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Finding a good fit

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 23, 2008 03:11 AM

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The Red Sox have money to spend, players to trade, needs to fill. And just one year after they entered what proved to be one of the more tranquil offseasons in their history, now is a good time to remember the team's track record in the John Henry era.

They are not afraid to be bold.

In the last five offseasons, after all, the Red Sox have traded for Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett, signed premier free agents such as Keith Foulke and J.D. Drew, and blown away the competition in an international auction for Daisuke Matsuzaka. They nearly traded Manny Ramírez for Alex Rodriguez. They tried to trade for Tim Hudson and sign Brad Radke. They imported Edgar Renteria one year, exported him the next.

This year? Maybe more of the same, maybe nothing.

"I'd be surprised if [none] was the case," general manager Theo Epstein said Monday. "We have the ability to be selective in free agency. That could be the case again this year. We also might do something big. We have the ability to survey the field, play the offseason, and do what we think is right without having to do any one thing.

"We're at a point now where we're not desperate as an organization to improve in any one area. We can bring back the same group in any one area and be solid and have the bases covered. We can now pick our spots and look for areas to improve. Last offseason was great because we didn't have to be desperate. I think that's the same approach we'll take this year."

Maybe so. But do Sox officials really strike you as passive?

With that in mind, here's a look at the Sox' potential offseason plans, starting with:

The middle of the lineup
Epstein played it straight Monday, noting that the Sox finished second in the American League and third in the majors in runs. At the same time, the bottom of the lineup seemed terribly shallow during the postseason and there are significant questions about the ability of Mike Lowell (hip surgery) and David Ortiz (wrist) to regain the form that made them centerpieces in 2007.

Of the offensive talents available on the free agent market, two names stand out: Mark Teixeira and Manny Ramírez, the latter of whom is not an option for obvious reasons. Epstein said all the right things concerning Lowell and Ortiz, but the 28-year-old Teixeira is a switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate who has averaged 35 home runs and 118 RBIs the past five seasons. Teixeira also is a two-time Gold Glove winner at first base who finished this year with more walks (97) than strikeouts (93), making him a perfect fit for the Sox in every way.

According to a club source, the Sox already have had internal discussions about Teixeira and would likely make room for him by trying to trade Lowell, who has two years and $25 million remaining on a three-year, $37.5 million contract he signed before last season. In that scenario, Kevin Youkilis would move to third base and Ortiz would probably drop in the lineup, giving the Sox a balanced lineup from Nos. 2 through 7 that would look something like this:

Dustin Pedroia (R), Teixeira (S), Youkilis (R), Ortiz (L), Jason Bay (R), J.D. Drew (L).

Depending on the length of the contract, Teixeira is likely to command $18 million-$20 million per season for the range of 6-8 years, and the competition could be stiff, with the Los Angeles Angels and New York Yankees among the potential suitors. Agent Scott Boras, who represents Teixeira, historically has shown willingness to take deals slightly shorter in length if his clients are young enough to make another venture into free agency.

If the Sox do not get Teixeira, their options for improving the lineup might be best served via trade, with the Colorado Rockies being a potential match. The Rockies need pitching and have both third baseman Garrett Atkins and outfielder Matt Holliday to deal, with Holliday being eligible for free agency at the end of 2009. Holliday, too, is represented by Boras, however, which makes it unlikely that he would sign with a new team before hitting the open market.

Because the Rockies have Ian Stewart ready to take over at third, Atkins seems like the team's preferred candidate to deal. (The Rockies would love to deal Todd Helton and move Atkins to first, but Helton's contract is prohibitive.) Atkins, too, could be a good fit for the Sox if they are serious about moving Lowell, but Teixeira is the most sensible option for a club that has shaved $40 million-$60 million off its payroll since the end of last season, much of it in the deal that sent Ramírez to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Furthermore, if the Sox sign Teixeira, they can then focus on extending Bay's contract. Agent Joe Urbon said yesterday that he and the Sox have not discussed an extension for Bay, who is signed through 2009, and it could be that the Sox would need Bay in a big trade if they do not land Teixeira. But if the Sox can sign Teixeira and extend the 30-year-old Bay, they will have infused the middle of their lineup with run producers in their peak years.

That brings us to:

Catcher and the bottom of the order
Regardless of what happens with Jason Varitek, the Sox need to find a younger, long-term replacement who can provide them with at least average offensive output. The Texas Rangers have young catching to trade - the Sox tried to deal for Gerald Laird last winter - and the Cleveland Indians have a budding Kelly Shoppach, though Shoppach might be tough to pry away if and when Victor Martínez ends up at another position.

Given the scarcity of productive catchers, the Sox may be willing to settle for mediocrity, depending on what happens in the middle of the order. Whoever ends up catching will end up at the bottom of the order with Jed Lowrie, whom the Sox now regard as a legitimate candidate to take over for Julio Lugo. Finding a deal for Lugo (two years, $18 million remaining) will be near impossible unless the Sox eat roughly two-thirds of his remaining contract, but even then, the rewards will be minimal. The Sox are not likely to get much more than a midlevel prospect in return, limiting any impact on 2009.

Regardless, the Sox are not likely to make major offensive upgrades at catcher or shortstop next season, which only magnifies the importance of getting thicker in the middle of the lineup.

Pitching
The class of free agent pitchers is deep, with A.J. Burnett, Ben Sheets, Ryan Dempster, and Derek Lowe joining the big prize, CC Sabathia. The availability of Jake Peavy via trade further clouds the issue, though the Sox are not likely to be major players for any front-line starter.

For beginners, Sox officials generally have refrained from throwing silly dollars at starting pitchers on the open market, particularly ones in their 30s. (In Sabathia's case, Sox officials privately have expressed concerns about his long-term durability.) The Sox certainly could use an infusion of innings in their starting rotation, though it should be stressed that Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Daisuke Matsuzaka are all under 30 and under team control through at least 2010.

Could the Sox use a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, assuming they pick up the option on Tim Wakefield? Of course, though at that point they would get more bang for their buck by bringing along another young starter, be it Clay Buchholz or Justin Masterson or Michael Bowden. The ability of Epstein and his baseball operations staff to develop pitching should pay huge dividends this winter because the Sox can spend big dollars elsewhere and/or make trades to fortify their roster.

If the Sox are forced to give up pitching to acquire a hitter, they can then engage in discussions with any one of the aforementioned free agents.

As Epstein likes to say every winter, the precise developments are difficult to predict because there are a lot of moving parts.

This article also appeared in Thursday's Boston Globe.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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