Commentary

Boston's moves could pay big dividends

Signings of Smoltz, Penny, Baldelli and Saito fill needs without breaking bank

Originally Published: March 10, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

BRADENTON, Fla. -- One team tried to solve its problems with $423 million worth of free agents. The other team brought in a bunch of guys who spent about 423 million days in the trainer's room.

But as we sit here now, less than a month from Opening Day -- and less than 72 hours away from the first Red Sox-Yankees game of 2009 (Grapefruit League edition) -- we're not sure the American League East looks the way many people think it looks.

[+] EnlargeJohn Smoltz
AP Photo/Steven SenneThe Red Sox hope to have John Smoltz on their active roster around June 1.

Is the team that spent all those Steinbrenner family dollars really the team to beat? For that matter, did the team that spent all those dollars even have the better winter?

"For $423 million, the Yankees obviously got some nice pieces," said one scout. "But in terms of filling needs, I think Boston did just as well, if not better."

We know the names in the Yankees' new stimulus package: CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. They were the biggest, brightest packages on the free-agent shelves, and the Yankees bought out the store.

But the Red Sox's additions were products of a whole different philosophy, not just a whole different checking account. The four free agents they imported -- John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito and Rocco Baldelli -- cost this team 4 million fewer guaranteed dollars ($12.5 million total) than the Yankees will pay Burnett alone this year.

Nevertheless, the upside of those men gives the Red Sox four potential impact players without the price tags, or long-term inflexibility, that come with handing out contracts that run through 2016.

And that, for this team, was the whole idea.

"We were in a little different spot than some other teams," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Now there are no guarantees we're going to win, and I understand that. But we kind of had our team in place [before the offseason even began]. If we would have found a way to beat Tampa in that last game [of the ALCS], everyone would have said we should bring our [same] team back. But we came up a game short, so people were clamoring for change.

"But when you look back at it, we were a little beat up at the end of last year, and we couldn't overcome that. And we couldn't overcome Tampa. But I don't think you blow up your team because of that. … Our whole philosophy is, we want to give ourselves a chance to win every year. And I think we've done that."

So how does their offseason really stack up against the Yankees' shopping spree? Let's take a look:

The Smoltz factor

The Red Sox don't know yet whether Smoltz will make 23 starts or three, whether he'll win 10 games or none, whether he'll be a massive difference-maker or a total nonfactor. But they would rather have taken a $5.5 million gamble on what he can be than sign any free-agent pitcher for seven years (which was what the Yankees gave CC), or even five (the length of Burnett's deal).

"If Smoltz comes back healthy -- and I'd bet on that -- he's their August-September impact guy," said one scout. "To me, he's like that ace you trade for at the deadline."

The Red Sox actually hope Smoltz -- still rehabbing from shoulder labrum surgery in June 2008 -- comes back a lot sooner than August. His incentives are structured around a June 1 return, and that's what everyone has in mind. But to get there, the Sox need to spend their spring forcing a perpetual energizer to take life in slow motion.

"I think if we just use patience and good judgment," Francona said, "we really have a chance to be rewarded."

A Penny saved …

Penny had such a disastrous year in L.A. (6-9, 6.27 ERA), on every level, that the Dodgers actually told him to pack up his stuff and go home in September. But tests showed no structural damage to his shoulder. And he never did have surgery. So when the Red Sox look at him, they see a pitcher who started the All-Star Game just three years ago, and who cost them "only" $5 million.

Penny has already been shut down once this spring with shoulder fatigue. But he's back on track to throw live batting practice before the end of the week. And unless he takes another U-turn, he's still, theoretically, on schedule to be ready the first time the Red Sox need a fifth starter, on April 15.

"We just want to make sure that when we cut him loose, his shoulder strength will tolerate the whole season," Francona said. "We just want him to have a chance to go out there and just turn it loose and be aggressive and not have a whole lot of timeouts."

One scout's view of Penny's potential impact: "I think he's the big sleeper on that staff. If [pitching coach] John Farrell can't get the best out of that guy, it's doubtful anybody can."

A Saito for sore eyes

Saito missed two months last year with a partially torn ligament in his elbow and chose not to have Tommy John surgery. So the Dodgers non-tendered him, and the Red Sox scooped him up for a mere $1.5 million guarantee (plus another $6 million in incentives if he's healthy all year).

But he hasn't missed a throwing session all spring. And we remind you, this is a man who has held opposing hitters to these insane numbers over the past three years: .182 average, .246 on-base percentage, .264 slugging percentage. So he can be far more than just another body in that bullpen.

"If he's healthy," said one scout, "he's a steal."

Classic Rocco

Tampa Bay's unaffordable contract clause (i.e., Baldelli's $6 million option for this year) became the Red Sox's gain this winter. And all it cost them was a half-million bucks (plus up to $7 million in appearance incentives if the 27-year-old Baldelli stays healthy all year and somehow gets to the plate 600 times).

