Commentary

Real game to come for Red Sox-Yankees

Offseason will bring competition as rivals fight for best free agents

Updated: September 24, 2010, 9:35 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

NEW YORK -- It is already settled on the field. The New York Yankees are going to the playoffs. The Boston Red Sox are not.

When the teams meet this weekend in the Bronx, the Yankees have a great shot at clinching a playoff spot. Their magic number is three. Any combination of Yankee wins and Sox losses totaling three, and the Yanks are in.

But anyone with a sense of history knows the competition is just beginning between these two rivals. The offseason, when both clubs are looking to reload -- often at the expense of the other -- is when some of the fiercest battles are fought.

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino didn't birth the phrase "Evil Empire" to refer to the Yankees after a bitter loss on the diamond. Those words were spawned when the Yankees successfully lured Jose Contreras into pinstripes after the Red Sox went to extraordinary lengths to sign him, including buying up all the rooms in the boutique hotel in which Contreras was staying in an attempt to freeze out the Yankees. That was in 2002.

Red Sox owner John W. Henry has seldom been as agitated as he was after the Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez on Valentine's Day 2004, less than two months after Boston's attempts to acquire A-Rod fell apart, the union blaming a churlish Lucchino while the frustrated Sox wearied of trading partner Tom Hicks.

"We have a spending limit,'' Henry said at the time, "and the Yankees apparently don't.''

Contreras. A-Rod. Mark Teixeira. Mike Mussina. Bernie Williams. Carl Pavano. Johnny Damon. Curt Schilling (who, according to a Sox source, was making clandestine phone calls to Brian Cashman even as he was negotiating a Thanksgiving deal with the Sox). The list is a long one. These have become the annual winter games, these competitions for the most coveted boys of summer.

And this offseason promises to be no different. The biggest prizes on the free-agent market are outfielder Carl Crawford, pitcher Cliff Lee, third baseman Adrian Beltre and outfielder Jayson Werth. There also are expectations that the best pitcher in Japan, Yu Darvish, will be posted this winter.

With the Yankees looking at the possible retirement of Andy Pettitte and to likely part ways with Javier Vazquez, left-hander Lee is expected to be their No. 1 target. The Red Sox, who spent $150.5 million to sign John Lackey and extend Josh Beckett and figure to offer Clay Buchholz a long-term deal a la Jon Lester, don't figure to be participants in the Lee sweepstakes -- although it might be tempting to do so, just to drive up the price for their rivals.

The Yankees have been scouting Darvish aggressively this summer, according to a big league scout. The Sox less so, although given how active Boston has been in the Asian market, it's not difficult to believe the Sox might be conducting a stealth campaign there, just as they did with Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The Yankees have to pay A-Rod for another seven seasons, so the Sox shouldn't have to worry about a late strike out of the Bronx, like the one that cost them Teixeira on the day they thought they had a deal for the switch-hitting first baseman.

The greatest amount of intrigue is centered on the outfielders, Crawford and Werth. The Boston outfield was a disaster this season, mostly because of injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron. Cameron will be 38 on Opening Day 2011 and coming off a major surgery. Ryan Kalish has showed promise, but not only has he played just 45 games in the big leagues entering this weekend's series, he has only 37 games of Triple-A experience and, at 22, probably could use more seasoning.

Neither free-agent outfielder will come cheap. Crawford, in particular, because he is just 29, has some expensive comps to exhibit on his behalf -- such as Alfonso Soriano ($136 million), Vernon Wells ($126 million) and Matt Holliday ($120 million). Hard to see Crawford going for any less or for fewer than the seven years these players got (Soriano got eight).

Many people in baseball, including David Ortiz (who voiced his opinion to Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports), expect Crawford to wind up with the Yankees. That was widely considered a given back in the spring, but complicating matters a bit is the breakout season Brett Gardner has enjoyed for the Yankees this season (.384 OBP/.379 SLG/.763 OPS). With the Yankees needing to do a new deal for Derek Jeter and certain to spend what it takes to get Lee, would they consider it essential to sign another outfielder? Crawford is a superior player to Gardner, no one disputes that, but $100 million more valuable? That's for Hal Steinbrenner to decide.

Ortiz also mentioned the Angels as a likely landing spot for Crawford. Los Angeles almost certainly will make a big play for Crawford and could be in on Beltre as well.

But imagine the potency of this Red Sox lineup:

Ellsbury, CF
Pedroia, 2B
Crawford, LF
Youkilis, 1B
Beltre, 3B
Ortiz, DH
JD Drew, RF
Player X, C
Scutaro, SS

But the Red Sox pursuit of Crawford figures to be an either-or proposition depending on what they do with Beltre and, for that matter, free-agent-to-be Victor Martinez.

Werth also is an extremely attractive candidate, his ability to play in a tough market proven by how he has flourished in Philadelphia. His line this season (.386/.524/.910) is better than Crawford's, but he'll be 32 in May, so it would figure he could be had at a better price. The Sox were willing last year to offer a four-year, $60 million deal to Jason Bay, who was the same age as Werth, and Werth doesn't have the knee and shoulder issues the Sox claimed scared them off Bay.

Werth also would represent a major upgrade in the outfield, and if the Sox signed either Werth or Crawford, they still could pencil in one of their kids (Kalish, Josh Reddick) when Drew's contract ends after the 2011 season.

The Red Sox will have some big bucks coming off the books this winter. Mike Lowell's $12.5 million contract, for sure. Some portion of the $23 million-plus they are paying Martinez, Jason Varitek and Ortiz also could come off.

The Yankees don't have to worry about such things. They can buy what they want.

Let the games begin.

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.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

EDITORS' PICKS