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Holding all the cards

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff December 4, 2008 05:59 AM

"We're at a point right now where we're not desperate to improve in any one area."-- Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, Oct. 20

That was roughly six weeks ago, just before the start of the World Series, just after the Red Sox lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Not much has changed since. Neither the Red Sox nor their competition has improved dramatically so far this offseason, and the winter meetings are now just days away.

We all know where the Red Sox stand. They have traded Coco Crisp. They have secured Junichi Tazawa. General manager Theo Epstein has lots of money to spend and no major holes to fill, per se, though the Sox certainly could benefit in the short term and the long by tweaking a roster that produced 95 regular-season victories last season and came within five wins of a third World Series title in five years.

Indeed, as Major League Baseball convenes in Las Vegas next week for what effectively serves as its annual winter convention, the Red Sox have greater flexibility than at any other time in recent memory. Epstein has money to burn, prospects to trade, a championship-caliber team intact. The Red Sox have questions like anyone else — the health of Mike Lowell chief among them — but the team finds itself in the extraordinary position of being able to do virtually anything or nothing.

Roughly six years ago at this time, when Epstein took over a Red Sox operation that was heavier in talent at the major league level than the minor, he vowed to turn the Sox into “a scouting and player development machine.” The idea was to turn the franchise into a self-sustaining operation that could produce players with the best small-market teams and spend money with the most aggressive big-market clubs. The former would help facilitate the latter, Epstein noted, and accomplishing both would allow the Red Sox to compete for world titles annually.

Today, as Epstein enters his seventh offseason as GM, the Red Sox remain a religion to those who make their homes in and well beyond New England. Now, they just happen to be a Theocracy, too. During Epstein’s six-year tenure, the Red Sox have scored more runs than any other team in baseball and have won more games than all but one, the filthy-rich New York Yankees. The Sox have won one-third of all world titles decided during that span, have been to the ALCS four times, and lead the rest of their division in World Series banners, 2-0.

This offseason, Epstein has the ability and flexibility to keep the rest of the baseball world guessing, which is precisely how he likes it.

What is Theo going to do next?

"We're not just going into this winter trying to address the 2009 team and that's it. I think the better way to look at it is that we're continuing to evolve as an organization."-- Epstein, Oct. 20

Let’s say the Red Sox do what amounts to virtually nothing. Let’s say they re-sign Jason Varitek, continue to invest in their minor leaguers, lose out on Mark Teixeira. Assuming they are healthy, the 2009 Red Sox would remain a playoff-caliber team and championship threat out of spring training, leaving Epstein with the chance to add as necessary approaching the July 31 trading deadline.

Last season, with virtually the same roster and an assortment of injuries, the Sox went 95-67.
All of that reflects especially well on the player development system built by Epstein and his baseball operations staff, who have infused the Red Sox with youth in the last few seasons. Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, and Jacoby Ellsbury all are products of drafts conducted under Epstein. Daisuke Matsuzaka was a celebrated free-agent signing, but he was just 26 at the time. All of those players had significant roles in the Sox’ victory over the Rockies in the 2007 World Series, after which Epstein made the decision to improve the club from within.
Rather than spending on the free-agent market, the idea was to let the youngest members of the Red Sox grow into their potential.

The absence of a young catcher is an obvious concern, but the 2009 Sox again stand to improve from within. Lester (16-6, 3.21 ERA) and AL MVP Pedroia may be hard pressed to get better, but Ellsbury has significant room for improvement. So do Justin Masterson, Jed Lowrie, and Clay Buchholz. Pitching prospects Michael Bowden and Daniel Bard could be among the newest wave of talent integrated at the major league level, and slugging first baseman Lars Anderson appears bound for the major leagues.

Or Epstein could trade any combination of them.

For now, know this: Epstein values his young players greatly and has yet to deal away a truly prized prospect whom he has drafted. (Hanley Ramirez was acquired during the Dan Duquette administration, and David Murphy was dealt only after the rise of Ellsbury.) Epstein generally has erred on the side of shrewd long-term planning, which is a primary reason the Red Sox are where they are.

