afford only a mid-level right fielder. Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Beltran now appear too expensive, and one Sox official indicated that even Cody Ross might cost too much.

The Sox also need a starting pitcher, and they may have to go after a low-cost one - about $3 million-$5 million on a one-year deal.

They’re going about things as if they were the Pirates or Royals. It doesn’t mean the players they get can’t be effective, but it eliminates pitchers the caliber of Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson who would surely help.

As for the closer, Madson is the best one left in the free agent pool. Boras reportedly was seeking four years and $44 million from the Phillies, who balked at that and went with Papelbon for four years and $50 million with an option.

Boras said he will not discuss a one-year deal, as he did with Adrian Beltre two years ago.

Bailey would be less expensive, but is he worth losing a player?

Madson has a very good changeup and incorporates other pitches besides his fastball, so he would be more Fenway-friendly as opposed to a closer who is predominantly fastball.

In the past, the Sox have adjusted their budgets in order to put the best possible team on the field.

They have not made the playoffs for two straight seasons, and while they made a splash by hiring Valentine, it will be for naught if they are short at key positions - one being closer and one being starting pitcher.

Lackey’s five-year, $82.5 million deal has essentially become a six-year, $83 million deal because of his Tommy John surgery. Former team physician Thomas Gill had the team put a clause in Lackey’s contract that said if he had that surgery, the Sox could add a sixth year at the minimum salary. Suddenly, Lackey’s average annual salary will go from $16.5 million to about $13.8 million.

The Sox saved $26 million on the departures of J.D. Drew and Papelbon. Mike Cameron’s $9 million is off the books, though Ortiz will receive a slight raise. The Sox will have to absorb big jumps in salary for Gonzalez and arbitration-eligible Jacoby Elllsbury. But they are also entering the final year of Matsuzaka’s deal at $10 million.

Everyone has a budget, but it’s awfully risky to skimp on the closer, especially after you’ve lost one of the best.

Bailey didn’t start his 2011 season until May 29 because of a forearm strain. He already has had two procedures on his elbow.

His save total has declined the past three years - from 26, 25, to 24 - and he had a tough September (5.40 ERA).

Madson was the Phillies’ setup man but was thrust into the closer role when Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras went down. He saved 32 games (five blown saves), striking out 62 in 60 2/3 innings, but he did not allow a run in 13 September/October appearances.

IN SYNC?

Leagues may line up on designated hitter

With interleague play becoming season-long, some feel commissioner Bud Selig and his baseball committee will finally try to unify the DH rule. But in what direction? American League fans love the extra offense and enhanced rosters, while NL fans like the tradition of having the pitcher hit.

“I think at some point it’s going to come to pass where there’s either going to be a DH or no DH,’’ said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “I think that’s going to happen at some point - I’m not sure I’ll still be managing at that point.’’

Which way will it go?

“I don’t know,’’ Leyland said. “I don’t want to get into all that stuff, what the players want and jobs.

“Whichever way they go would be fine, just that it gets synchronized at some point. But I think they’re doing things with the replay and everything. You can’t do everything at once.’’

Selig has always enjoyed the differences between the leagues and seems to be in no rush to change things. It may be Selig’s successor who makes the call on the DH. Some would argue it’s time for the DH to end. The era of each AL team having one big bopper seems to be over. The position increasingly is being used to give position players a little rest.

But Red Sox GM Ben Cherington points out that it can still be a full-time slot, as it is for David Ortiz.

“If you have a hitter with that type of production, putting up the numbers that David puts up, then obviously you stick to one guy,’’ Cherington said.

One of the attractive aspects of the Albert Pujols deal with the Angels is the option to DH him once in a while to save his body, something he couldn’t do in St. Louis.

DROPPING A HINT

Wedge indicates Ichiro won’t be batting leadoff

As Ichiro Suzuki approaches his 12th season in major league baseball at age 38, Mariners manager Eric Wedge is seriously considering removing him from the leadoff spot after his worst professional season.

Ichiro has made 7,982 plate appearances hitting first; his next most-frequent spot in the batting order is third, where he has had 56 plate appearances.

Ichiro has 2,428 hits and a .326 career average, but he hit just .272 last season and ended his streak of 200-hit seasons at 10.

“I want to keep the lines of communication open with him,’’ Wedge said. “I don’t want him to read something or see something through you guys, you know, that I haven’t already talked to him about.

“I’m still not sure where I’m going to hit him in the order. I want him to understand that, because ultimately I’m going to do what I feel like is best for our club.

“I’m going to put out the best nine in the right order, in the order that I see fit to score as many runs as we can. And if I feel like that’s him leading off, then that’s what we’re going to do. If I feel like that’s him hitting in the 3-hole, that’s what I’m going to do. If I feel like that’s him hitting somewhere else, that’s what we’re going to do.

“He told me last year in the middle of the season that he wants to do whatever is best for the ball club. And he wants me to do whatever I feel like is best for the ball club. And I take him at his word, and that’s what I’m going to do.

