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Gonzalez move long overdue

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 6, 2010 10:06 AM

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The Red Sox will re-sign Adrian Gonzalez because they simply do not have a choice, not after surrendering at least three good prospects, two of them selected in the first round. And yet, the best news to come out of Fenway Park today is that the Red Sox still have work to do.

And they know it.

Whether the Red Sox can also secure Carl Crawford -- or, perhaps, a right-handed-hitting outfielder -- is anybody’s guess. But we all know what the bigger news is at the moment. In the wake of the Gonzalez acquisition, amid declining television ratings and waning interest, it’s about time the Red Sox really started throwing their weight around again. Owner John Henry and company fancy themselves as the Little Engine That Could in comparison to the New York Yankees, an utterly laughable contention given the obvious truth. The Red Sox are one of baseball’s two biggest superpowers, plain and simple, and they are at their best when they act like it.

"We’re very confident that when the time is right, we’ll be able to work something out," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said of negotiations with Gonzalez. "We think he’s going to wear the Wall out. Just going to Fenway from PETCO (Park) could do wonders for him, not that he needs any (help)."

Don’t people see? The Red Sox have not overachieved in the last eight years so much as they underachieved for the better part of the 20th century. The Yankees always have been an excuse. And they could remain an excuse right through the public sale of Crawford, in whom the Yankees now may have sincere interest following both the Gonzalez deal and the news that New York left fielder Brett Gardner will undergo surgery to repair the tendon sheaths in a problematic wrist.

Maybe the Yankees will get Crawford, maybe they won’t. Maybe Crawford or someone else (Magglio Ordonez?) will end up in Boston instead. Whatever the case, the Red Sox must find a way to compete, without excuses, to reclaim their place in baseball’s hierarchy and in the suddenly competitive Boston market.

In many ways, of course, this all goes back to Mark Teixeira, whom the Red Sox failed to sign two winters ago because they drew the line at $170 million over eight years. Teixeira subsequently ended up in New York for $180 million, and the Red Sox haven’t won a playoff game since. The Yankees have won a World Series. Now the Sox must sacrifice money and talent to lock up Gonzalez, whose numbers stack up almost identically to those of Teixeira over the last four or five years.

Once again, owner John Henry this morning defended the Red Sox’ approach on Teixeira, arguing that Teixeira was bound for New York from the beginning. Of course, the Red Sox will never know. Had the Sox kept hiking their offer and Teixeira kept saying no, the Sox might have at jacked the price some. Instead, as Padres general manager and former Sox assistant Jed Hoyer said this morning Orlando, all the Sox got was a "kick in the stomach

Remember, the Teixeira talks were not the first time the Sox failed to close a highly publicized deal. In 2003, the Sox tried to acquire Alex Rodriguez, only to have things fall apart by insisting on reconstruction of the player’s contract. Thinking Rodriguez had no other place to land, the Sox cockily walked away. When the Yankees swooped in with the idea of playing Rodriguez at third base, the Sox suddenly threw the car in reverse and backed up all over the Fenway Park lawn trying to get back into the deal.

In retrospect, the fact that Rodriguez landed with the Yankees was a blessing. But that’s not the point. The Red Sox made the same mistake they made with Teixeira, failing to close a big deal when they had the chance. Had they now chosen to walk away the Gonzalez deal without a contract extension -- or of they fail to sign him going forward -- they will be making the same mistake again.

Next time, instead of tweeting away on his Blackberry to gripe about Scott Boras as he did amid the Teixeira talks, maybe Henry will merely open his wallet and close the deal. Had he done so two years ago, he would have done more than save himself millions. He would have made money because you would have had a better, more exciting baseball team that would have better maintained your interest. And he’d still have Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Reymond Fuentes.

Talk about being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Consider, for a moment, some of the biggest moves in recent Red Sox history. In November 1997, like the Gonzalez deal now, the Red Sox acquired Pedro Martinez from the Montreal Expos without signing him to a contract extension; a month later, the Sox gave Martinez what was then the richest pitching deal in baseball history at $75 million, and he proved to be a bargain. (With an option, the deal ultimately was worth $90 million over six years.) In December 2000, the Sox signed Manny Ramirez to an eight-year, $160 million deal that remains the richest in team history; he, too, was worth every cent.

Both of those acquisitions, of course, were negotiated by Dan Duquette. With regard to--Epstein, his history reflects a similar (or better) return when the Red Sox have extended themselves and embraced a concept that the current Sox administration treats like a four-letter word: risk.

In 2003, Epstein gave up prospects for Curt Schilling, who had just turned 37; the Sox won a World Series. In 2007, the Sox spent nearly a quarter-billion to secure Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo; again, the result was a World Series title. Whether those specific deals paid out individually is certainly open to debate, but the point is that the Red Sox were rewarded for their aggressiveness in one way, shape, or form.

When you sign big contracts, there is always the chance the deal will be a bust. Such is the cost of doing business. No risks, no rewards. The Red Sox failed in the Teixeira negotiations because they were afraid of, what, paying him $23 million a year instead of $21.25 million? In retrospect, think of how downright silly that seems for a billion-dollar baseball operation that has interests in NASCAR and, now, soccer, among other things.

Two weeks ago, when the Sox lost Victor Martinez to the Detroit Tigers, we more deeply examined Epstein’s history with regard to free agency and the draft. Beginning in 2003, the Red Sox have had as many draft picks (28) prior to the third round -- that is, those rounds affected by free agency compensation -- as any team in baseball. As much as that is a good thing, it also suggests that team officials have been running the Red Sox as if they were the Oakland A’s, Arizona Diamondbacks or Toronto Blue Jay: all small-to-mid-market teams who truly cannot compete with the big boys on the open market.

Even after the Gonzalez deal, the Victor Martinez decision warrants a critical eye. For $50 million over four years, the Sox could have had a middle-of-the-order bat at catcher (in 2011) or designated hitter (in 2012-14) and still made the Gonzalez deal. They could have cut ties with David Ortiz and effectively replaced him with Martinez, who is a younger, better all-around hitter, at same annual price. In so doing, they also would have had better lineup balance, the switch-hitting Victor replacing the left-handed-hitting Ortiz in a lineup that currently looks a little too left-handed.

The biggest difference? Draft picks. In allowing Martinez to go, the Sox get two draft choices. Had Ortiz been allowed to depart, the Sox almost certainly would have received no compensation because, to qualify, they would have had to offer Ortiz compensation. (Too risky.) And so, the Red Sox ultimately traded four years of Victor for two draft choices and one year of Ortiz, a decision that currently leaves them a little vulnerable against left-handed pitching.

Now that Gonzalez is Red Sox property, the Red Sox’ remaining needs are obvious. Independent of what they do with Crawford, they could use another right-handed bat. They still need bullpen help. But Gonzalez fills the most glaring need in the Boston organization, in the short term and long, by giving the Red Sox the kind of middle-of-the-order presence that sent them chasing after Teixeira in the first place.

Just sign him, John.

At this point, you’ve already paid way too much.

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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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