Epstein moved with ease
When Plan A -- Bay or Holliday -- fell through, Red Sox GM was prepared
BOSTON -- When Theo Epstein talked about needing a "bridge" last week, some people interpreted that to mean the Red Sox would go cheap next season while reloading for the future.
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What those people failed to calculate was the going rate for bridges these days. The Lenny Zakim Bridge spanning the Charles River was built in Boston for $100 million a few years ago.
The cost of the John Lackey-Mike Cameron-Marco Scutaro bridge constructed by Epstein this winter trumped the Lenny by a good $10 million, the total of the contracts awarded to the right-handed pitcher, Gold Glove-toting outfielder and late-blooming shortstop totaling $110.5 million.
There may be a couple of more tweaks, but nothing of the magnitude of the Lackey signing, accomplished with a stealth almost unheard of in this Twitter-saturated universe. Lackey may not have been Plan A -- re-signing Jason Bay or bringing Matt Holliday to Boston originally took priority -- but Lackey was on a parallel path nearly from the beginning of the free-agent season, Epstein and the 31-year-old pitcher said Wednesday, and took on added urgency at the winter meetings.
Thus, when the wooing of Bay went off the tracks last weekend -- and there may yet be more to this story than the fact the Red Sox were unwilling to add a fifth year to their offer -- most of the hard negotiating already had taken place between Epstein and Lackey's agent, Steve Hilliard. The bar for what Lackey would be seeking was established last year by the Yankees' $82.5 million deal for A.J. Burnett, and the Red Sox, understanding that's what it would take, matched it.
"A little bit," Lackey said when asked if he was surprised at the degree of interest the Red Sox showed in him. "They definitely had two big-time starters out there. But in this day and age, you can't have too much pitching. I definitely think their emphasis on pitching and defense this offseason helped move things along."
Cameron, meanwhile, didn't learn until last Sunday night that the Sox had abandoned their pursuit of Bay and were prepared to make an unconditional offer to the 36-year-old center fielder, agent Mike Nicotera said. Cameron signed a two-year deal for $15.5 million.
So, instead of adding a big bat or two, the Red Sox loaded up on pitching and defense while not having to dip into their pool of top prospects, an achievement no less significant in Epstein's eyes. That's why the Red Sox, after reopening talks with the Toronto Blue Jays on Roy Halladay, quickly bowed out once they realized the price would remain as high as it was last July.
"We're in a pretty good spot now," Epstein said Wednesday after a doubleheader of press conferences at Fenway Park, Cameron introduced in late morning and Lackey following a couple of hours later.
"We improved the 2010 Red Sox. We improved our long-term outlook. We've added prospects [as compensation for losing Billy Wagner] and probably will add more [if Bay signs elsewhere]. And we haven't touched our prospect inventory at all.
"In all those areas, this was a pretty good solution."
While Epstein said the Sox will remain "active," the big names have all come off their board. There will be no Bay or Holliday, no Adrian Beltre, although what club officials were saying in private, that Beltre's price was too rich, Epstein would not echo in public.
The closest he came to closing the door on Bay was when he said: "[The media] has done a great job of speculating, putting the pieces together this winter, so I'll let you continue to speculate. I don't want to say that the door is officially closed on one player out there that's a free agent. But Jason, obviously, in a year and a half here, did an outstanding job for us.
"That's a trade we would make again any day of the week. Whichever team does sign him, they're getting a quality person and a quality player."
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The Red Sox decided that while Holliday might sign for a reduced price in St. Louis, they would not be afforded that same opportunity by agent Scott Boras, not with the Yankees hovering on the periphery. And they decided not to wait until Beltre, another Boras client, dropped his price, believed to be $13 million to $15 million per season for five years.
And a club source said any speculation of an Adrian Gonzalez deal was very premature, shooting down one report of a possible Clay Buchholz/Jacoby Ellsbury package as something the Sox would not do, but also something the Padres might not even want. If a Gonzalez trade happens, the source said, it is much more likely to occur at midseason.
If the Red Sox make another move, it may be more along the lines of adding free-agent first baseman Nick Johnson, although Epstein said he would be "very comfortable" opening the season with Casey Kotchman at first base.
"He's a good example of a player who has a chance to go out and build some value by playing," Epstein said of Kotchman, who appeared in just 39 games for the Sox after coming over from Atlanta in the Adam LaRoche deal last summer. "He's outstanding defensively, and a tougher out than the numbers indicate."
The Red Sox lineup, it appears, has a good chance of looking like this come Opening Day:
An offensive juggernaut? Hardly. But with a rotation of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Buchholz, and an upgraded defense, the Red Sox believe they will compete. And if they need another bat, they'll go get one before the July trading deadline.
Cameron is a Gold Glove winner in center field who put up the best defensive numbers at his position in the NL last season, though one scout insisted Wednesday there's been a definite drop-off in his performance. Cameron has played only three games in left field, but the Sox have the option of shifting Ellsbury to left, a subject Epstein said they have yet to broach with him. The GM said the team has a number of attractive options, including finding some at-bats for outfielder Jeremy Hermida, picked up earlier this offseason from Florida.
The Red Sox succeeded not only in keeping their negotiations with Lackey out of the media, they succeeded in disguising their intentions from other clubs as well, a lesson perhaps painfully learned during the failed Mark Teixeira negotiations a year ago. The wooing of Teixeira had begun with such promise, Epstein and manager Terry Francona building momentum with an upbeat meeting with Teixeira in Washington, D.C. But it took a sour turn in Texas, when a planned lovefest between the Sox owners and the first baseman became contentious, the Red Sox balked at Teixeira seeking option years based on easily makeable incentives that would have brought the total package to $200 million, and Teixeira went to the Bronx instead.
This time, the Mets, Angels and Mariners all had serious interest in Lackey, and who knows what the Yankees would have done had they detected Boston's intentions.
Lackey wouldn't say whether he gave the Angels, his former team, a last chance to match Boston's offer, but intimated that did not occur. It didn't help that the Angels appeared to have at least as much interest in trading for Halladay as bringing back the man who won the deciding game of their only World Series title as a rookie in 2002.
"It didn't help, for sure," Lackey said when asked if the Angels' interest in Halladay had factored into his decision. "It's a business. You can't let too much emotion into it. I get it. I've been around enough, but as a person, some of that stuff plays in, for sure.
"But the Red Sox stepped up and made my decision easy."
It wasn't easy, Epstein said, to break from his previous practice of not offering deals of longer than three years to pitchers, especially one who has missed the first six weeks of each of the past two seasons with injuries (triceps tendinitis in 2008, elbow inflammation in 2009). The Sox put Lackey through a rigorous physical examination, Epstein said, and are satisfied that his past problems were relatively minor.
Sometimes, Epstein said, your guiding principles need to bend.
"You make the playoffs in six out of seven years, you're looking a couple of years ahead and you see a really good young team, but you need to find a way to make it work in the meantime," Epstein said. "You operate in the real world with imperfections. You have to make choices."
So you build a bridge, and hope it is sturdy.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.