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Are Red Sox doing best they can?

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  December 5, 2012 10:43 AM

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The free agent market was thin and the trading chips were limited, and we all knew that when the Red Sox walked off the field in early October. From that moment, the short-term task of rebuilding the Boston baseball operation should have come with an obvious disclaimer.

Do the best you can.

And so for those who are lamenting the relatively modest and high-priced moves the Red Sox have made thus far this offseason, here's a question: exactly what were you expecting? Josh Hamilton? Zack Greinke? The Red Sox just got out from under the cargo bins that were Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. Unless the return is great, they have an obvious need to protect their best young prospects. From the very beginning, the goal was to get back to some level of respectability in the short term without tying up resources in the long.

The Sox went 69-93 last season, folks. On the way back to 93-69, let's first see if they can get back to 81-81. As the saying goes, you have to walk before you can run.

And so, with regard to the moves the Red Sox have made this offseason, let's go through them, blow-by-blow. David Ross? Fine. Jonny Gomes? Meh. Mike Napoli? Fine. Shane Victorino? Risky, to be sure. The biggest complaint you should have thus far is that the Red Sox missed out on pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda (one year, $16 million) and Dan Haren (one year, $13 million), and where those players ended up might be far more revealing than how much they signed for.

Kuroda went back to the New York Yankees. Haren went to the Washington Nationals. Assuming those players were re-signed to one-year deals no matter where they ended up, couldn't it be that they chose to play in places where they had a chance to, you know, win? If the Sox really wanted Haren, they could have negotiated a trade for him and picked up his option. Once he hit the market, he wasn't going to pick Boston over a playoff team, particularly one with Stephen Strasburg.

News flash: the Red Sox stunk last year, people. They might be the fifth-best team in their own division. Your beloved Fenway Park simply doesn't have the appeal it did as recently as two years ago, when guys like Gonzalez and Crawford oozed at the idea of playing here.

The Red Sox have been dealt their dose of humility.

Have you accepted yours?

With regard to Ben Cherington's maneuverings over the last few days, let's start with the good news. At the moment, the Sox have a lineup that looks halfway decent, at least offensively. With the additions of Ross, Gomes, Napoli, and Victorino, the Red Sox currently have a batting order that projects to be something like this:

CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
RF Shane Victorino (S)
2B Dustin Pedroia (R)
DH David Ortiz (L)
3B Will Middlebrooks (R)
1B Mike Napoli (R)
LF Jonny Gomes (R) or Ryan Kalish (L)
C David Ross (R) or Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)
SS Jose Iglesias (R)
Is that a world championship lineup? No. It's a little on the old side. The defense up the middle is pretty good and the defense on the corners (with the exception of right field) could be a train wreck. Add it all up and you have a team that looks feisty and relatively mediocre, which, for the Red Sox at the moment, is a step in the right direction.

As for the contracts, the most outrageous deal signed by the Red Sox might very well be the two-year, $10 million contract they planted on Gomes, who has never played on more than a one-year deal and eared $1 million last season. At least Victorino made almost $10 million last year. Giving Victorino a third year is a huge roll of the dice, but it's not the kind of commitment that should prevent the Sox from making acquisitions in the short term or the long.

Last year, remember, the Red Sox had a payroll approaching $190 million, which appears to be their ceiling. (By the way, all teams are guaranteed roughly another $25 million in revenue beginning in 2014 thanks to the new national television contracts.) At the moment, factoring in arbitration cases, the Sox are somewhere between $115-$120 million based on the luxury tax payroll. They have plenty of room to add - and let's hope they do.

One other thing: Ross, Gomes, Napoli and Victorino are all non-compensation free agents, which means the Red Sox have forfeited zero draft picks thus far. There are those of us (ahem) who would have eagerly sacrificed a second-rounder for Nick Swisher to replace Victorino, but at least the Sox have their reasons. Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Justin Masterson and Alex Wilson were all second-round picks in recent years, so make of that what you will.

Now the negatives:

The Sox have done nothing to improve their starting pitching and they are overplaying the strength of their bullpen, the latter of which should be sounding alarms. If, in fact, the Sox are seriously exploring the idea of moving Ellsbury - and they should be - dealing him only makes sense if the Sox can get a front-end starter in return. Ellsbury, after all, will garner the Sox roughly a top 40 pick (roughly equivalent to the current second-rounder the team is carefully protecting) and his departure would mean that someone like Kalish would become a full-time starter.

Again, this team is hardly championship-caliber. Trading someone like Ellsbury would hardly be devastating, no matter the return. But what's the point in making this year's team worse if the future isn't appreciably better?

Defense, meanwhile, is admittedly down on the list of Red Sox priorities at the moment, as it should be. (After the All-Star break, the Sox ranked 11th in runs scored and 14th in ERA. Nice combo, eh?) But the Sox could be positively wretched on the corners, particularly in left field and first base. At third, Middlebrooks is likely to continue making mistakes, at least in the shorter term.

As for Victorino, the Sox seemingly had other appealing options - and they have nothing to do with the money. For years now, the Sox have been positioning themselves for the ascension of Kalish, an above average defensive player. Why not give him the chance now and augment Gomes in left field with someone like Ryan Sweeney? The Victorino of two years ago was a pretty good player. But there is growing concern in baseball that his skills are diminishing.

In the bullpen, finally, the Sox still have questions. For all of the talk about the strength of the Boston bullpen last year, the Sox finished 11th in the league in relief ERA and tied for fourth in bullpen losses. New manager John Farrell spoke of the bullpen as a strength from the moment he took the job, but there are lots of question marks. Do the Sox really know what they're going to get from Mark Melancon? Andrew Bailey? Daniel Bard? Andrew Miller? Alfredo Aceves is mercurial. Junichi Tazawa, as much as we all like the stuff, is still a relative kid.

If the Red Sox are smart in coming days, they'll put as much emphasis on the bullpen as they do the starting rotation. And the mantra should not change.

Do the best you can.

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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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