"Paulie might have moved slow... but it was only because Paulie didn't have to move for anybody."
- Henry Hill, Goodfellas
The Red Sox Hot Stove is stone cold.
We keep hearing about all these teams lining up to pay Ellsbury $20 million a season. But there have been no stories anywhere, not even on Joel Sherman's fake Twitter feed, about teams closing in on a deal for Boston's erstwhile center fielder. Ellsbury will undoubtedly be signed soon, and that will open the door for the rest of baseball's big-money free agents. Once he goes, the down market will be set for his contemporaries in center field, allowing the Red Sox to make a reasonable deal for the likes of Carlos Beltran, or decide that it's time to begin the Jackie Bradley Jr. era all over again. [Unfortunately, Shin-Soo Choo is also represented by Boras, which makes his signing in Boston unlikely.]
This is Ben Cherington's off-season and the rest of us are just living in it. Ben is going slowly because he can. Boston's Baseball Baby Einstein is playing it cooler than Mike Napoli strolling shirtless through the Back Bay with a heater in his mouth on a Saturday night. And Ben's got plenty of reasons to wait out this free-agent market.
He's not just "holding all the cards," he's got a full house, aces high, or, depending on your card analogies, a 1941 Ted Williams Play Ball, Yaz's rookie card and the 1914 Tris Speaker. Cherington will soon get his own shiny 2013 World Series ring, not one of Theo Epstein's hand-me-downs from 2004 or '07. And Cherington's ring belongs to him as much, if not more, than Theo's two rings belonged to him.
Remember, Ben and Jed Hoyer initially made the deal that brought the 2007 World Series to Boston, trading for Josh Beckett [remember him?] and Mike Lowell while Theo was finding his inner-self in the gorilla suit.
It's foolish to think Cherington is feeling much pressure to repeat his wizardry from last off-season. Much of his wizardry hasn't gone anywhere. Cherington's focused on next season because it's next season, and not because the Red Sox are feeling the pressure to market bricks, continue a faux sellout streak or sell coffee-table books.
It's amazing how much team swag you can sell when you actually win a championship.
The Red Sox stumbled into 2013 with minimal expectations [at least among those not in uniform], a new manager and a refreshing mindset from ownership, who finally seemed to accept the fact that most fans who buy tickets or watch the games on NESN are not 10 years old and think like adults.
Let's hope those folks who show up at Fenway Park beardless [real or fake] in 2014 aren't sentenced to 10 years of non-stop "Sweet Caroline" sing-alongs and episodes of "Sox Appeal."
Friday, the Red Sox announced a "variable pricing structure" for 2014 that raises prices for "high demand" games - you know, the ones you want to attend - and lowers them for 16 Tier 5 games, like those against Tampa Bay in late April/early May and again in September, against the Rangers in April, the Blue Jays in early May, the Orioles in early September and the Reds in early May.
In other words, the games no one plans on attending anyway.
Nothing is free, not even an Improbable Dream season.
Overall, tickets to watch the defending World Series champs in 2014 will average 4.8 percent more than 2013, upping the cost for the most expensive outing in baseball. It's the first ticket price increase in three years, and comes after the Red Sox first playoff victory in five years.
Box seat tickets for Opening Day against the Brewers [welcome back to 1980] will be $165.
In related fake news, Twitter announced that #BostonStrong will be changed to #Boston$trong during the Red Sox 16 Tier 1 games.
Don't count on any cheap tiny beers for you or free hot dogs for the kids in April. The Red Sox won't have to convince fans to stop hating them, or to drink away their memories of Bobby Valentine this time.
This offseason, Red Sox fans have a new set of priorities. They're much more anxious about getting home from work in time to hide that UPS package with the David Ortiz World Series jerseys ticketed for under the Christmas tree; than they are fretting over whether or not Stephen Drew, Ellsbury or Jarrod Saltalamacchia will re-sign with the team.
There's minimal panic or concern about losing any or all of the three.
