Be wary of illusions on this stage

By Tony Massarotti
December 7, 2008
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Each offseason is a lying contest to begin with, and now Major League Baseball is convening in, of all places, Las Vegas. How fitting. From the poker tables to the crowded lobby at the spectacular Bellagio resort and casino this week, noses will be growing at an astronomical rate.

And it is all accepted as part of the game.

In the case of the Red Sox, do not be fooled by owner John Henry's perceived innocence, general manager Theo Epstein's boyish nature, or manager Terry Francona's self-deprecating method. The Sox are sharks and they can manipulate the system as well as anyone.

Last spring and during the season, the Sox went out of their way to note that Brandon Moss had flown under the radar, that he was an overlooked prospect. When the time came, the Sox shipped him and the overhyped Craig Hansen in the deal that brought Jason Bay to Boston and sent Manny Ramírez to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Rest assured that their goal all along was to sacrifice Moss and Hansen so that they might save others.

Tomorrow, the Sox will arrive in Las Vegas with briefcases full of money and a handful of needs, which all clubs frequently try to disguise. Discerning fact from fiction borders on the impossible in baseball at this time of year, and the golden rule remains intact, even in a place like Vegas: Rule out nothing.

That said, here is a look at some of the realities and illusions the Sox bring to the desert:

Fact: The Sox need a catcher. Of course, by tomorrow, the problem could be solved. Should Jason Varitek accept salary arbitration by midnight tonight, he will be committed to returning to the Sox on a one-year contract. The Sox would be content to pay Varitek $10 million (or slightly more) for one year of service, and it is highly unlikely that Varitek would win a significantly higher salary in arbitration.

For Varitek, arbitration could make sense. Should he return to the Sox, he could improve his marketability considerably with a far more characteristic performance in 2009. Varitek could then hit free agency a year from now and be in much better position.

If Varitek accepts arbitration, the Sox have one fewer thing to worry about, though they still might pursue a younger catcher to work as an understudy. (Epstein called this scenario "desirable.") If Varitek rejects, logic would suggest that he has a multiyear offer from another team.

Fiction: The Sox need pitching. Need is a relative term. All things considered, the Yankees are the ones who need pitching. Nonetheless, the Sox have been linked to, among others, A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe, and CC Sabathia, the last of whom had scheduled meetings with both the Yankees and Sox in recent days.

During the regular season, while casually discussing Sabathia, one respected voice in the Boston organization expressed concern for any team that signed Sabathia to a long-term contract because of the pitcher's size, workload, and potential for injury. So are we to believe now the Sox are genuinely interested? Or are they trying to muddy the waters for others? The same is clearly true for Burnett, whose talent the Sox respect but who is an obviously risky investment (given his injury history).

As for Lowe, he has proven extremely durable, but the Sox have long made it clear that they approach free agent pitchers (especially ones in their 30s) with great trepidation. Lowe would love to come back and the Sox would love to have him - at the right price. That probably won't be the right price for Lowe.

Fact: The Sox need a hitter. This, too, is open to debate, but consider: From 2003 through most of the 2008, the one true constant of the lineup was that David Ortiz and Ramírez were paired in the middle. Now, Ramírez is gone and Ortiz's best years appear behind him as he enters the third year of a four-year contract.

Enter Mark Teixeira, who will be a lineup centerpiece for years to come. The question is for whom. As much as people might think the Sox are opposed to excessive contracts, they went to extreme lengths to sign J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Teixeira is perfect for the Sox. By feigning interest in high-end pitchers, maybe the Sox will help minimize the cost for Teixeira by at least partially limiting what other teams can spend on him. (It's a theory, anyway.)

Fact: The Sox need help on the bench. After trading Coco Crisp, they are in the market for a righthanded-hitting outfielder who can complement Drew and, to an extent, Jacoby Ellsbury. Rocco Baldelli looks like a nice fit, but what if the Sox have an injury? Baldelli's mitochondrial disorder suggests he might not be an everyday solution, and means that signing him might require the addition of another player, too.

The point? If the Sox sign Baldelli, in particular, look for them to pursue a versatile player such as Willie Bloomquist or Jerry Hairston, each of whom can play the infield as well as center field. (Bloomquist is especially versatile and a longtime favorite of Francona's.)

Fiction: The Sox need bullpen help. As things stand, the bullpen consists of Jonathan Papelbon, Justin Masterson, Ramon Ramirez, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, and Javier Lopez. That's six men for seven spots. Masterson gives the club flexibility to add a veteran, but any pitching acquisition would seem to be for depth.

Remember, too, that the Sox have more young arms coming in Daniel Bard and Michael Bowden. So they have little reason to overpay for mediocre pitching, allowing them to save their money for a big purchase such as Teixeira.

In Vegas, after all, you usually have to bet big to win big.

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