Commentary

Beltre's price was right for Red Sox

Third baseman comes at a steep discount

Updated: January 5, 2010, 10:40 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

Catch the ball and pitch. The next thing you know, the Boston Red Sox will rediscover the sacrifice bunt, as soon as the number crunchers demonstrate it is no longer an "inefficiency."

Run prevention rules at Fenway Park, which should take some of the pressure off Adrian Beltre, the team's new third baseman. The last time Beltre signed a free-agent deal, in the winter of 2004, he was going to a team, the Seattle Mariners, that had visions of his duplicating the 48 home runs he had smacked for the Dodgers in his previous season.

The Red Sox suffer no such illusions, and didn't pay for them, either. They want Beltre, who some contend trumps even Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria in his mastery of third base, to earn his keep by defending his territory with a Gold Glove élan that went south around here about the same time Mike Lowell's hip did.

Just hope Beltre doesn't mind working at a discount.

After five seasons of nine-figure salaries from the Mariners, Beltre is coming to the Red Sox on short money: a one-year, $9 million deal for 2010, with his choice to stick around in 2011 for even less money, $5 million, or take a $1 million buyout. The guaranteed money totals $10 million, less than the $12.8 million he averaged while in Seattle, and less than he would have gotten had he accepted the Mariners' offer of salary arbitration.

Last month, agent Scott Boras likened Beltre in value to Jason Bay, who signed with the Mets for a package that could be worth $80 million; Beltre did indeed get Jason-like money: Jason Varitek, another Boras client who turned down salary arbitration a year ago with the Sox and wound up working for considerably less.

There's evidence that Beltre has a sense of humor -- or at least can take a joke: On his first trip to the plate this past summer after a weeks-long absence caused by his refusal to wear a protective cup and the extremely private damage that ensued from that miscalculation, Beltre was serenaded by "The Nutcracker Suite." That was the work, we hear, of prankster-in-residence Ken Griffey Jr.

But make no mistake: Signing Beltre is a steal for the Red Sox, and with the number of teams looking for a third baseman -- the Orioles, Angels, Athletics, Giants and Twins, to name a few -- it's startling that no one else was willing to cough up a few more bucks than the Sox did. Shoot, if he hadn't come as cheap as he did, the Sox were prepared to start the 2010 season with Kevin Youkilis at third and Casey Kotchman at first.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Beltre
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireAdrian Beltre is far removed from his offensive heyday, but the Red Sox aren't paying the Gold Glove third baseman for his bat.
Disclaimer: Beltre was not Theo Epstein's Plan A. Neither was David Ortiz when the Sox brought him aboard as a nontendered part-timer in 2003. Beltre's detractors point to what a bust he was in Safeco Field; his supporters say that if you check Beltre's road performance with Seattle (.277/.326/.472/.798), he compares favorably to Lowell on the road while with the Red Sox (.288/.341/.453/.793).

Boras tried to cherry pick and took Beltre's middle three years in Seattle and compared them to Bay's last three seasons, but when looking at apples and apples, Bay (.281/.368/.544/.912) has greatly outperformed Beltre on the road since 2005, which goes a long way toward explaining the disparity in dollars.

But Epstein is nothing if not adaptable, and when he determined that Matt Holliday would be too expensive to sign and Bay was going to take more money from the Mets, the Red Sox general manager decided to take the club in another direction, signing the Angels' No. 1 pitcher, John Lackey, for the money Holliday turned down, and building an impregnable defense around him.

At least that's the plan, although Marco Scutaro became an every-day shortstop for the first time this past season after years as a utility guy; new center fielder Mike Cameron is 37, Beltre had left shoulder surgery as well as the previously referenced severely bruised testicle; and the new catcher, Victor Martinez, is known primarily for his offense.

On paper, that still represents a major defensive upgrade over this past year's revolving door at short and a game but crippled Lowell at third, and Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury should get to more fly balls than Ellsbury and Bay did this past season.

A word about Lowell: His departure can't be pinned on the new guy. As cold and bloodless as the process is, the Red Sox were committed to jettisoning Lowell, believing that even if he is healthier than he was this past season, he can't play third anymore. Lowell is a hugely respected character around here, and the Red Sox would not have won a World Series without him in 2007, but the Sox prefer to pay him to play elsewhere than to keep him around.

The deal with Texas fell through, but ESPN colleague Jerry Crasnick is already reporting that the Sox and Mets have talked about swapping Lowell for Luis Castillo, which can happen only if the Sox have another landing spot for the Mets second baseman.

Can the Sox win with their enhanced appreciation for defense as a necessary complement to their strong pitching staff? Here's the good news: Epstein, by signing Beltre, Cameron and Scutaro, has avoided any chance of repeating the Julio Lugo/Edgar Renteria fiascos.

This is the bridge to which Epstein was referring last month in Indianapolis. He never meant anyone to believe that the Sox would not be aiming to win in 2010. But this plan by design has a short shelf life. Change is a-comin' in a big way with this ballclub in the next few years. Ortiz, Josh Beckett and Martinez are all in the last guaranteed years of their deals (the Sox have an option on Big Papi). The captain, Varitek, is a backup in what is probably his last season. After 2010, J.D. Drew is one year from the end of his deal.

The kids -- Ryan Westmoreland, Jose Iglesias, Casey Kelly, Ryan Kalish, Josh Reddick, Anthony Rizzo, Reymond Fuentes -- are in the pipeline. Joe Mauer could be a free agent next winter. Adrian Gonzalez will be much discussed at the trading deadline. There is thunder on the horizon.

In the meantime, shine up the leather, boys. You're going to need it.

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. Follow him on Twitter or ask a question for his next mailbag.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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