FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Standing in the chilly morning shadows at the Red Sox’ spring training complex this morning, Jason Bay asked if he could move into the sunlight. Given that Bay is a man who spent virtually his entire major league career in Pittsburgh before coming to Boston at the July 31 trading deadline last season, maybe it is only fitting that he would just as soon stay out of the darkness in the long term, too.
"I’m comfortable here,’’ Bay said when asked about his time with the Sox he enters the final year of his contract. "No one likes to move around all the time. Especially if you get the chance to become a free agent, there are a handful of places that have a chance to win and Boston is on the short list.
"I guess if you’re asking me if I’d like to stay here, the answer on a lot of accounts would be yes,’’ Bay said. "But that doesn’t mean it’s ultimately going to happen."
The story lines of this spring have long since been defined for the Red Sox, the majority of them built around key players returning from injury. Here is one equally as important: Bay’s long-term future with the team. Acquired last in the seismic deal that sent Manny Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Bay batted .293 with nine home runs, 37 RBI and 39 runs scored in 49 games with the Red Sox. He had an .897 OPS, very much in line with his career number of .891.
Then, in his first career exposure to the postseason, Bay batted .341 with three home runs, nine RBI and six runs scored in 11 postseason games, fortifying the notion that he could blossom in a big market.
Suddenly, in the aftermath of an offseason highlighted by the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes, Bay looks more important to the Red Sox than ever before. Along with Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, he is one of the only relatively sure things in the Boston lineup. The Red Sox were concerned enough about their offense that they were prepared to throw $170 million over eight years at Teixeira, which leads to an obvious question:
How much more concerned will they be if they lose Bay, too?
Now 30, Bay has averaged 29 home runs and 95 RBI over his first five full big league seasons. He is a good baserunner and solid defender. The group of upcoming free agent outfielders includes, among others, Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordonez, Matt Holliday and Vladimir Guerrero, and it could be argued that each is a better pure hitter than Bay. But factoring in age, defense and mobility, there may not be a more desirable free agent outfielder on the market next November than the man who currently plays left field for the Red Sox.
As familiar as that may sound, don’t expect the dignified Bay to turn that into nearly the soap opera that his predecessor did.
"Until I have something [in the form of an offer] to consider, I’ve got a year left," Bay said with regard to free agency. "I’m playing it and I’m happy."
Here comes the proverbial $64,000 question:
Exactly what is Bay worth?
And for how long?
Over the winter, when asked about the prospect of signing Bay to a long-term deal, one baseball source indicated that the team was waiting to see how the market developed for hitters on the open market. Since that time, Pat Burrell (two years, $16 million), Milton Bradley (three years, $30 million), Adam Dunn (two years, $20 million), Raul Ibanez (three years, $31.5 million) and Bobby Abreu (one year, $5 million) all have signed. As it pertains to Bay, the first four of those deals are far more relevant than the fifth, meaning Bay’s value falls somewhere in the range of $10 million (at least) for a minimum of three seasons.
And in all probability, given Bay’s skill set and age compared to that group, he would warrant a longer deal for more guaranteed money.
For Bay, the frustrating part is that he might have received more money last fall had he negotiated with the red Sox upon being traded, but he said this morning that issue never came up.
"There were bigger things out there than me,’’ he said. "If it’s in their plans now and they want to discuss it, I’ll definitely listen."
And as for the downturn in the market?
"That’s the position I’m in," Bay said. "Regardless of the market or what’s going on, I can’t forgo free agency until the market gets better."
Which means he has to use any and all leverage now.
In the end, will this deal get done? The chances seem good, since the fit is good for both player and team. During this offseason, the Red Sox already have secured Pedroia and Youkilis to long-term deals while adding depth to their pitching staff in the form of several low-risk, high-reward signings. The minor league system seems loaded with young pitching talent. Meanwhile, the Boston offense has more than its share of questions at this point, and Bay looks like one of only three sure things entering the 2009 campaign.
Of those three, for now, he is also the only one without security beyond this year.
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