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Sox moves viewed through Pinstripe prism

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  December 17, 2009 11:36 AM

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Do you feel the Red Sox today are better equipped to beat the baseball club in the Bronx than they were last season? Isn't that really what this offseason is all about, whether the Sox can bridge -- there is that word again --  the gap that opened up last season between them and the World Series champion Yankees?

That's the pinstripe prism through which Red Sox Nation views all of the team's moves, including the signings of pitcher John Lackey and outfielder Mike Cameron. If you're a Sox fan you should feel better about this team pulling even with the Evil Empire today than when the season ended, even with the likely departure of Jason Bay. The Red Sox have a deeper pitching staff, better defense and a clearer ideological path than they did at the end of the 2009 campaign, all while keeping their best trade chips.

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has always stressed that the Sox don't weigh every transaction against what Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is planning for the Steinbrenner 9. At Fenway the goal is to construct a team that can win 95 games or more, which is what it takes to make the postseason, Yankees or no Yankees. But Epstein knows that he can't build his team in a vacuum. He has to construct a club that can contend with the Yankees, both in the regular season and in the postseason.

That's why the Sox, flying in the face of their on-base machine ethos, are heading in the opposite direction of the Yankees with their 2010 baseball blueprint, which is predicated on out-pitching and out-defending New York. The Sox, even should they acquire an Adrian Gonzalez or a Miguel Cabrera, can't out-slug the Bronx Bombers. They realize that.

The Yankees went out and added 30-home run threat Curtis Granderson to an already imposing lineup of mashers and bashers that featured seven players who hit 20 home runs or more in the new bandbox in the Bronx. And none of them were named Derek Jeter, who had a legitimate case for AL MVP.

The natural response for the Sox could have been to overpay for Bay or Matt Holliday to try to match the Yanks bat for booming bat. Instead after they surveyed the Bay and Holliday market and made their semi-annual shortstop swap with Marco Scutaro, they sunk $98 million into Lackey and Cameron and turned run prevention into a Boston baseball buzzword.

Epstein admitted that Lackey and Cameron may not have been the Sox' Plan A to compete in 2010, but that doesn't mean it's not a grade-A plan. Pitching is always a valued asset and a short-term deal for an athletic outfielder who can play all three spots (Cameron got two years, $15.5 million) is not anything that will handcuff the Sox financially if they decide to abandon the run-prevention route and go back to their good old OPS-is-best ways.

Regardless of the makeup of their lineup, the Sox are serious about upgrading their defense. That's obvious because otherwise they wouldn't have pursued Cameron, a three-time Gold Glove center fielder who has a career on-base percentage of .340 and strikes out more often than one of the guys on MTV's insipid reality program, "Jersey Shore".

By their own statistical measurements they had the second-worst defense in the majors last year. While the memory of the scoring a combined one run in the first two games of the American League Division Series sweep at the hands of the Angels still lingers, Epstein pointed out that last season the Olde Town Team actually scored more runs (872) and hit more home runs (212) than they did when they won the World Series in 2007 with Manny Ramirez and a healthy David Ortiz manning the middle of the order (867 runs and 166 homers).

The problem was that in 2007 the Sox allowed the fewest runs in baseball (657) and last year they allowed 736, which was 11th-least and 16 fewer than the Yankees. However, the Yankees led the majors with 915 runs scored. The Sox simply can't match that run production.

Remember Bill Clinton's campaign slogan in 1992 -- "It's the economy, stupid"? In baseball, replace economy with pitching.

On paper, the Red Sox top three of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Lackey, three No. 1- or 1A-caliber hurlers in the primes of their careers, is as good as any in Major League Baseball and gives the Sox an edge in the arms race over New York, which after CC Sabathia has the erratic A.J. Burnett and the aging Andy Pettitte.

Throw in a committed and conditioned Daisuke Matsuzaka, who after looking and pitching like Hideki Irabu at the start of the season went 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA in his final four starts, a maturing Clay Buchholz, and the venerable Tim Wakefield and you have a starting pitching rotation that could be the envy of the American League.

Let's be honest, the lineup has less pop than we're used to seeing. We know this already. With David Ortiz in decline -- and a lot of players would like their decline to be 28 homers and 99 RBI -- the Sox as currently constituted don't have a guaranteed 30-home run hitter. There is no A-Rod or Mark Texeira to anchor this lineup.

That's why we'll keep hearing the Sox connected to rumors about acquisitions of Gonzalez, Cabrera or even Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, who could be available as he enters his prime arbitration years.

At some point -- either this offseason, during the 2010 season, or next offseason --  the Sox will have to acquire a power hitter and it's going to hurt to do so. It will cost them either Buchholz, Daniel Bard or Jacoby Ellsbury from the major league roster and prospects, unless Epstein changes course and considers dangling, rather than re-signing, Beckett.

Whether it was just public posturing for his old buddy and former lieutenant Jed Hoyer, now the Padres general manager and Gonzalez gatekeeper, or the truth, Epstein sounded content to start the season with defensive wizard Casey Kotchman at first, see how things go, and only acquire a big bopper when and if he is needed.

Do you know the last team that won a World Series without having a 30-homer hitter? It was the Yankees in 1999; Tino Martinez led them with 28.

A lot could happen in the 108 days between today and when the Sox and Yankees open up the season on April 4 at Fenway; Cashman and the Yankees surely aren't done. But with Cameron and Lackey the Sox have the offseason ball rolling in the right direction and sent a message to the Yankees that the 2010 season won't be one of surrender.

Your move, Yankees. 
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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