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Is American League passing Red Sox by?

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  January 25, 2012 09:34 AM

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Prince Fielder has gone to Detroit while Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson have landed in Anaheim, all as the Red Sox have been hanging out at the local book swap. That is not meant to be a criticism of Boston's strategy this winter so much as it is a commentary on the new landscape of the American League.

It's a good thing baseball is adding another playoff team this year, folks, because the Red Sox might have missed the postseason again otherwise.

They still might.

Amid the Patriots' march to yet another Super Bowl, some time has passed since we talked baseball. And now, just a few short days after the Red Sox traded their starting shortstop to free up payroll, the Detroit Tigers have secured first baseman Prince Fielder to a whopping nine-year, $214 million dollar contract, giving Detroit - at least in the short term - perhaps the most formidable middle-of-the-order tandem in all of major league baseball.

Make no mistake: what the Tigers have now in Fielder and Miguel Cabrera is pretty darn near what the Red Sox had from 2003 to 2008, when Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz anchored the Boston lineup. During those six seasons, the Red Sox went to four American League Championship Series and won two world titles. They were the best team in the game. Ramirez was traded in the middle of the 2008 season, and the Sox haven't won a playoff game in the three full years without him.

With regard to the Red Sox payroll and expenditures this offseason, let's at least try to be fair about this. Estimating their unsettled arbitration cases, Boston's current projected luxury tax payroll rests at about $180 million. That is more than enough to win. The obvious problem is that the Red Sox have nearly as much dead money as the Madoff investors, an escalating problem now that the Sox have decided to operate with some level of frugality concerning the $178 million luxury tax threshold.

Two years ago, the Sox were selling us the idea of run prevention. Now they're trading away their starting shortstop a month before spring training, all so they can save a few million bucks that amount to, what, one or two percent of their payroll?

Yikes.

Meanwhile, the Angels (Pujols and Wilson), Tigers (Fielder), Texas Rangers (Yu Darvish, Joe Nathan) and even New York Yankees (Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda) have made more significant acquisitions than the Red Sox have. Even if you believe that the Red Sox are a better team than the dysfunctional club that went 7-20 en route to a 90-72 finish - and they are - you must admit that the field just got a whole lot tougher. The Red Sox are still a heavyweight - we think - but the 2012 American League now projects to be a Battle Royale like no other in recent memory.

And lest anyone forget, the Tampa Bay Rays, who beat out the Sox last fall for what was then the fourth and final playoff spot, have better pitching than you do.

Let's examine what has happened since the historic September collapse that had us all examining the clubhouse culture at Fenway Park. Josh Beckett has stayed. John Lackey has been lost for the season. Terry Francona has been fired and Jonathan Papelbon was allowed to depart via free agency. The Sox picked up Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey in a couple of low-cost trades, but the Sox have been chief among those telling us over the last several years that the performance of relievers is difficult to forecast.

Then came the departure of Scutaro, one of the few Sox players who actually played his tail off down the stretch, demonstrating the kind of grit that so few of his teammates did.

Of course, there is still time for the Sox to make changes and acquisitions, be they today or in July. But here's the problem: if the Sox are serious about staying at or near the luxury tax amount of $178 million, what difference does it make? In retrospect, the Sox went into last season with very little payroll flexibility. Now they're doing the same thing. They have had a collection of players who have shown an inability to stay healthy in recent years - Beckett and Kevin Youkilis chief among them - and they seemingly have no interest in further extending themselves financially to build better depth.

In retrospect, the Sox never had any intention of making any acquisition bigger than Bobby Valentine, upon whom there is now a great deal of pressure, particularly at the start of the season. They're locked into Beckett ($17 million per), Lackey ($16.5 million) and Carl Crawford ($20.3 million), the last of whom just had wrist surgery. And we haven't even mentioned Daisuke Matsuzaka ($8.7 million average).

As we all know, the Red Sox have too much talent to have gone 7-20 in September and missed the playoffs. Maybe, as a result, the Sox will play 2012 as if they have something to prove. And maybe Valentine, too, will have a profound impact. But in the wake of a disastrous finish during which the players shamed the uniform - let's not forget this - the Sox look like they've made nothing more than subtle tweaks while spinning their wheels, all as the other primary contenders in the American League have significantly stepped up their games.

In a vacuum, the Red Sox really may be no worse off than they were a year ago at this time, when many of us dubbed them world beaters.

But in the bigger picture, it sure feels like the rest of the league is passing them by.

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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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