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The blueprint

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 4, 2010 02:26 PM

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papifinn1105.jpgWhile we were hunting and pecking away on the ol' Dell here about our offseason plan/predictions for the Red Sox, wouldn't you know it, phase one was essentially completed when a press release arrived from the club saying it intends to pick up David Ortiz's one-year, $12.5 million option tonight.

Works for me. It's always nice to lead off the hot stove season with some good news. And make no mistake, this is good news, though Papi himself may not see it that way immediately.

It's easy understand where he's coming from when he pines for security beyond next season. He wants to remain here -- and know he will remain here -- and that's great. It'll be a sad day at Fenway when we learn that Papi's time here is over.

But an extension beyond 2011 made little sense to everyone but the player who wanted it.

He's had two straight brutal Aprils, and it was this season that there was talk of releasing him. You simply can't commit long-term to a player who has looked absolutely finished more than once in recent seasons.

His agent should probably inform him at some point of the discounted going-rate for aging, positionless sluggers. Jim Thome made $1.5 million last year from the Twins. Vlad Guerrero had a $5.5 million base salary with the Rangers, with a $9 million option for '11 that the club declined yesterday. Hideki Matsui got $6 million from the Angels.

In that context, it's fair to presume that Theo Epstein, who got burned by the Mike Lowell deal in his only previous foray into sentiment and nostalgia, looks at picking up his lucrative extension as more than generous. And it is. Even if Ortiz doesn't realize it yet.

Now, who's going to inform him he's going to cede most of his at-bats against lefties (against whom he hit two of his 32 homers and slugged .324 -- yes, .324 -- in 200 plate appearances) to a semi-platoon partner? Vladi's available . . .

Before we get to our other five predictions for how the Sox offseason will unfold, we must offer a caveat (or copout, if you're all cynical like that): I'm convinced that Theo has something big in mind that none of us have considered yet (see: Felix Hernandez, trade dealine 2009). I don't know what it might be -- it won't be Prince Fielder and his lumpy body type -- but considering all of the moving parts and all of the possibilities this offseason, there's a real opportunity to be creative. The challenge of this offseason is going to be exhilarating and exasperating all at once, and we can't wait to see how Epstein approaches it.

The Papi deal is the starting point. Here are six other predictions for what Theo will -- and we believe, should -- do.

21B635sqgEGk7E28KGrHqZ21jYEzKEHtV29BMyiulSowQ7E7E_12.jpg1. Show interest in Cliff Lee. . . . and when he inevitably signs with the Yankees for Barry Zito money, deliver an unexpected counter punch by signing his nemesis.

Edgar Renteria, welcome back to Boston!

Anyone? Show of hands? No takers? Moving on then . . .

Hey, I hope the Sox get in on Lee. We all should. It's kind of a no-brainer, isn't it, a large-market team showing interest in a remarkably poised and efficient lefthanded ace with a spectacular postseason history. (No, his value is not diminished by what happened in the World Series. There's no shame in losing to Tim Lincecum.)

Well, it should be. But that isn't always the case. I was annoyed after the 2008 season when the Sox showed no interest in CC Sabathia, if for no other reason than to emphasize they're considering every viable option. Lee's impending free agency is a similar situation. Who knows, maybe he likes Boston.

I realize that the Red Sox aren't likely to get into a bidding war with the Yankees, and they certainly will not win one. The Yankees blew the competition (specifically, the Giants) out of the water with their first Sabathia offer, and then they raised the offer just to make their point: We want you in pinstripes, and money is no object.

The approach worked, which raises the suspicion here that they'll take the same approach with Lee, Sabathia's friend and former Cleveland teammate. The bidding for the 32-year-old lefty will be fascinating, with the Yankees' stacking up their piles of loot next to the crisp new millions the Rangers are receiving from their lucrative cable TV deal. If I had to bet my considerably smaller piles of loot, I'd say it comes down to those two teams and he ultimately ends up in New York, providing the jackals can refrain from pelting his wife with peanut shells and pizza crusts and whatnot for a little bit longer.

But before he says yes to the Yankees or Rangers, the Red Sox need to do their due diligence and make him say yes or no to them. Lee is too good to concede elsewhere without even a cursory inquiry.

* * *

2. Shop Dice-K, but keep him if equal value isn't coming back. Hey, look, it's every Red Sox fan's favorite polarizing enigma! Or least-favorite, I suppose. He's been here four seasons now, and he's as maddening and puzzling as ever. That's not going to change in Year 5. And there probably will be a Year 5. So prepare yourselves.