“He’s been tremendous, and he’s been communicating with me, and I appreciate that. We’re looking to build a winner here, and a championship team. That’s my entire focus.’’

Like Wade Boggs, Ichiro is one of those hitters who has power but chooses to stay with his style of hitting. Ichiro often puts on a show of power in batting practice, much as Boggs used to.

ETC.

Apropos of nothing

1. As an ice-breaker, how about if Bobby Valentine throws a beer-and-fried-chicken party for the players during spring training? 2. Dan Duquette now occupies Larry Lucchino’s old office at Camden Yards; 3. The hardest part of Valentine’s job right now? Keeping up with his texts and e-mails; 4. Two of the most inaccurate things I heard this winter, both regarding the Cubs: that Terry Francona had a shot at their managing job and that they were in on Albert Pujols; 5. Camden Yards looks pretty good at age 20, huh?

Updates on nine

1. J.D. Drew, OF, free agent - He will have options if he’s willing to play for about $5 million on a one-year deal. For a National League team, he could be a good fourth outfielder that provides a solid bat off the bench. An American League team could use him as a DH or extra outfielder. Tampa Bay, Atlanta, San Francisco, Texas, and St. Louis are all possible fits. “I know he had a wasted year,’’ said an NL GM, “but he can still hit, he can still defend, and for a National League team, he’d be a heck of a bat off the bench. If he wants that role. He could easily be a starter somewhere. He’s not that old, and sometimes that fresh start energizes a player.’’

2. Ryan Lavarnway, C, Red Sox - Recall that when Jason Varitek first joined the Red Sox, he was a raw defensive player. The similarities with Lavarnway are striking. “Lavarnway has a chance to be a power bat, like a Mike Napoli,’’ said a major league executive at the winter meetings. “He’s very smart, a quick learner, and he’s got leadership ability.’’

3. Lou Schweichheimer, GM, Pawtucket Red Sox - He was incredibly impressed with Valentine when they met at a Red Sox minor league affiliates dinner last week. Valentine was gracious and offered his time to any major cause.

4. Cody Ross, OF, free agent - The 2010 NLCS MVP is looking for a three-year deal at about $6 million per season, according to a major league source. He is precisely the high-energy player the Red Sox are looking for - a righthanded bat with power who obviously loves to play. However, as our own Bill Chuck points out, “Ross has seen his OPS drop from .804 in 2008, to .790 in 2009, to .735 in 2010, to .730 in 2011.’’

5. Mike Brown, scout, Diamondbacks - He was Yu Darvish’s pitching coach for three years with the Nippon Ham Fighters. “He’s the real deal,’’ Brown said. “He’s got great stuff, a great presence on the mound. He would definitely be a top pitcher here if he comes out.’’

6. Dmitri Young, 1B-DH, free agent - He was a very good hitter before his career ended in 2008 when his management of weight and diabetes issues spiraled out of control. He was at the winter meetings looking thin and in shape, and wants to make a comeback at age 38. “I was very impressed with the way he looked,’’ said Manny Acta, Young’s former manager in Washington. “I heard that he was the same weight when he was playing A ball. It was pretty impressive. He’s a guy that’s been able to put the fat part of the bat on the ball. So if he wants to come back, I hope he gets an opportunity.’’

7. Roy Oswalt, RHP, free agent - There is decent interest in the former Astros and Phillies righty. Arizona, Texas, the Yankees, Baltimore, and Miami are possibilities. He would be an ideal fourth starter for the Red Sox if they could get him on a two-year deal. Once leery of big markets, Oswalt could now be open to another Northeast city.

8. Jair Jurrjens, RHP, Braves - He appeared to be available, but the Braves may have to hold on to him, given their concern about Tommy Hanson’s shoulder, according to a major league source.

9. Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, free agent - The Yankees have made a one-year, $12 million offer, and the Red Sox also seem interested, as they were at last season’s trading deadline, when Kuroda informed the Dodgers that he did not want to leave Los Angeles. He appears more open to it now. The Sox have the incentive of Valentine, who is perceived as the Japanese players’ friend.

Short hops

From the Bill Chuck files: “Prince Fielder was the only player in the majors last season who played in all 162 games, the second time he did this in his career.’’ Also, “A pitcher to watch in the White Sox bullpen is Addison Reed, who threw 78 1/3 innings in relief in the minors in 2011 and struck out 111 and had a WHIP of 0.728. He struck out 12 in 7 1/3 innings for Chicago in September.’’ . . . Courtesy of Cape Cod League PR man and broadcaster John Garber. Eight former Cape League players are now managing in the majors: Bobby Valentine (Yarmouth 1967), Robin Ventura (Hyannis 1987), Mike Matheny (Cotuit 1989), Buck Showalter (Hyannis 1976), Eric Wedge (Yarmouth-Dennis 1988), Joe Girardi (Cotuit 1984), Jim Tracy (Chatham 1976), and John Farrell (Hyannis 1982) . . . Happy 39th birthday, Frankie Rodriguez.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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