Said Epstein in October: “These days, if you’re not getting younger and more dynamic, you’re probably falling behind.”

After all, the Red Sox are not competing solely with the Yankees anymore. They are also competing with the heavily stocked and talented young Tampa Bay team that won the ALCS.

"That's a way the offseason could go. I'd probably be surprised if that's the case. ... We have the ability to be selective in free agency. ...We might do something big."-- Epstein, asked on Oct. 20 if the 2008-09 Red Sox offseason could be as uneventful as the previous one

The Tampa Bay Rays have little choice. They do not have the financial flexibility to chase CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Teixeira, or Manny Ramirez. The Red Sox do. The beauty of being a big-market team like the Red Sox right now is that the Sox can continue to promote young talent while simultaneously signing free agents, eschewing trades that would require the forfeiture of players.

Now let’s say the Red Sox choose to be aggressive. This week, Epstein could knock over first baseman Teixeira with the biggest contract in club history — exceeding the eight-year, $160 million deal awarded to Manny Ramirez in December 2000 — and the Sox would be armed for the short term as well as the long. The Sox then would have the luxury of either re-signing Varitek or trading for a replacement, most likely with the Texas Rangers, to address their catching needs.

Is Teixeira necessary? Yes and no. In the short term, the Sox would be fine without him. In the long, the Sox need a replacement for Manny Ramirez — Jason Bay is currently eligible for free agency at the end of the 2009 season — and, to a lesser extent, 33-year-old David Ortiz. Anderson is just one young, developing player who would need help in Boston even if he reaches his potential.

Beyond that, there have been whispers that the Red Sox are inquiring about shortstops, including free agent Rafael Furcal. Earlier this offseason, they were said to have offered Crisp for San Diego Padres shortstop Khalil Greene. Epstein has expressed interest in Derek Lowe and Burnett, though Epstein’s history suggests he will refrain from paying top dollar for any free agent pitcher in his 30s.

Next week, amid the bright lights of Las Vegas, Epstein will sit down at the negotiating table with agents and fellow executives somewhere beyond the ringing and buzzing of the slot machines and blackjack tables. Most everyone in Vegas will be angling for a score, including the Red Sox, whose general manager seems to have one advantage over all others.

Theo Epstein has the chips.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti

35 comments so far...
  1. "Is Teixeira necessary? Yes and no. In the short term, the Sox would be fine without him. In the long, the Sox need a replacement for Manny Ramirez — Jason Bay is currently eligible for free agency at the end of the 2009 season — and, to a lesser extent, 33-year-old David Ortiz. Anderson is just one young, developing player who would need help in Boston even if he reaches his potential."

    Tony, come on now - Manny is gone (thank you, Jesus), and with Papi and Mike Lowell MORE than question marks, and with just three starters who give you reasonable chance at winning, and you say that this is a playoff-caliber team ???? Whatcha' been drinking ??

    Posted by tekasam December 4, 08 10:57 AM
  1. Mazz, Can you possibly add something to your columns that has not been already written a couple of hundred times????? It,s all the same information and opinions that we all have read before... I understand that there is not much to report but c'mon. ...

    Posted by Pete G December 4, 08 11:10 AM
  1. What recession?

    Posted by Anonymous December 4, 08 12:10 PM
  1. Tony,

    Didn't Jon Lester get drafted in June, 2002? Epstein wasn't named GM until Nov. 2002. Does "drafts conducted under Epstein" imply that although he wasn't GM at that time, he had a hand in drafting Lester? Love your writing, take care.

    Posted by Jeff December 4, 08 12:16 PM
  1. Epstein's concern should be whether to cut the ticket & hot dog prices to a reasonable amount in view of the recession, job lay-offs, and stock market decline.
    If the Rays did so well with a low payroll, and the Yanks went bust with the highest payroll, why can't the Sox who are already well stocked with talent, toe the mark. The corporate greed that is choking our great country has gotten many CEO's, even the automakers, to reduce their salaries in order to scale down this craziness!! No ballplayer is worth the money that is being tossed around!

