Commentary

Red Sox take 'buy low' route

Updated: January 15, 2009, 4:23 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

There's a perception in baseball circles that the Red Sox and Yankees spend every winter beating each other over the head with their gate receipts and ad revenues, but it's not borne out by recent history.

Between retaining Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada last winter and signing Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett this year, the Yankees have spent more than $800 million on free agents since November 2007. The Red Sox, in contrast, sported the fourth-highest payroll in the game in 2008, at $133 million, but they've been Hot Stove wallflowers for the most part.

[+] EnlargeJohn Smoltz
AP Photo/Charles KrupaJohn Smoltz had a 2.57 ERA in 2008, but he didn't pitch after June 2.
Last winter, Mike Lowell, Curt Schilling and Sean Casey were the franchise's headline investments. This year, Boston's free-agent haul consists of Josh Bard, Junichi Tazawa and the Dr. James Andrews All-Stars on background vocals.

It's been a strange offseason in general. Who could have predicted that Willie Bloomquist would have already landed in Kansas City on a two-year deal while fellow Scott Boras client Manny Ramirez is home lifting weights and watching cartoons to take his mind off his plight?

Still, few stories are more intriguing than the "buy low" strategy on display in Boston, where the Red Sox are acting like slumdog millionaires with their roster revisions. Over a six-day span this past week, the Red Sox:

    • Signed outfielder Rocco Baldelli to a one-year contract for a guaranteed $500,000. Baldelli, once a franchise cornerstone in Tampa Bay, took a step back last season when he was diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy, a disorder that causes chronic muscle fatigue. His illness was recently re-diagnosed as channelopathy, a protein irregularity that the Red Sox think might be more treatable through medication.

    • Added starter Brad Penny to the fold on a one-year, $5 million deal. Penny, following two straight All-Star appearances and back-to-back 16-win seasons in Los Angeles, went 6-9 with a 6.27 ERA in 2008 while missing almost two months with shoulder tendinitis and bursitis.

    • Signed Takashi Saito, the erstwhile Dodgers closer, to a one-year, guaranteed $1.5 million contract with a club option for 2010. Saito, who turns 39 next month, missed two months in 2008 with a sprained ligament in his right elbow.

    • Agreed to terms on a guaranteed $5.5 million contract with longtime Braves mainstay John Smoltz. That's 41-year-old John Smoltz, who's seven months removed from shoulder surgery.

It's common practice in baseball for cost-conscious teams to take flyers on injury risks rather than overpay for mediocrity. The Indians will have to make room for Carl Pavano in the Progressive Field whirlpool this spring, while Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz try to resurrect their careers in Houston. And for those who might be wondering, Jason Jennings and Mark Mulder are both still available.

The Red Sox have taken this tack before as well. Wade Miller went 4-4 in 16 starts in 2005, and Bartolo Colon pitched 39 innings and decimated a few food spreads before hurting his back on a swing and miss during a game in Philadelphia last June.

But four injury rehab guys in a week? Why the sudden obsession with fixer-uppers in Boston?

The strategy begins with a cautious fiscal mindset. The Red Sox are concerned that the current economic mess will linger and spill over into baseball in general, so they were wary of assuming too many big long-term obligations.

Second, this was not a team crying out for major upgrades. While the American League Championship Series loss to Tampa Bay still stings, the Red Sox ranked second in the big leagues to the Cubs with a plus-151 run differential last season. They led the majors with a .358 on-base percentage, ranked fourth in the American League with a 4.01 team ERA, and were fifth in baseball in team defensive efficiency. This is not a club with lots of gaping holes.

It's not as if the Red Sox went into the offseason thinking small. They regarded Teixeira as a special case and offered him $170 million over eight years. But when Teixeira chose the Yankees, the Red Sox decided to go in a different direction rather than just throw $100 million at Derek Lowe and Adam Dunn.

"It's something we're comfortable with given the state of the rest of our roster," said Boston general manager Theo Epstein. "We're not expecting all of these guys to be 100 percent healthy, but we feel if we get contributions from some of them, there's a real potential for impact and a chance for us to be a much improved club."

