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Questioning where the Red Sox stand

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 16, 2009 09:10 AM

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So what do we have here? Jason Bay seems gone. John Lackey and Mike Cameron are aboard. The Red Sox will have a good team, as usual, though changes to the Boston roster prompt the usual lot of questions.

Here are some questions that should be asked of the Sox and general manager Theo Epstein, assuming that the Mike Lowell deal goes through:

1. Do the Red Sox still have sufficient payroll flexibility to make significant acquisitions during the season?

At the moment, based on the formula in the collective bargaining agreement, the Red Sox project to have a payroll in excess of $170 million, which means they will qualify for the luxury tax. That formula is based on the average annual value of all contracts and includes $10 million-$11 million that must paid to fund an account for player benefits.

In terms of actual cash spent, the Red Sox payroll currently stands at about $150 million considerably higher than where it rested on Opening Day last year. However, that Sox team had a chunk of incentive-laden contracts that increased in value as the year went along -- John Smoltz and Takashi Saito among them -- and the Sox added, among others, Victor Martinez, Billy Wagner, Alex Gonzalez and Adam LaRoche/Casey Kotchman.

In the end, in terms of payroll, the Sox are beginning 2010 at roughly where they ended 2009. Will this affect their ability to maneuver during the season? Or have the Sox upped their payroll some as a result of -- dare we say it -- the success of the Yankees?

2. What exactly happened with Jason Bay?

So Bay is going elsewhere. Fine. It's happened before and it will happen again. But in the wake of last week's news that the Red Sox effectively backed out of a deal with Bay at the All-Star break because of concerns about his knee and/or shoulder, were the Sox willing to negotiate an out clause with Bay that might have satisfied all parties? Or did Bay resist that?

As colleague Nick Cafardo reported yesterday, the Red Sox and Lackey were working on contractual language to protect the club with regard to a pre-existing injury suffered by the pitcher. This is similar to what the Sox did with J.D. Drew upon signing the outfielder to a five-year deal following the 2006 season. That deal allowed the Sox an escape after three years if Drew suffered a recurrence of a specific shoulder injury.

If the length of contract was an issue for Bay and the Sox -- he wanted five years, they stopped at four -- why couldn't such a clause have satisfied all parties? As it is, the Red Sox will be paying Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida somewhere in the neighborhood of $10.5 million this year when Bay might have cost them $15 million. Who would you rather have?

3. Are the Sox effectively planning for platoons at catcher, first base and left field? And just how hurt was Jason Varitek last season?

According to a source, Varitek last season suffered from a bulging disc in his neck, inflammation from a pre-existing labrum tear in his left shoulder and, later, a broken bone in his toe. The Varitek of old might have been able to continue producing through such issues. The Varitek of today cannot. (Regardless, if you're on the field, you're expected to perform.)

Here's why this might be important: At the moment, the Sox? best lineups against lefthanded and righthanded pitching might look something like these:


Versus righthanded pitching
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, cf
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2b
3. Victor Martinez, c
4. Kevin Youkilis, 3b
5. David Ortiz, dh
6. J.D. Drew, rf
7. Jeremy Hermdia, lf
8. Casey Kotchman, 1b
9. Marco Scutaro, ss

Versus lefthanded pitching
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, cf
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2b
3. Victor Martinez, c
4. Kevin Youkilis, 3b
5. Mike Cameron, lf
6. David Ortiz, dh
7. J.D. Drew, rf
8. Jason Varitek, c
9. Marco Scutaro, ss

If these Red Sox lineups look thinner to you, there's a reason. They are. The current Sox are built more for pitching and defense, presumably part of the reason Cameron and Hermida are here (and Bay is not). No one is suggesting that the Red Sox intend to go with strict platoon -- would they really pay Cameron an average of $7.75 million a year to play only against lefties? -- but there is certainly more reason to believe now that the Sox will pinch hit more and score less. That could put pressure on the manager to make the right matchup decisions and keep everyone happy.

4. Where do things stand with Josh Beckett?

Based on career numbers, Beckett and Lackey are virtually identical in the regular season and postseason (the latter based on ERA). Beckett is entering the final year of his contract. Some time between now and the end of next season, the Red Sox will either re-sign Beckett or allow him to enter free agency, and their history suggests that free agency means an inevitable farewell.

Lackey's presence gives the Red Sox considerable leverage with Beckett. On the one hand, they can easily let Beckett go. On the other, given the statistical consistencies between Beckett and Lackey, they have set Beckett's value at five years and $87.5 million. Given, too, that Beckett is younger than Lackey, an inability to strike a deal means either: that Beckett is asking for more; or the Red Sox deem Lackey a safer investment.

The Red Sox have serious money coming off the books at the end of 2010, when the contracts of Lowell, Ortiz and Julio Lugo are due to expire. In 2010, the Sox will pay those players in excess of $30 million. Roughly half of that could go to Beckett.

5. Where do the Sox now stand with regard to Aroldis Chapman and, as a result, trade flexibility?

The potential impact of the Lackey deal is obvious. With him aboard for five years, the Sox now have the flexibility to deal away someone like Clay Buchholz. Because Adrian Gonzalez is signed for short money -- and because the Sox are already above the luxury tax -- a deal involving Buchholz and Gonzalez seems to make obvious sense somewhere during the course of the season.

According to a recent report on ESPN.com, the Sox offered the Cuban defector a deal worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $15.5 million. (The length of the deal was unclear.) The Sox love Chapman's ability -- who doesn't -- but they also believe he will need time in the minors because, as one Sox official put it, Chapman is "raw" Still, if the Sox can add a promising power arm like Chapman, it could make dealing Buchholz that much easier.

Last year, when the Sox were pursuing Mark Teixeira, they signed Junichi Tazawa to a major league contract partly because he would help offset the compensatory draft pick the Sox would have sacrificed if they succeeded in the Teixeira pursuit. In some ways, a deal with Chapman would give them the same flexibility.

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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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