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Piece by piece, Sox move on

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 8, 2009 11:07 AM

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Assuming things go right, what we will ultimately have here is a fairly balanced baseball team with ample pitching and solid defense. Whether the Red Sox will possess the necessary firepower is open to debate, but Theo Epstein always has said that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Finally, we can see where this is all going.

Having failed in their pursuit of Mark Teixeira, the Red Sox are instead investing in what amount to penny stocks.

With John Smoltz and Rocco Baldelli set to join Brad Penny in Boston, the most obvious hole remains at catcher, where the Red Sox have added only projected backup Josh Bard. Given the seeming surplus of pitching on the Boston roster, maybe this means the Red Sox will now part with Clay Buchholz in their pursuit of Texas catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, effectively putting the final pieces in place for the season-opening roster of your 2009 Boston Red Sox.

Is it a championship roster? For now, that is impossible to say -- but then, at the moment, it doesn't need to be. Epstein has between now and July 31 to further address whatever deficiencies the club may develop between before then, and we know the Red Sox have the wherewithal and resources to plug those holes.

What we don't know is how this team will come together and whether everyone will stay healthy.

For the moment, let's spell this out in the simplest terms, assuming the acquisitions of Penny, Smoltz and Baldelli are consummated, as we expect. (For the sake of argument, let's also add in Jason Varitek or Saltalamacchia.)

Rotation: Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny. (The rehabilitating Smoltz would join in June, most likely.)

Bullpen: Jonathan Papelbon, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez. (One spot remains for David Aardsma or a long man.)

Starting lineup:
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
3. David Ortiz, DH
4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B
5. Mike Lowell, 3B
6. Jason Bay, LF
7. J.D. Drew, RF
8. Jason Varitek/Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
9. Jed Lowrie, SS.

Bench: Julio Lugo, IF; Josh Bard, C; Baldelli, OF. (One spot TBA, ideally for a Mark Kotsay-type who could fill needs both in the infield and outfield.)

At this time of year in baseball, there is a tendency to embrace all moves, if for no other reason than people respond to action. (It's always better than inaction.) Some fans will see the names of Smoltz and Baldelli and conjure up images of a Cy Young Award winner and Rookie of the Year, and the simple truth is that these players are the same only in name. Smoltz and Baldelli are both complementary pieces now, not cornerstones, and it is important to recognize that each comes with major questions.

In Smoltz's case, can he help the Red Sox, the way that Curt Schilling might have, in September and October, assuming the club will be playing meaningful games then?

And as for Baldelli, how much can he play and how much of asset can he be, particularly given Drew's injury history and concerns about Ellsbury's consistency?

Nonetheless, given where the Red Sox are today in the wake of the Teixeira failure, we have no choice but to move forward and ask the only question that matters: Where do the Sox go from here? To their credit, the Sox have not responded to Teixeira's decision by doing anything foolish, like throwing silly money at someone who does not deserve it. In the last two weeks, Epstein instead has signed (or is expected to sign) Penny, Bard, Smoltz, and Baldelli to one-year contracts that will cost the club somewhere in the range of $12 million-$15 million, offering potentially satisfying rewards while maintaining great long-term financial flexibility.

Next fall, when those contracts expire, the Red Sox will have all that money to spend again, in addition to the balance of funds they still possess from the 2008 departures of Manny Ramirez, Schilling and, potentially, Varitek. That's a good thing. The only question is how much of the 2009 season the Sox will have sacrificed in the process.

As for someone like Derek Lowe, know this: According to a source, the Red Sox had more interest in him had they signed Teixeira, for the simple fact that Lowe would have required only a second-round pick as compensation. (Teixeira would have required a first-round selection, meaning any subsequent Type A free-agent signings would have demanded a second-rounder, then a third-rounder, and so on.) But once the Red Sox missed out on Teixeira, the price for Lowe became a multiyear deal and a first-round pick, a combination they deemed too high given the depth they have at the front of their rotation and their success in developing pitching.

At this stage, they'd rather take a shot on one-year deals and hold on to the picks. Penny, Bard, Smoltz, and Baldelli all are non-compensation players, meaning they require the forfeiture of no draft picks.

At the moment, is this team as good as it might have been had it landed Teixeira? No. We all know that. Because this is Boston, the Red Sox always will be held to a high standard, particularly in the wake of World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. In most scenarios, winning 87 games simply does not qualify as a good year anymore. The Red Sox have a zealous following like perhaps no other team in professional sports, and their fans pay steep prices with the annual belief that the club can win a championship. In this market, in this age, the Red Sox never should be allowed to simply write off a year, particularly at a time when the dollar means more (to everyone) than it has in decades.

Does this team have some concerns and issues?

Of course it does.

But in the wake of any happening -- big or small, good or bad -- all they can do is offer their best going forward. And the Red Sox currently appear to be choosing the best and most prudent path.

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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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