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Free agency anything but free for Red Sox

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 15, 2010 09:32 AM

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"I know it’s been portrayed in the media a little bit as if we haven’t been pursuing him. But that’s really between us and Victor and his agents. We absolutely want this guy back and he knows that." - Theo Epstein, speaking about Victor Martinez last week

chin_soxjays13_spt.jpgThe issue, almost always, is not whether the Red Sox want a player back. In many cases, they do. The issue concerns the extent to which the Red Sox will commit, specifically as it pertains to years and dollars.

And so Victor Martinez is a free agent, like Jason Bay before him, and some of us cannot help but wonder about the manner in which the Red Sox sometimes choose to do things. In July 2009, the Red Sox acquired Martinez from the Cleveland Indians. He played well for them. And yet the Sox seemingly did little or nothing to re-sign Martinez before the start of the 2010 season, choosing to act only half-heartedly at the end of the year.

In that case, the Red Sox offered Martinez a two-year deal worth $18 million, which the player and his agent, Alan Nero, flatly rejected. And so now Martinez is a free agent coveted by a number of teams, increasingly the likelihood that he will be playing elsewhere next season. Even if the Red Sox sign him, they will almost certainly pay considerably more than they might have last winter or last spring.

Before we go further, a disclaimer we must all concede to: we never really know the true dynamic or history of any negotiation. Maybe the Red Sox offered Martinez a four-year, $60 million deal in spring training. Maybe he rejected that, too. But the Red Sox have a clear history with regard to how they negotiate with their own free agents, and the large majority of those cases suggest that Martinez will be elsewhere within a matter of weeks, if not days.

In the interest of fairness, let’s provide the Red Sox point of view on this.

As John Henry indicated a week ago in his interview with Stan Grossfeld aboard the SST Liverpool, the Red Sox are generally wary of free agents in their 30s. Naturally, this constitutes most free agents. The Red Sox seem content to string along players like Bay and Martinez, which is certainly their prerogative given their ability to outspend most anyone this side of the Yankees.

Generally speaking, the Red Sox’ methods have worked for them. Of course, it is also important to stress that they inherited the nucleus of the 2004 championship team with Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek, and others. Had Epstein and Larry Lucchino not feuded in 2005, the Red Sox might very well have passed on the Josh Beckett deal and might not have won in 2007, either.

Regardless, banners are banners, and Henry and Co. now have two of them. But the Red Sox sometimes seem to place financial flexibility ahead of talent, suggesting that the system is what has won them titles. This is bunk. In the last 35 years – essentially the free agency era – the Yankees have won seven world titles, the most in baseball. During that time, the Yankees have signed one star player after the next. What has made the Yankees successful is the talent, and the Red Sox’ business model sometimes seems to get in the way of that.

Let’s go back to the winter of 2008-09. That year, the Red Sox spent $13 million on John Smoltz and Brad Penny, each of whom was released before year’s end. They might have had, say, Lowe for $15 million a year. But the Red Sox deemed the former option to be safer than the latter, largely because Penny and Smoltz were one-year deals while Lowe got a four-year commitment from the Braves.

So what was the ripple effect of that? John Lackey. One year after Smoltz and Penny, the Red Sox gave Lackey $82.5 million. That’s $95 million to address a problem that could have cost them considerably less over the long-term, no small detail given how much Red Sox officials remind us that they can’t spend with the Yankees.

The point: The Red Sox sometimes seem content to pay $3,000 a month in rent when they could be paying $2,500 a month toward a mortgage.

Meanwhile, in addition to the $82.5 million they gave Lackey, the Red Sox gave $40 million to Julio Lugo, $70 million to J.D. Drew and, essentially, $103 million to Daisuke Matsuzaka. For whatever reason, the Red Sox seem to operate with a grass-is-greener mentality when it comes to their own free agents vs. someone else’s, a curious reality given the obviously high level of intellect of Red Sox officials. These are smart people we’re talking about. So why do they jerk around Bay and Martinez, but give Lugo exactly what he wants?

Weird.

In the case of Bay, the Red Sox offered him two years and $20 million before the 2009 season. He told them to go pound sand. The sides thought they had a four-year, $60 million agreement in place at midseason, but that deal went poof when the Red Sox started yanking Bay around and insisting on out clauses. So Bay ultimately walked, and the Red Sox needlessly lost a player who had been highly productive for them.

Fine. Stuff happens. But as a result of losing Bay, the Red Sox signed Mike Cameron and, ultimately, Adrian Beltre, the latter of whom was necessary to replace Bay’s power in the middle of the lineup. Total expenditure for 2010: $17.75 million. Bay would have cost them $15 million. That $2.5 million isn’t much, to be sure, and Bay ended up having a lousy season while Beltre was great, but the Red Sox subsequently went the whole year without adding any substantive payroll, partly because they maxed out over the winter.

How’s that for irony? On the one hand, the Red Sox love flexibility. On the other, they went into 2010 with almost none. In bypassing Bay, they committed to more short-term contracts that partially handcuffed them. Talk about tying yourself up in knots.

And now Beltre is a free agent, too, which is part of the reason the Red Sox are talking about Jayson Werth.

So why didn’t they just sign Bay in the first place?

Admittedly, all of these evaluations are made in hindsight. Still, since they won their first world title, Henry and Co. have had more than their share of curious signings on the free agent market. Matt Clement. Lugo. Matsuzaka. Drew. Smoltz. Penny. Cameron. Marco Scutaro. Joel Pineiro. For all that the Red Sox have accomplished in their farm system – and they have accomplished plenty – their work on the free-agent market has left a great deal to be desired.

Which begs the questions:

Are the Red Sox right about the inefficiencies of free agency?

Or is the problem the way they go about it?

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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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