It's funny, the suggestions that show up in my e-mail regarding Matsuzaka tend to fall into one of two categories.

  • The severe overestimation of his value: Let's trade him and some prospects to the Dodgers for Matt Kemp. Or maybe to the Padres for slugger Adrian Gonzalez. He was great in Japan, you know, and he rules in the WBC, which was once played at Petco!
  • The severe underestimation of his value: Send this bum back to Japan! Another 102 million bucks down the drain! Nice job, Boy Wonder Epstein.

For the record, the latter did not come from Larry Lucchino.

The truth regarding Dice-K mirrors his spot in the rotation: It's somewhere in the middle. Given the hype surrounding his arrival before the 2007, it's fair to look at him as a disappointment. The notion that he's a top of the rotation starter in the American League has proven as mythical as his gyroball. And he was more than frustrating during his lost 2009 season; he was useless.

During the rest of his time with the Red Sox? He's been . . . well, pretty good. Fine. Decent. More than serviceable. Something like that. I realize a career 110 ERA+ is not what we signed up for when we were tracking his flight from Borasville to Boston during the tense negotiations before he signed, but it's what he is.

And you know what? They could do worse. In fact, you probably need no reminder that Josh Beckett did do worse this season. The best hope for the Sox is that Beckett and John Lackey regain their previous form to some degree -- a reasonable request in my sunshine-and-unicorns world -- and Dice-K becomes perhaps the best No. 5 starter in the league.

If that's not convincing enough to accept him for what he is, look at it this way. His most similar pitcher in history through age 29 is one you know well, and one most Sox fans admire.

Tim Wakefield isn't the worst guy to be compared to around here.

* * *

3. Rebuild the bullpen at moderate expense. If you need even further confirmation of the volatility of relief pitching in general, I'm going to assume you were one of the many folks watching the NFL and "Two-and-a-Half Men" instead of the World Series.

Javier Lopez, who was an adequate lefty specialist for the Red Sox for a couple of seasons but who allowed 29 baserunners in 11 innings in 2009 before being exiled to Pawtucket, played a crucial late-inning role for the champion Giants.

Ramon Ramirez, last seen at Fenway endangering patrons of the Monster Seats, had a 0.67 ERA in 25 appearances after getting dealt to San Francisco. before reverting to form a bit in the postseason. You know how it goes. One team's bust is often another team's bargain.

This isn't supposed to be about last year, though. It's about 2011, and what Theo needs to do to repair a bullpen that leaked oil from Ft. Myers through out No. 27 in game No. 162, with only Daniel Bard excelling consistently.

My rudimentary plan, which is so crazy it just might work. Actually, it's not that crazy. And it still might work:

  • Keep Bard in the setup role and give Jonathan Papelbon, who won't draw enough interest on the trade market because of his down year and escalating salary, a chance for redemption in the closer role. Yes, he's slipped. But he was also held to the spectacularly high standard he set pretty much from the day he took over for Keith Foulke.

  • Pursue a power-armed righthander such as Tampa Bay's Joaquin Benoit (a health risk, but one with electric stuff) or Minnesota's Jon Rauch or Jesse Crain.

  • Go hard after Toronto lefty Scott Downs, who's been remarkably consistent for a pitcher in his role. He's a Type A free agent, but should the Sox sign another Type A such as Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth, giving up the required draft pick as compensation wouldn't hurt so much since it would be a second-rounder..

  • Cross your fingers and hope you hit the jackpot on this year's Benoit. Theo's due for a bullpen find like that of his own, another Okajima '07. Or two.

    * * *

    victor.jpg4. Speak well of Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez after they sign elsewhere: I'm on record as wanting both of them back at a fair rate -- maybe a little less than they might get elsewhere, but a little more than the Red Sox want to give in terms of length.

    My biggest frustration with the 2010 Sox was that we never got to see them in full because of the relentless injuries, but given how they battled their way to 89 wins . . . well, I'd be interested to see how they'd do at reasonable health in a seven-game series against the Rangers or Giants. I'm not saying they'd win. But you'd matchup Buchholz against Cain and Lester against Lincecum and take your chances, right?

    But there will be no roster reunion in 2011. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm convinced that they're both goners, with the Sox offering both Type A free agents arbitration and then happily collecting four valuable compensatory draft picks. The one-year Beltre/Sox marriage worked perfectly for both side -- they got a bridge-year bargain, he rebuilt his value -- and now it looks obvious that he's headed back to the West Coast. And Martinez, for all of his defensive flaws and the long history of catchers aging quickly after 30, is just so valuable as a switch-hitting catcher who mauls lefty pitching and can play first base in a pinch. It's no wonder that there are vague but constant references to teams (Detroit, Colorado) that will covet him as a free agent. He should be coveted, and I hope -- but do not expect -- that the Red Sox will make him an offer substantially better than the two-year proposal he shrugged off during the season.

