Right now, as the majority of Red Sox fans fret about getting proper "value" in return for slugger Manny Ramirez, there is an overwhelmingly more dire concern.
What if they don't trade him?
I don't mean Ramirez's perceived threat that he might come up lame with a phantom injury if the Red Sox don't concede to his demands. I'm talking about where they begin with building this bullpen, an annual problem for Theo Epstein that is the largest black mark on his once-golden resume.
So it's come to this. Boston's continued failure to build a proper bullpen is going to result in yielding a Hall of Famer for short arms. Imagine, had Epstein and company been at least a bit more competent about the 'pen over the years, we might be talking Andruw Jones to play center field. Instead, it's Ramirez for J.J. Putz. As nasty as Putz is, can anyone seriously consider that equal "value?"
You're afraid of losing Ramirez and what it means for David Ortiz? How about this: Rudy Seanez is still on the market.
All right, so even Epstein has to understand by now that brining Seanez into the fold for a third time in five seasons would be a terrible idea. But the problem of the bullpen architecture continues to be a concern, and one that has already started to percolate at these meetings. For instance, did the Red Sox even do any research before they went and offered Keith Foulke salary arbitration?
Foulke's agent yesterday indicated the former closer was weighing accepting Boston's offer, which would essentially put him under contract for next season. What does it say about you when two of the first moves you make in a necessary overhaul of the bullpen are to sign Mike Timlin and offer Foulke arbitration? Is Joe Sambito far behind?
But with the Red Sox seeking closer help in any package involving Ramirez, there remains the very certain scenario that Ramirez calls for too steep a price (a claim most teams in talks are reportedly dishing) or he'll simply nix the trade as is his 10-5 right as a veteran. And then ... the Sox turn to whom? Craig Hansen?
That's not to say Hansen can't do the job, and in fact some circles might even think he's ready to turn the corner in 2007. But even if that is the plan, there's no way the franchise is going to hand the keys over to a 23-year-old in December. Hansen could very well win the closer's role in spring training, depending upon whom the Sox have in camp, but he's not going to be awarded it any time before then on the basis of default.
So, the Sox need a closer. Stop me if you've heard this one before.
"We'll definitely have a closer by Opening Day," Epstein told reporters yesterday. "Sometimes things resolve themselves in spring training. We changed closers in the first week of the season last year and that worked out pretty well," he said.
True, but the Red Sox don't possess that dominant presence waiting in the wings that they had last spring with Jonathan Papelbon, unless Hansen comes to camp throwing the ball light years better than he did in 2006, which is entirely possible. But you can depend on that about as much as you can count on seeing the Lexus bow in your front driveway this month.
So, barring a major deal involving Ramirez, which might yield the likes of Scot Shields, Putz, or Jonathan Broxton, we can expect Boston to dip into the bargain bin to find a closer, something the franchise has watched Epstein figure out effectively for one whole season (Foulke in 2004) of his four-year reign as GM.
But the free agent market for closers is such that the Red Sox would be hoping against hope that someone like Hansen can step up come March, because frankly, do you want any of these guys closing out close games for you down the stretch?
Octavio Dotel. Joe Borowski. Dan Kolb. Eric Gagne.
Rumors are that Dotel is looking for $4 million a season, which would be akin to tossing that cash into a slot machine. Dotel also wants to close, and coming off major arm surgery, that shouldn't be a guaranteed option for any interested team. Borowski is one step away from signing with the Indians. Kolb might be an interesting option at very short dollars if the Red Sox think he can stop his virtual decline from solid closer to adequate bridge man. The rehabbing Gagne is a most intriguing option, but Boston certainly isn't the only team thinking that way, which means Scott Boras would like to get a bidding war started, although there has seemingly only been lukewarm interest thus far.
"Those are certainly the most affordable," Epstein said. "In this market, if you're going to pay for any type of proven performance or recent performance, it can get really expensive. If a guy has proven performance, but it was a couple of years ago, sometimes they're a little bit more attractive in this market."
Outside of a Gagne resurgence, attractive options they are not. Which is essentially why the Red Sox are asking for top-of-the-line relief talent from anyone willing to take on Ramirez. Feel as you might that's not enough to get in exchange for one of the game's best pure hitters, but ask yourself when was the last time you felt complete confidence in the Boston bullpen. Not coincidentally it was also the last time they won a playoff series.
Of course, there remains the all-too-likely scenario that the team signs a middle-of-the-line guy and heads into spring training with the closing role open to the likes of Hansen, Manny Delcarmen, and Julian Tavarez, who you might remember had more than a few people change their tune about him after a starting stint in which he was 3-0 in September. As unattractive as that might sound, is it any better than Derrick Turnbow? True, guys like Hansen and Delcarmen might be ready to become the studs the Red Sox think they can be. But you can't base the offseason on ifs.
Trading Ramirez might seem a scary proposition for Ortiz and the rest of the offense. But not trading him might have just as serious repercussions on the pitching staff. Pick your poison.
A more important question needs to be seriously asked before the Red Sox deal him off. Is it worth yielding perhaps the best righthanded hitter in the game for a position that is one of constant turnover? Today's Huston Street is tomorrow's Bobby Thigpen. Closers can be found. The Ramirezes of the baseball world can't be.