Ellsbury is not worth $20 million a year, whether or not John W. Henry plans on investing the difference in his newspaper's digital sports staff or his Liverpool soccer team. The lesson of Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez was that these ridiculous contracts can potentially damage a franchise for as long as they're on the books. Locking up Ellsbury for seven seasons, which is what Crawford got, keeps him in a Red Sox uniform past his 37th birthday. The oft-injured Ellsbury played only 18 games with the Red Sox during the year he turned 27.
Saltalamacchia found himself on the outs at catcher, losing his job to the venerable David Ross during crunch time against the Cardinals, after Salty and his bat went sour.
Drew's home run in Game 6 of the World Series put the Red Sox up 4-0 and finished off the Cardinals in the process.
We're not just saying that here and now:[Twitter don't lie.]
The Red Sox will never get any more out of Drew than they got on the night of October 30. Like his older brother, J.D., Stephen Drew justified his entire existence in a Red Sox uniform [wearing No. 7, no less] with one post-season swing of the bat. Red Sox fans and those media types who cover the team know exactly what you mean when you bring up "J.D. Drew's $70 million grand slam." The fact that the Red Sox got "Stephen Drew's solo-shot that fired up the Duck Boats" for a mere $9.5 million or so made him a steal.
Drew's fielding is what kept him in Boston's lineup and eventually allowed the team to feel comfortable enough to deal Jose Iglesias. He prevented enough runs in the postseason to justify his anemic average.
Xander Bogaerts was the shortstop of the future when the Red Sox traded Iglesias in the Jake Peavy deal. One misplayed grounder in the World Series is hardly enough to eliminate him in your mind from playing the position for the Red Sox on a regular basis next season or beyond. It's baffling to hear folks question Bogaerts' ability to play short but them seem so confident in his skills at third base, a position he never played with any regularity until last month.
The only name free-agent Red Sox fans or bartenders on Boylston and Newbury Street seem emotionally attached to these days is Napoli, who may or may not have gotten a long-term offer from the Red Sox. He has showed up to watch the Bruins and Celtics at TD Garden since his epic #DrunkNapoli post-victory Rolling Rally roiling rampage.
The real issue here for the Red Sox is Will Middlebrooks, who was the biggest disappointment in Boston's infield last season. Very early in 2013, we tagged John Lackey as the key player to watch for this season. Next year, it will be Middlebrooks, if or when he plays.
In his two major-league seasons, Middlebrooks has played in 169 games, roughly a full season. He's hit a tepid .254 with 168 strikeouts, but he's also hit 32 home runs and driven in 103 runs, striking out 168 times.
That kind of power production from the right side of the plate is coveted in places like Boston.
In comparison, Napoli, the Red Sox right-handed "power-hitter," and shirtless, bearded, fill-in bartender hit 47 home runs and drove in 148 runs over 247 games during the past two seasons.
Average those power stats between the two, and their home runs and RBIs per game ratios are nearly identical. [.190/.599 for Napoli vs. .189/.609 for Middlebrooks.] And Napoli struck out 187 times in 139 games this season.
Middlebrooks' power numbers were masked by his demotion to Pawtucket and his atrocious production [.160 average, 1 RBI] in the post-season.
If Middlebrooks can use this offseason to figure out what worked in 2013 and put that into play in 2014, the entire Drew-Bogaerts saga will be moot.
The bytes, pixels, ink and newsprint being consumed to ponder the fate of Drew, Saltalamacchia or Ellsbury have offered a nice distraction. But there's no buzz or panic over their fates. The most important assets on the Red Sox are named Ortiz, Pedroia, Victorino, Gomes, Lester, Lackey, Buchholz and Uehara. None of them are going anywhere. Peavy's likely to stick around, too, if for no other reason to get Duck Boat maintenance tips from the likes of @MallardStorm.
No doubt all winter and into the spring we'll be hit with the age old question that comes whenever there is snow on the ground in New England:
"What will the Red Sox do with all this pitching next season?"
Usually that question answers itself by the time the snow melts.
If Cherington does nothing this offseason but get a viable catcher to spell 90-100 games for Ross, and keep Napoli in the fold for another year or two, this youthful brainiac who didn't get enough credit this season would have had done his job heading into 2014.
After all, he got most of that work done heading into 2013.
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