    Posted by larry December 4, 08 12:21 PM
  1. Crisp was NEVER offered for Khalil Green they were merely mentioned in the same paragragh as both being made available by their respective clubs...

    Posted by Jay December 4, 08 12:21 PM
  1. If the Red Sox go into the season expecting 2007 production out of Lowell and Ortiz, then they are making a huge mistake. Luckily, we have learned Theo and the gang tend to be ahead of the curve on these things. I would be hugely surprised if they did not pick up a little protection on the corner. Even a player like Casey Blake would be a nice stopgap.

    Posted by Steve December 4, 08 12:21 PM
  1. I liked it. Nice article, thanks!

    Posted by Susan December 4, 08 12:28 PM
  1. Come on Pete G: That was a pretty good column by Mazz considering the EMCOM - baseball information lock-down environment we're in right now. You don't want wild speculation do you? I thought it was a pretty solid effort at laying out the State of the Sox Nation heading into the winter talks. Read some hard and happy news on the Bruins and Celts if this bores you. Now, you might find some legitimate issues with whether we're a playoff caliber team if we stand pat as Mazz postulates. We've got critical, hitting deficiencies that need addressing: V-tek, Papi's recovery, Ellsbury and Lowrie - both very average hitters with lots of room for improvement (not to mention Lugo - trade him please.)

    Posted by Davethewave December 4, 08 12:32 PM
  1. They won 95 games last year because they had Manny Ramirez for more than half the season. Jeeeeez. Stop saying that the Sox are the same team they were last year. They're not. Manny was the team.

    Posted by Colin December 4, 08 12:37 PM
  1. What Davethewave said (comment 9.) I agree!

    Posted by Brad in Sarasota December 4, 08 12:58 PM
  1. Great Column! These people are idiots!
    The key here is - have a small market approach to player development combined with big market spending on key free agents!
    We NEED Teixeira! I'm not convinced Papi is Papi anymore, Lowell is a huge question mark who, even if healthy, is a year older and on the decline. We need a big bat in the middle of the order - how do you think we won 2 world series??? In part because we had (in addition to solid pitching, defense) the best 3-4 hitters in baseball!

    Posted by Theosagenius December 4, 08 01:00 PM
  1. I agree, Davethewave. I don't understand the eagerness people reading these columns have the jump down the throats of the columnists. Everything right now is speculation. That's what everyone is doing. What do you expect him to report? His point is that the Red Sox can choose to do nothing, and still be competitive, plus, they have a well developed system and can do just fine with home grown talent. If this is not what you're looking for, scan it and move on. Why take the time to bash him? I notice you didn't offer anything of substance?

    Posted by Randy December 4, 08 01:22 PM
  1. Lets just hope the Mass State Trooper that gave the ticket to the folks having the baby doesnt accompany Theo to Winter Meetings!!!

    Posted by Jeremy December 4, 08 01:23 PM
  1. "...2009 Red Sox would remain a playoff-caliber team and championship threat out of spring training"

    "Last season, with virtually the same roster..."

    Yeah, the same roster. Except Bay in Manny's place. Oh, and Ortiz hasn't been Ortiz since last June. And you don't have your starting center fielder from the post-season.

    Tony, did you even TRY to make sense here?

    Posted by Mbom December 4, 08 01:35 PM
  1. "...the 2009 Red Sox would remain a playoff-caliber team and championship threat out of spring training, leaving Epstein with the chance to add as necessary approaching the July 31 trading deadline."

    I think some people are missing the last part of that statement. If there's a defficiency at mid-season whether it be hitting or pitching Theo has the resources available, and he's shown in the past a willingness to do so, to make a trade. Nobody can predict how every player will perform. Will Ortiz rebound? Will Lowell fully recover from surgery? Will Varitek and Beckett bounce back? Undoubtedly some of these things will happen. But rest assured the Sox have the assets now and they will have them at mid-season '09 to make some moves.