    (While I think of it, one quick aside re: Beltre: Please stop saying he plays well only in contract years. First, it's not true -- he hit 25 or more homers three times in Seattle, then fell apart due to injuries in '09 . . . in a contract year. Besides, the implication is that he plays hard only when money is at stake is patently false, as anyone who watched him gamely limp through a lost September with a hamstring injury should be aware. The guy is what a Dirt Dog is supposed to be.)

    So if Beltre and Martinez do leave, what does that leave behind? The mildly educated guess here is this: A stopgap such as Derrek Lee or Lyle Overbay at first base, or Jed Lowrie (who has a supremely encouraging season; I love Bill Simmons's Ben Zobrist comp for him) at third, depending upon which corner Kevin Youkilis occupies. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who to be frank has shown no indication he belongs in a big league lineup on a semi-daily basis, and someone such as John Buck behind the plate. (Could one of Theo's surprising moves be a deal for Sox killer Kurt Suzuki from Oakland? He's a player they've always liked dating back to the 2004 draft, when he went two picks after the Sox took Dustin Pedroia.)

    And in the meantime -- and I am as convinced of this as I have ever been -- they will continue to hoard pieces for a blockbuster deal for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, either this winter or, more likely, during the season if the Padres are exposed early as pretenders.

    There's plenty of redundancy among their prospects -- Rizzo/Anderson, Kalish/Reddick, Ranaudo/Kelly -- to pull together an enticing package for Jed Hoyer without gutting the farm system. You know I'm not usually one to predict trades. But I am confidently predicting this. Adrian Gonzalez will be a member of the Boston Red Sox within the next year.

    * * *

    ellsburyfinn.jpg5. Keep Jacoby Ellsbury. Judging by John Henry's fence-mending comments to the Herald's Michael Silverman last week, the Red Sox recognize that their relationship with their range-challenged, weak-armed supremely talented left fielder center fielder is as delicate as his rib cage. (Sorry.)

    That's a good thing, a smart and appropriate approach. It's clear that there was a disconnect between the player and the team doctors in diagnosing and treating his injury, and in hindsight, Ellsbury was justified in his concern. While Ellsbury may still face questions about his priorities, the Red Sox are wise to make it apparent to him that they want bygones to be bygones. He's a .291 hitter entering his age 27 season, his skill-set is unlike any we can remember another Red Sox player possessing (save for Bob Montgomery, obviously), and it would be absolutely foolish (not to mention out of character) for the Red Sox to deal a talented player when his value is at its lowest.

    And in case you were thinking of making him the centerpiece of a Gonzalez deal with the Padres, forget it. He's arbitration-eligible and is represented by Scott Boras. That's not a building-block. That's a guy who is going to keep getting more expensive before he flees.

    * * *

    dougie.jpg6. Pursue Jayson Werth and/or Carl Crawford. Well, duh. We saved the most obvious for the last. The real question is not whether they'll go over the two most coveted free-agent hitters this offseason, but which one Theo truly prefers. Peter Gammons generated buzz a few weeks back when he tweeted that they will go hard after Crawford, and that makes sense even if he's a bit redundant skill-wise with Ellsbury. He won't be 29 until August, he's coming off the best season of his career (19 homers, 62 extra-base hits, 134 OPS+), and even if he doesn't continue to improve, he's still a damn good ballplayer who'd fit with any team. He gets my imaginary vote.

    Werth, however, might fit better with this team for the immediate future. The Sox could use a boost of power in the outfield, not to mention a middle-of-the-order hitter if either Beltre or Martinez leave, let alone both. While he's 31, he's continued to improve after so many fits and starts at the injury-plagued beginning of his career, which he began as a catcher. He's improved his slugging percentage and OPS+ every year since 2007 and his OPS each of the past two years. There's no doubt he'd be a terrific fit in the fifth slot in the Sox lineup, but the question with him is similar to what it is with Beltre. He's going to be looking for a jackpot -- this is Werth's first major payday -- and he has Boras repping him, with indications that he'll also be looking for a five-year deal. That might be too long a commitment for Theo's liking for a player on the wrong side of 30.

    Here's hoping that doesn't end up being the theme of the hot-stove season for the Sox.

  • About Touching All The Bases

    Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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