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Examining the remaining options for the Red Sox

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 8, 2010 10:26 AM

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For the purposes of the luxury tax, the Red Sox payroll currently stands at roughly $148 million. In 2011, the tax threshold stands at $178 million. And so as they now seek to fill out their roster, the Red Sox have roughly $20-$30 million to spend depending on just how much they want to stretch their limits.

And so here is the question:

Do the Red Sox have another big move left in them?

Or is Theo Epstein just playing it coy by suggesting "anything is possible"?

Bet on the latter.

With roughly two months before the start of spring training, the Red Sox’ needs are obvious in the wake of the Adrian Gonzalez acquisition earlier this week. Ideally, the Sox need bullpen help and a righthanded hitter who can spend at least some time in the outfield, allowing them the opportunity to mix and match as manager Terry Francona sees fit.

By putting off a Gonzalez extension until after Opening Day, the Red Sox will save about $15 million against the luxury tax in 2011. That could easily allow the Red Sox to stay in the hunt for elite free agents, though doing so would be wildly uncharacteristic for an administration that typically has run away from blockbuster contracts.

Among the possible solutions that still seem to be in play:

Signing Carl Crawford and incorporating a cheaper, righthanded-hitting designated hitter, thereby making David Ortiz a platoon player. Given the potential cost for Crawford – eight years and, say, $18-$20 million per – this seems highly unlikely. The Sox certainly have the money to go this route, but doing so would leave them with four left-handed hitters – Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Crawford and Ortiz - against lefthanded pitching.

Unless, of course, Ortiz is reduced to part-time vs. lefties, against whom Ortiz posted a .599 OPS last season. Such a move would likely require the Sox to go with a less flashy option as their righthanded designated hitter, like Russell Martin or Darnell McDonald, both of whom historically have excelled against lefthanded pitching.

Regardless, Mike Cameron will likely replace J.D. Drew against lefthanded pitching.

Signing Magglio Ordonez (or a comparable, higher-profiled outfielder) who could bounce between the outfield and designated hitter. Take this for what it’s worth, but among players with at least 50 plate appearances against lefties last season, Ordonez finished third in baseball in OPS against lefthanded pitching – behind only Kevin Youkilis and Victor Martinez. Ordonez probably won’t get anything more than a one-year deal (we all know how much the Sox love those) and he could oscillate between the outfield and designated hitter, providing some insurance if Ortiz goes poof.

Indeed, guarding against Ortiz’s demise is something the Sox have to consider here. It’s part of the reason Crawford might still be in play. Epstein had a deal lined up for Ordonez (for Nomar Garciaparra) in 2003 amid the soap opera that was the Alex Rodriguez pursuit, and Ordonez could still handle left field at Fenway or, worst case, be a full-time designated hitter.

Here’s the good news about the Sox’ current plight, in which they are heavy on lefthanded hitters: Gonzalez kills lefties. Crawford hits them well enough. Jacoby Ellsbury’s greatest value to the Sox is that he can hit lefthanders equally as well (or better) than righthanders, which makes him a legitimate, everyday player in the major leagues. That gives him priority against lefties over someone like Ortiz.

Other options to consider here might be players like Reed Johnson or Lastings Milledge, who excel against lefthanded pitching. The obvious flaw is that neither could fill the full-time designated hitter role as well as someone like Ordonez. If the Sox were to go that route, wouldn’t they be better off relying on someone like McDonald again?

Making no substantive positional acquisitions and saving the money for future use. At the moment, if they wanted, the Sox could effectively go with platoons in left field (McDonald and Ryan Kalish) and right (Drew and Cameron). Most of us would hate this option, but it might allow the Sox to instead make a major acquisition in July. Of course, given the resources the Sox possess, the best option would be to acquire someone now and add help later.

For the sake of visualization, here’s what the Sox lineups look like at the moment:

Vs. RHP vs. LHP
Ellsbury, cf Ellsbury, cf
Pedroia, 2b Pedroia, 2b
Gonzalez, 1b Gonzalez, 1b
Youkilis, 3b Youkilis, 3b
Ortiz, dh Ortiz, dh
Drew, rf Cameron, rf
Saltalamacchia, c McDonald, lf
Kalish, lf Varitek, c
Scutaro, ss Scutaro, ss

In this scenario, the Sox have platoons at three positions – left field, right field and catcher. That seems like too many, particularly for a club with great resources.

Fortifying the bullpen. Obviously, this must take place regardless of the aforementioned moves. At the moment, the Sox have a full rotation (Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka). The bullpen spots currently project to be filled by Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Tim Wakefield, Felix Doubront and Scott Atchison. That leaves two spots, ideally to be filled by one righthander and one lefthander.

Given the emphasis the Sox place on draft picks, it seems unlikely that they would sacrifice a first-round draft choice for a Type-A set-up man like Scott Downs, though he would fit nicely in their structure. The far more probable scenario is that the Sox will sign non-compensation free agents – players categorized as Type B (or Type As who were not offered arbitration).

Among that group: Randy Choate, Octavio Dotel, Brian Fuentes, Kevin Gregg, Matt Guerrier, J.P. Howell, Bobby Jenks, Will Ohman, Chad Qualls, Jon Rauch and George Sherrill. There are a wide range of possibilities here and the Sox are likely to explore many of them. Someone who can excel against lefthanded batters would seem a priority as Daniel Bard was the only Sox reliever who consistently dominated lefthanded batters last season.

Again, the Sox have plenty of money to spend. Their payroll last season closed in on $170 million and they increased ticket prices by 2 percent. The luxury tax threshold is at $178 million.

Using that as a ceiling, the Red Sox could have as much as $30 million to spend.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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