    Having said all that I still hope they still make a run at Texiera and Jake Peavy.

    Good job with the article Mazz!

    Posted by Anonymous December 4, 08 01:48 PM
  1. As currently constituted, the Sox are the odds on favorites in the AL. Period.

    Posted by Hoss December 4, 08 02:04 PM
  1. Good Job, very informative. Now we are going to have a problem in the next few years. Where will Lars Anderson fit in the plans if the Sox do aquire Teixeira.

    Posted by James Bond December 4, 08 02:05 PM
  1. "Now, they just happen to be a Theocracy, too."

    Great line, Tony. I'm annoyed I never thought of it!

    Posted by Brian December 4, 08 02:12 PM
  1. "Let’s say the Red Sox do what amounts to virtually nothing. Let’s say they re-sign Jason Varitek, continue to invest in their minor leaguers, lose out on Mark Teixeira. Assuming they are healthy, the 2009 Red Sox would remain a playoff-caliber team and championship threat out of spring training, leaving Epstein with the chance to add as necessary approaching the July 31 trading deadline."

    That's all things staying equal, if they lose out on free-agents like Teixeira, they sign elsewhere, most likely with the Angels or Yankees, which would not keep all things equal. Ortiz is on the back end of an enigma career! Lowell is a ? but still a great player. Just can't depend on him for the same type of production. As bad as Manny was, thats a big hit for this lineup!
    SP is great but can Lester keep it up and you are assuming that the young talent comes back to form (CB and JM). What if Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy perform like they should, Sox are in a whole. Mazz, your articles have significant holes!

    Posted by Charnwood618 December 4, 08 02:22 PM
  1. "Is Teixeira necessary? Yes and no. In the short term, the Sox would be fine without him.

    Tony, the Sox can be competitive without Teixeria but would likely finish 3rd in the AL East. Yanks will be and Rays are too strong.

    Posted by Anonymous December 4, 08 03:32 PM
  1. Agree with Dave on the 'Pete - shut your pie hole' comment.

    As for being a "playoff caliber" team, I agree with Mazz. That doesn't they're a lock, remember, just that they are of the caliber who could make the playoffs. Just get me there and I'll take my chances with Beckett, Lester, Dice, Masterson, and Paps any day of the week. Papi does need to bounce back nicely at '33' (yeah, right) but I'm giving Theo and Jacoby the benefit of the doubt wrt centerfield and his hitting. It's a good team, folks, and I'm betting we have more good to celebrate by the New Year.

    Posted by Donnie boy from Southie December 4, 08 03:54 PM
  1. Man, so this is what obnoxious Yankee fans used to be like?

    Posted by Jeremy December 4, 08 04:20 PM
  1. Thanks Mazz, great article! I do have one problem with Theo though. He isn't a Bostonian or even a New Englander. He is from NY. Not that he hasn't done a spectacular job as GM, but he will never really understand what it is like to be a lifelong BoSox fan. As much as I hate to say it, there are more important things than winning. I don't think he gets that. He seems to be out for the best players for the least money. He seems to forget that there are people in this franchise that mean more to Red Sox Nation than another set of World Series rings. ie Johnny Pesky, Curt Schilling, Papi, Jason Varitek. I don't see why the fans are the only ones who have to be the Fenway faithful...

    Posted by Manda V December 4, 08 04:24 PM
  1. I say Tex is a must. Big Papi is a big question mark for 09. Nobody can predict if he's lost his pop and is declining. Or if he can bounce back. Overweight players in their mid 30's lose their bat speed quickly. Remember Mo Vaughn, Cecil Fielder, Jim Rice, Scott Rholen.
    We need 2 feared hitters. Jason Bay although a nice player is not feared. Youk is getting there. Lowell is on the back 9. The Sox need Tex.