Rocco Baldelli
Rob Tringali/Getty ImagesRocco Baldelli signed a one-year, $500,000 contract with the Red Sox in the offseason.

But given all the uncertainty about the neuromuscular ailment (channelopathy) that limits Baldelli's availability, this team would be ecstatic if he just gave them a star-caliber insurance policy for all those days when J.D. Drew can't make it out there.

"We know that normally, we'd have no chance to get a guy like that," Francona said. "And we know that there will be some times he'll be unavailable. But we also know that when he is available, that's a pretty potent bat to run out there against left-handed pitching."

A scout's view: "This is another one of those low-risk, high-gain type moves. The way they'll use Rocco is perfect for him."

Flexible spending

Do Smoltz and Penny equal Sabathia and Burnett? Depends how you look at it. Over the long haul? Not a chance. Which explains why that Yankees tag team hauled in $243.5 million, while Penny and Smoltz were guaranteed about one-23rd of that ($10.5 million).

But when it comes to pitching, the word that defines the Red Sox is "flexibility." For 50 starts or so this year, if all goes right, Penny and Smoltz could give them just as much impact. Their one-year deals also give this team maneuverability to attack its needs again next winter.

"You start looking at some of the money some of these pitchers are getting [elsewhere] and it makes you nervous," Francona said. "So this seemed like maybe the way to combat that. … Nothing's perfect. And there are no guarantees. But the risk-reward, I think, is pretty good for us."

October sky

We'll say this for the Yankees: No team in baseball upgraded its rotation more than they did. But is that rotation more October-ready than the Red Sox's potential rotation? Not on paper, it isn't. Take a look at their respective postseason numbers:

So let's do the math. Smoltz, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka are 25-7. Add in Jon Lester and Penny, and the five of them are a combined 30-11.

Record of the Yankees' group: 17-15. But Burnett and Joba Chamberlain have never started a postseason game. Sabathia's postseason ERA is a scary 7.92. And Andy Pettitte's last postseason win was four years (and five starts) ago.

"Smoltz is the key, for me," said one scout. "I'd be very confident throwing John Smoltz in Game 1 right now, because I know he'll find a way. His pain tolerance is phenomenal. And you know he's got something to prove."

Digging deeper

It's amazing how often baseball seasons are decided not by the names we talk about in March, but by the pitchers who ride to the rescue in June, July and August when stuff happens to those other names.

And if that happens this year, watch out for the Red Sox -- one of the deepest staffs in baseball.

Their plan is to start the season with a rotation of Beckett, Lester, Dice-K, Tim Wakefield and Penny. But waiting behind them are Smoltz, Clay Buchholz (who looks "stellar" this spring, said one scout), Justin Masterson and Michael Bowden. And one of these days, if they need him in the bullpen, they can tap eye-popping flame-baller Daniel Bard, whom one scout calls "as good an arm as I've seen in the last five years."

"I think the biggest difference from this year to last year is, now we have depth," Lester said. "Last year, we had some depth, but we had guys in the minor leagues who either (A) didn't have big league experience, or (B) had very little experience. So having these guys -- Penny, Smoltz, Saito -- they can help us out in different ways where, in the past, we haven't been able to get over that hump."

The rest of the story

Oh, the Red Sox have their issues. No doubt about that. They're counting on Beckett and, especially, Mike Lowell to be healthy. They need Jacoby Ellsbury to be a force, now that he has the center field job full-time.

They need Julio Lugo or Jed Lowrie to stabilize their shortstop roller coaster. And "if David Ortiz isn't David Ortiz," said one scout, "then all bets are off."

Ortiz came to camp looking slimmer and fitter. But he's still searching for that magic of yesteryear -- and "I just don't like his look [this spring]," said one scout. "There's something missing there."

Nevertheless, unless all of the above goes wrong, the Red Sox are a team where -- unlike many of the teams around them -- all the pieces seem to fit.

"I don't know if they have a weakness," said one scout.

"I love the chemistry of that team," said another.

"When you factor in A-Rod and all his issues," said a third scout, "I think the Red Sox are a good pick to win this thing."

When the Red Sox sat back this winter and watched the Yankees keep ringing that cash register, it wasn't exactly a shock.

"That's what the Yankees do," Lester said. "As a player, you can't talk bad about the Steinbrenners or [Brian] Cashman, because they want to win. They will do whatever it takes to win. And if that means buying every free agent they can, then that's what they have to do. So it's going to be tough to go in there. … They got some great players."

But remember this: The Yankees needed to add those players, because it was clear to the world that the Red Sox and Rays were both better and more talented. We didn't mention the Rays until now, because this was a piece comparing the Red Sox and Yankees. But nobody should forget them once the season starts.

Regardless, though, no team had a more underrated offseason than the Red Sox. And we'll find out over the next seven months exactly how good a winter they had.

"I just like the way they added depth and filled their needs," said one scout, "without spending $423 million."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com