Friday, January 16, 2009

No Teixeira? No Problem! Epstein has BoSox Ready to Roll in '09

Through the first half of January, Theo Epstein has demonstrated once again why he belongs in the top tier of baseball’s general managers. Thwarted by the Yankees in his attempt sign free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira, the Red Sox’ wunderkind was left with two choices.

First, Epstein could have tried to sign a high-priced substitute, like slugger Adam Dunn, in the hopes of recouping as much of Teixeira’s production as possible.

Or he could have ignored the high-rent district altogether and instead set his sights on established players coming back from injuries willing to sign short-term, incentive-laden contracts.

Epstein wisely chose the latter option.

For just $10.7 million in total 2009 base salaries, Epstein inked starters Brad Penny and John Smoltz, reliever Takashi Saito, catcher Josh Bard and outfielders Rocco Baldelli and Mark Kotsay. All are proven major leaguers, who have combined for a total of 8,466 at bats, 5,045 innings pitched, and, most importantly, 11 All-Star Game appearances.

Each of the six contracts signed represents pure upside for Boston. Not only do the corresponding base salaries barely add up to half the $20 million Teixeira will earn in 2009, but each also has a tenor of only one year (though Saito and Bard’s deals carry club options) and will therefore provide Boston with vital financial flexibility should any of the new arrivals succumb to injuries or poor performance.

However, should Smoltz & Co. fulfill or even exceed expectations, the incremental cost of all aggregate roster/performance bonuses is $22 million – a mere pittance given the Red Sox’ planned payroll of $140 million. And looking at each player’s ability and past performance, it’s easy to see how this monetary sum represents just a fraction of the potential on-field return for the Red Sox.

Imagine the tremendous boost the team would receive should Smoltz deliver 130 quality innings and Saito was able to flash his trademark 97 mph fastball and tight slider in the late innings of 60 games.

And think of the impact a healthy and effective Penny would have, gobbling up innings at the tail end of manager Terry Francona’s rotation.

And picture Baldelli spelling youngster Jacoby Ellsbury in center field or J.D. Drew in right against lefties, against whom he’s posted a robust .841 OPS in 508 career at bats.

Even if the six newest Red Sox provide just moderate returns in the middle rung of most fans’ expectations scale, they’d still serve three vital purposes.

First, they’d provide sufficient depth to allow Epstein to dangle other players as trade bait. For example, if the vintage Penny reports to camp in February, perhaps Epstein would have enough confidence in the depth of his pitching staff to address the team’s long-term catching situation by trading prospect Michael Bowden in exchange for either Texas’ Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Arizona’s Miguel Montero.

Second, the presence of guys like Kotsay, Smoltz, Penny and Baldelli will prevent Boston from rushing its top prospects. Now Clay Buchholz can have as much time as he needs in Pawtucket to hone his fastball command, while first baseman Lars Anderson and outfielder Josh Reddick will have the luxury of learning to hit lefties in Portland instead of at Fenway in the heat of a pennant race.

Finally, all six players will provide insurance against injuries. What if four-time All-Star Mike Lowell takes longer than anticipated to return from offseason hip surgery? Not a problem. Kevin Youkilis could simply move across the diamond to third base, while Francona could plug Kotsay in at first, where he excelled in the playoffs last year.

True, losing out to the Yankees in the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes was a hard pill for Red Sox Nation to swallow. But Theo Epstein’s decision to sign half a dozen veteran free agents at discount prices could result in a far greater return, including yet another trip to the postseason.

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