INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Ben Cherington left baseball’s general managers meetings on Friday in a unique position when compared with his counterparts on other teams.
The August trade that sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers trimmed just less than $57 million that was committed to the team’s payroll for next season. That money has yet to be spent, leaving the Red Sox in an enviable position of being able to afford the best free agents at every position they need to fill.
“The trade was a good move for the Red Sox, unfortunately for us,’’ Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “I’ve been saying that for a few months now.’’
The Red Sox have less than $60 million committed to players next season. With 11 players eligible for arbitration, that number will expand to approximately $85 million.
That is still $90 million less than the payroll the Red Sox had at the start of the 2012 season. That’s enough to sign Zack Greinke for the rotation and Josh Hamilton to play left field, and still have money for a first baseman and right fielder.
Cherington could seemingly turn his last-place team into a contender overnight.
But long-term, expensive contracts contributed to the decline of the Red Sox and led to the trade with the Dodgers. The Sox can’t venture down that same road three months later.
“I think we can be aggressive in trying to put a good team on the field in 2013 while still being disciplined,’’ Cherington said. “It’s up to us to strike that balance. We’ll see how we can do that this offseason.’’
The Red Sox spent time this week connecting with agents for several high-profile players, Hamilton among them. But their aim is to show some restraint after the wild-eyed mistakes of the past.
The Red Sox aren’t afraid to spend money. It’s those long-term commitments that are concerning.
“Wary of length, certainly,’’ Cherington said. “I guess any GM would say this, but you’d always rather have a short-term deal than longer. But there are always cases when it makes sense to go longer for the right player, the right fit, the right fit on our team and in our city. Can’t be too close-minded.
“But we have to exercise a measure of discipline, certainly.’’
Big contracts have produced mixed results for the Sox.
Manny Ramirez’s $160 million deal in 2000 helped produce two World Series championships. Although his tenure in Boston ended in discord and a trade to the Dodgers, Ramirez had a .999 OPS over eight seasons in Boston.
The Sox also got a strong return on the $90 million they invested in Pedro Martinez before the 1998 season. He was an incredible 80 games over .500 in seven seasons with a 2.52 earned run average and two Cy Young Awards.
Dan Duquette was the general manager who signed Ramirez and Martinez. In both cases, his judgment was sound.
But large contracts proved troublesome for Theo Epstein during his time as GM.
Oft-injured outfielder J.D. Drew was better than many in Boston gave him credit for, but ultimately not worth the $70 million he was paid. The Red Sox also overpaid for righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose services cost $103 million, counting the posting fee paid to his team in Japan.
After two strong seasons, Matsuzaka was a burden for four.
The $82.5 million given to Fenway Park-phobic righthander John Lackey was a mistake, as was the $68 million extension awarded to Beckett. He fell from staff ace to one of the worst starters in the American League.
Crawford’s $142 million contract was a bust from literally the first week he played for the Sox. Gonzalez landed a $154 million extension last April and played well despite chafing at the expectations that came with his new contract.
The Sox would have preferred not to trade Gonzalez, but he was the player the Dodgers had to have in return for taking Beckett and Crawford and their bad contracts.
The trick now for the Sox is rebuilding their roster without setting traps that will snap shut a few years later. The solution could be convincing a few free agents to accept shorter-term deals at a large average annual salary.
That approach also would allow the Red Sox to take advantage of the minor league talent they believe is a year or two away from being ready.
Greinke and Hamilton are likely to find long-term security elsewhere. But the Sox could convince righthander Hiroki Kuroda of the virtues of a short-term deal. The same could be true for first baseman Mike Napoli and right fielder Torii Hunter.
“Our job is to look for as many alternatives as possible in free agency or trades to address the needs we have so we can find fits that make our team better quickly but that don’t get in the way of the long term and fitting with our goal of staying disciplined,’’ Cherington said.
Discipline, there’s that word again. It is a quality the Red Sox lacked in recent years as they turned more into less. The coming weeks will be a test of their second chance at getting it right.
. . .
Rick Schu is a candidate to become the new hitting coach and will interview with Cherington Saturday, according to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.
Schu, 50, was the hitting coach of the Diamondbacks, then become a minor league instructor with the Nationals. He played nine years in the majors with five teams.