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Red Sox have done little to improve

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  December 7, 2011 08:54 AM

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The Red Sox have been making decisions, from Jonathan Papelbon and Bobby Valentine to David Ortiz, Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek. And yet, more than two months after the calamitous end to the 2011 season and with the holiday season upon us, a most obvious question remains.

What have the Red Sox done thus far to improve?

Of course, more than two months still remain before the start of spring training, so there is ample time for the new duo of Cherington and Valentine to begin putting their fingerprints on the 2012 Red Sox. Nonetheless, the truth is that the Red Sox of today have more questions than they ended the season with, a reality that should drain more confidence from an already hemorrhaging fan base.

Now there is increasing talk of the Red Sox' unwillingness to go beyond the $178 million tax threshold, a restriction (if it is true) that seems to explain why the Red Sox have dragged their feet and rearranged the furniture through a laborious offseason.

Since all things start with payroll, we did the math. Adding in Ortiz and estimating salaries where necessary - Jacoby Ellsbury, for example, is eligible for arbitration - the Red Sox already have between $170-$175 million committed under the formula to calculate luxury tax payroll. (You'll have to take our word on this.) That leaves little or no room to address the team's primary area of need - read: pitching - without shuttling some payroll from the big league roster.

Know what that likely means? That the Red Sox aren't really in on someone like Mark Buehrle and they never were. (Let's hope we're proven wrong about this.) It also means that the weight of the Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford acquisitions are being felt now, particularly with regard to Gonzalez' impact on the payroll.

Last year, remember, Gonzalez was on the books for a paltry $5.5 million. The Red Sox announced his seven-year, $154 million contract extension after Opening Day so as manipulate the accounting ledger. The downside is that the bill is coming due now, with Gonzalez' luxury tax number increasing from $5.5 million to a whopping $22 million, a jump of precisely $16.5 million.

Meanwhile, the luxury tax number for Clay Buchholz will jump from roughly $550,000 to $7.5 million, an increase of approximately $7 million. Add it all up and it means the Red Sox essentially spent the money they saved from J.D. Drew ($14 million) and Papelbon ($12.5 million) before the offseason even began.

Ugh.

And now, with Ortiz seemingly destined to come back, the Sox essentially lose whatever payroll flexibility they had left, at least if you hold them to the alleged $178 million ceiling.

Call me crazy, but do the Sox need Ortiz more than they need reliable pitching? Didn't September tell us that the balance on this team has been badly disrupted?

Admittedly, this a transitional time for the organization. Theo Epstein is gone. Terry Francona is gone. Wakefield and Varitek have all but officially joined them, decisions that don't cause nearly the ripples now that they might have years ago. (In this way, Roger Clemens' departure in 1996 altered Red Sox history forever.) The end of the 2011 season left a bad taste in most everyone's mouth, and so the Sox can now cut some long ties without any real public relations fallout.

At the end, this team was too much about the individual and not enough about the collective. So they're purging.

But does subtraction alone make the Sox better? Or were there real on-field issues, too, that the Red Sox have thus far declined to address?

At season's end, Red Sox officials (specifically Epstein) noted that the Sox must look at the entire 2011 season in its aggregate, so let's do that now. The Sox won 90 games. Their starting pitchers and set-up man failed them badly in September. Part of the solution, it seems, is to move Daniel Bard from the bullpen to the starting rotation - the same may be true of Alfredo Aceves - leaving the Sox with a back end of the bullpen that currently features Bobby Jenks.

As such, maybe it's no wonder the Sox are exploring deals for people like Andrew Bailey by dangling Josh Reddick. If you're a Sox fan, given the messages currently seeping from Fenway Park, you probably should expect more moves of the like. A new crop of non-tender free agents will hit the market later this week, and it now seems certain that the Red Sox will opt to shore up their pitching staff by doing what the New York Yankees did last winter, buying people like Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon off the discount rack rather than making another mistake like John Lackey.

Here's the problem: just because it worked for the Yankees last season (at least to a point) hardly means it will work now. The Red Sox tried this with Brad Penny and John Smoltz in 2009 and effectively threw $13.5 million out the window. Thanks to Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who combined for about $25 million of dead money against the luxury tax this season, one can only wonder if the Sox have grown a little gun shy of multiyear pitching contracts on the free agent market.

Of all the pitchers currently under the Red Sox control, Buchholz and Bard suddenly seem to be the most important. In fact, barring an unexpected and major pitching acquisition, the success of the 2012 Red Sox may well depend on them. At this stage, we know that Jon Lester is the only truly durable starter in the Boston rotation. We know that Josh Beckett, even if he is focused and fit, will likely fade in September. And we know that Lackey is out for the year and Matsuzaka out for at least half of it, the latter's contribution after a potential return likely limited to minimal.

We also know that Aceves has never pitched more than 114 innings and has had a history of injury. And we know Jenks was out of shape and worthless in 2011.

That leaves Buchholz and Bard, both of whom have considerable upside. But is Buchholz the Cy Young candidate of 2010 or the brittle breadstick of 2011? Can Bard hold up and be effective as a starter? There is every chance that each will pitch well in 2012, but what the Red Sox have in Buchholz and Bard is a pair of young righthanders with terrific stuff who can be among the better pitchers in the game.

At the moment, in fact, the Red Sox seem to be banking on that.

And so in the interim, in the wake of a September collapse from which pieces are still tumbling, we all wonder: What if Buchholz and Bard are not up to 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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