The approach has elicited generally positive reviews from competing executives, who think the Red Sox should be satisfied if one of the four recent signees hits it big, and elated if two or three contribute.

"I think it's a smart play for them," said an American League assistant GM. "If they did nothing this offseason, they'd still have a very good team."

Saito and Baldelli look like the biggest risks. Even before Saito's elbow injury forced him to shut it down, the Dodgers thought he looked more tentative on the mound and prone to pitch away from contact. If Saito were, say, 28 instead of 38, he might have opted for Tommy John surgery and shut it down altogether in 2009.

Several clubs shied away from Baldelli because they feared he might be a two- or three-game per week guy at best. But the Red Sox, who signed Mark Kotsay as their fourth outfielder to back up Jason Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew, were willing to take a chance on him.

If we're playing baseball in October, they're going to be happy. If you set out to try to please your fans in November, December and January, you're going to end up wondering what went wrong.

-- Red Sox GM Theo Epstein
Red Sox officials are privately more encouraged about their two starting acquisitions. Smoltz wowed emissaries from Boston with a recent bullpen session in Atlanta, and the Red Sox were blown away over how good Smoltz looked when Dr. Thomas Gill gave him his physical exam Monday. One member of the Boston organization describes Smoltz as a physical "freak."

Smoltz also brings residual benefits with his ability to tutor the young power pitchers on the Boston staff. Think he won't make an impression on Clay Buchholz and Boston's other prospects in training camp?

"This guy is all about winning and competitiveness and being a good teammate," Epstein said. "Those things will really mesh well with our clubhouse."

Penny could probably stand an image makeover. His problems with Los Angeles were muscular rather than structural, which prompted some Dodgers people to wonder whether he could have pitched during the pennant drive. Penny has never been a conditioning freak, and at times he seems more wrapped up in owning race horses and dating actresses than consumed by a passion for baseball. But he's only 30 years old, and no one ever accused him of lacking stuff.

"Red Sox Nation by itself is a motivator, and when you look at where he is in his career, he should be extremely motivated," said a National League executive. "They should be getting him at a time in his career where he's not going to flake out for a month."

The biggest item left on Boston's agenda is finding a catcher to share time with Bard. While the Red Sox have talked to Texas about its catching surplus and to Arizona about Miguel Montero, one source familiar with the situation said the Montero discussions are "not as lively as the Internet would make it seem."

Which brings us to Jason Varitek. The Red Sox were stunned when they offered Varitek salary arbitration in December only to have him walk away from a certain $10 million-plus. Now Varitek is in a bind. He's lost the sympathy quotient. And since teams aren't climbing over themselves to sign 36-year-old catchers who hit .220 and will require draft pick compensation, the Red Sox have enough leverage to offer him $2 million to $3 million and tell him to take it or look elsewhere.

Years ago, Red Sox fans might have revolted if the team cut its ties to a franchise fixture such as Varitek, or got outspent this drastically by the Yankees. But two World Series championships in five years have given Epstein and his front office team the latitude to run the show as they see fit. The Red Sox treasure their draft picks and try to refrain from blocking prospects if at all possible.

"We've said for years that as much as we appreciate our fans and we wouldn't be the same organization without their passion, we try to ignore them in the offseason," Epstein said. "If we're playing baseball in October, they're going to be happy. If you set out to try to please your fans in November, December and January, you're going to end up wondering what went wrong."

For what it's worth, the denizens of the Boston Dirt Dogs Web site are equally obsessed with the progress of prospects Lars Anderson, Michael Bowden and Josh Reddick, so the Red Sox aren't exactly bucking public opinion by hanging onto their Baseball America darlings.

Lots of questions have to be answered for Boston to make the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. Can David Ortiz and Lowell bounce back from injuries? Can pitching coach John Farrell and rehab coordinator Mike Reinold bring out the best in the new pitchers? And can the Red Sox outlast the Yankees and Rays, both of whom look like 95-win teams?

Feel free to check back in June, when the quantity and quality of names on Boston's disabled list will tell you all you need to know.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer