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Budgeted For Success
PLAN A for the Red Sox over the winter was simple. "There was one player who we thought was really worth a significant long-term commitment, because he was the right age and had all-around skills and complemented our young core really well," says general manager Theo Epstein. That player was 28-year-old free agent Mark Teixeira, the switch-hitting, Gold Glove first baseman whom the Yankees, two days before Christmas, signed to an eight-year, $180 million contract, the fourth richest in baseball history. "The team that offered the most money landed the player," says Epstein. "That's how it works in free agency 99 percent of the time. We offered a lot of money, but we didn't offer the most."
The Steinbrenner bankroll had once again lured an object of Boston's affection 200 miles southwest, to the Bronx, but Epstein and his staff were already nimbly moving toward Plan B even before Teixeira slipped into his pinstriped number 25 jersey. "We realized that the market was conducive to some low-risk, high-reward-type deals," Epstein says. That value-investing approach led to the rapid-fire signings between Jan. 8 and Jan. 30 of six free agents—all of them to one-year contracts, for a guaranteed total cost of $22 million, which is roughly what the Yankees will have paid by mid-May to their three major additions (Teixeira and starting pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett), with more than $401 million still owed to them.
Among the more intriguing free-agent signees (which include outfielder Rocco Baldelli and two players who reupped with the Red Sox, catcher Jason Varitek and utilityman Mark Kotsay) are former Dodgers pitchers Takashi Saito and Brad Penny. Saito, 39, saved 81 games in three years with L.A., and Penny, 29, finished third in the NL Cy Young vote two years ago, but the 2008 season was ruined for both by injuries (Saito's elbow, Penny's shoulder). That enabled Boston to pluck them for bargain base salaries of $1.5 million (Saito) and $5 million (Penny).
Saito threw 94 mph without pain shortly after he reported to spring training and will be ready to start the season as a setup man, and occasional substitute, for All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon. Penny, after experiencing shoulder weakness in early March, is in line to begin the year as the fifth starter. Even so, the free-agent pickup who could have the greatest impact on the Red Sox' bid to return to the World Series—a seven-game ALCS loss to the Rays last October denied Boston a third trip in five years—won't pitch for them until late May at the earliest.
That would be John Smoltz, the former Cy Young winner with the Braves who hasn't finished a season with an ERA worse than 3.49 since 1994. He's 41 now and had surgery to repair damage to the labrum in his right shoulder last June 10. Smoltz's $5.5 million contract will double if he remains on the active roster each day from June 1 through Oct. 4, and Red Sox insiders are thrilled to see that Smoltz appears dead-set on earning every cent. "He's an amazing athlete," Varitek says of Smoltz's performance in early spring fitness tests. "He's beating 22-year-olds out there."
A healthy Smoltz would afford Boston nearly unprecedented pitching depth, as he and Penny give the club eight quality starters, including young Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholz. Add a bullpen that should be bolstered by Saito and, sooner or later, 22-year-old Junichi Tazawa, who was discovered by Red Sox scouts in the amateur Japanese Industrial League and who pitched brilliantly this spring (one run and six base runners allowed in nine innings, with 10 strikeouts) before being sent to Double A Portland. Then add an offense that ranked second in the AL in runs scored (845) last year and will benefit further from a healthy David Ortiz, and it's hard not to wonder if Plan B should have been Plan A all along. "We were really looking for a chance to buy low on elite talent," says Epstein. "It made more sense for us."
It's a wise strategy in any economic time, and one that will yield the Red Sox their sixth postseason appearance in the last seven years.
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...
Second-year centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury is slated to lead off for the Red Sox, but he may not be suited for that job. After a great call-up in 2007—when he hit .353 in 116 at bats and was a World Series standout—and a strong April last year, Ellsbury was overpowered by AL pitching. His lack of pop prompted pitchers to attack him, and he drew only 27 unintentional walks from May 1 on, putting up a subpar .325 OBP in that time while striking out in 15% of his at bats. Shortstop Jed Lowrie (left) doesn't have Ellsbury's speed or ability to hit for average, but his walk rate (35 in 306 plate appearances last year) is stronger and likely to give him a higher OBP than Ellsbury's. Boston will score more runs with Lowrie, who was scorching the ball this spring (.408 batting average, 12 extra-base hits in his first 49 at bats), atop the lineup.