    Posted by Anonymous December 4, 08 04:35 PM
  1. Theo was born in NY but raised in Brookline and went to Brookline High. So he was a Red Sox fan growing up.

    Posted by anonymous December 4, 08 05:21 PM
  1. I agree Tex is a must....he is a great fit for the Red Sox and he should be offered the record conract

    Posted by LGRS December 4, 08 05:25 PM
  1. Just who IS going to replace Manny?

    And the Sox need a starter to replace Wakefield.

    Posted by granitestater December 4, 08 05:31 PM
  1. To ask is Teixeira necessary is almost a stupid question.It's almost like asking Lou Gorman was signing Carlton Fisk necessary.He{Teixeita} has "all the tools".He would bat 3rd for the next 7 years and allow David Ortiz to bat 3rd for the Yankees.Clogging the bases after a hit has to end,and it's pretty certain that David will never surpass 40 homers again.

    Posted by jerry case December 4, 08 05:50 PM
  1. Manda V says Theo isn't a Bostonian or New Englander as he was born in NY. While that is technically correct it misses the fact that Theo moved to Brookline, MA (not Brooklyn, NY) when he was five years old and attended elementary school and high school here. His parents and his brother are still active members of the Brookline community.

    Posted by Dan R December 4, 08 06:10 PM
  1. Hey Larry,
    We all know the economy is awful right now. We all know that families are strapped for cash and cannot afford to be frivolous right now.
    So, don't buy things you can't afford. If the hot dogs cost too much, don't buy them. Tickets cost too much? Don't go.
    If you pay the ticket prices, and then go to the park and purchase a couple of beers and maybe a hot dog or too, you aren't doing much to give the Red Sox any incentive to lower prices. Nobody is making you go to a Red Sox game. It is a choice. Can't afford it? Too bad. Go watch on TV.

    Posted by Ravi December 4, 08 06:18 PM
  1. Hey Colin, if Manny was the team....why did the Sox have a better winning percentage WITHOUT Manny than with him?

    Sox are still a playoff team without Tex....but a WS team with him.

    Posted by NJSoxfan December 4, 08 07:02 PM
  1. i think the sox are in the best position. a blend of the oaklands money ball, braves young pitching devlopement and high ticket yankee slugging. cheers for theo- this young group of pitchers should break through 2010- so no need for long term pitching. I think arbitration to byrd and wake field coming back make the p staff more abillity to develop- hence masterson- bring them up and over. signing youk, pabs and lester would be more of a priority than tex; lowell will be able to produce long enough until lars could be a replacement at first. catcher- go young and take a few lumps at the begginning of the season. short stop is the ? is fucal the answer or will lowerie be the next epstein prodogy. ortiz vs wrist? drew vs back?there are the real questions. go get them theo.
    .

    Posted by B Wilcox December 4, 08 09:25 PM
  1. "Epstein's concern should be whether to cut the ticket & hot dog prices to a reasonable amount in view of the recession, job lay-offs, and stock market decline."

    Um I guess this person doesn't understand what Theo's job is.

    Posted by CHris December 5, 08 03:58 PM
  1. People are losing their jobs, banks are in trouble and the country is going deeper and deeper into debt. I can't get excited about the Red Sox and their payroll problems. It is a fantasy world of escapism.

    We should get our troops out of all the countries around the world and take care of the problems at home.
    We are resented in every country where we have given foreign aid.
    Let us all commit ourselves to getting our economic house in order and take care of our own citizens. Health care is a tremendous problem for older people, education in this country is sorely lacking and social security is a ticking time bomb.
    Shouldn't we support those in public life to address those problems? The new president should be encouraged to work on changing our national focus.
    Reduce defense spending and do not implement any new social programs.
    CUT SPENDING AND KEEP TAXES AT THEIR PRESENT LEVEL
    Sorry for the rant. I like the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots but they are a distraction and tend to be an escape from reality

    Posted by Joe from Southie December 7, 08 07:00 AM
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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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