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Sox aren't lacking

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 15, 2009 01:29 AM

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Boy, that escalated quickly, didn't it?

The Red Sox spent in the vicinity of $100 million dollars today for two players, longtime Angels frontline starter John Lackey and likable veteran outfielder /defensive whiz Mike Cameron. Both transactions happened hours ago, and we're still trying to digest the implications and options.

Bay's gone. Lackey's here. Cameron's here. Beltre's still out there. And so many other personnel possibilities remain. Yo, anyone have a scorecard?

But this much we do know to be true: Landing both players -- neither of whom was thought to be atop the Sox' wish list by most if not all of the hot-stove pundits -- completed one heck of a misdirection play by Theo Epstein. In this real-time information age of MLBTradeRumors and Twitter and The Buzz and the life-altering MLB Network, which delights in interrupting its regularly scheduled programming to feed a fan all the news and rumors one could wish for, the Red Sox general manager managed to keep his true intentions on the down low until Lackey was within city limits and being poked and prodded by some doctor. The deal was a formality before most of us even knew it was a possibility.

You fooled 'em, Chief. It was a masterful job by Epstein on a fascinating day to be a Sox fan. And with those two swoops . . . well, so much for the sports-radio caterwauling about Epstein's infamous "bridge year" reference being code for "rebuilding year." So much for wondering if the best the hot-stove season would bring us is another scarred collection of Smoltz/Penny reclamation projects. So much for the mewing that the Yankees already won the offseason before Santa even loaded up his sleigh.

And so much, too, for Jason Bay's pleasant year-and-a-half run as a Red Sox. When his agent, Joe Urbon, slapped his cards on the table Saturday and said his client was ready to "move on," little did he know that Epstein was prepared to call his bluff and bloodlessly move on himself with such cold and precise execution. We didn't know what he wanted to do; turns out he sure as hell did, and you can't help but wonder how Bay feels about his agent's negotiating tactic today. Here's hoping he doesn't do anything drastic. Someone needs to tell him that it's not a coincidence that "Met" rhymes with "regret."

Bay, a very productive but flawed power hitter, was an easy player to admire even if you suspected he would not age well. It's fascinating that the Sox turned to the 37-year-old Cameron, a three-time Gold Glove winner who had the third-highest UZR rating among MLB center fielders last season and finished seventh in the Fielding Bible Awards at the position. Bay's so-called replacement -- at the least Cameron will platoon with Jeremy Hermida in left while spelling Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew in center and right -- is the strongest suggestion yet that the Red Sox have made a philosophical change to emphasize pitching and defense, perhaps figuring they're not going to slug with the Yankees but that they can beat them with a well-constructed run-prevention model. Maybe you don't want to see Bay go -- the Sox were a quality hitter short last year with him -- but it is not as if the new equation lacks logic.

Ultimately, on a day when you lose Bay and add Lackey/Cameron, it's a win -- mostly because of the pitcher, of course. As we've written in this cobwebbed corner of Boston.com many times before, Lackey's most similar pitcher in the history of the game according to baseball-reference.com is Josh Beckett. And the similarity -- which, frankly, is uncanny -- isn't solely statistical. Like Beckett, he is brash, confident, and furiously competitive, and like Beckett, he had early success in the biggest moments, winning the seventh game of the 2002 World Series as a rookie. He's a classic case of a guy you wanted to slug as an opponent but wins you over quickly when he's working for your team's cause.

I don't know about you, but I gained tremendous respect for Lackey late in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees this October. You remember the moment, especially if you have mad lip-reading skills. Mike Scoscia came out to remove him from the game, only to be greeted with a snarl, a scowl, and the words, "This is mine! Are you [kidding, but he didn't really say kidding] me? This is mine!" Scioscia yanked him anyway, bringing the inexplicably effective Darren Oliver. But his determination left an impression. That was the first time I recall thinking I'd enjoy having this guy on my favorite team.

Much was made today about the splotches on Lackey's career record at Fenway (2-5, 5.75 ERA in nine starts), but that's outdated news. After the Sox treated him like a one-man John Wasdin Tribute Band early in his career, he's found his groove against the Sox in recent season. He nearly no-hit the Sox in 2008 -- you may remember Manny Ramirez drawing the wrath of the keepers of the game for Mossing it on a grounder late in that one -- and in Game 1 of the AL Division Series last year, he played the first notes of the Angels' redemption song with 7 1/3 shutout innings.

Our first reaction as the news that Lackey was coming to Boston was not what you'd expect. We weren't immediately giddy that the Sox added a third proven ace-caliber starter to the rotation, and we only facetiously wondered if he was part of the left field solution (hey, according the "2002 Baseball America Prospects Handbook," Lackey, then the Angels' No. 3 prospect behind someone named Casey Kotchman and Bobby Jenks, "has the look and build of a slugger, which is what he was in junior college, when he hit .440 with a 16 homers as a sophomore").

Instead, we were surprised that he'd agree to come here., even with the knowledge that $85 million can change a man's perception in a hurry. Lackey, a Texan who spent all eight years of his career with the Angels, has never particularly seemed fond of the Red Sox, Fenway, the city, New England, and . . . well, you get the drift. That was especially evident in the aftermath of Boston's victory over the Angels in the 2008 ALDS.

You might remember Lackey's pointed comments after the Red Sox' series-clinching Game 4 win. Here they are, courtesy of the LA Times via all my rowdy friends at Surviving Grady:

"We lost to a team that's not better than us," growled Lackey, who gave up two runs and seven hits in seven innings. "We are a better team than they are. The last two days, we shouldn't have given up anything . . .

"[Sunday] night they scored three runs on a pop fly that was called a hit, which was a joke," Lackey said, referring to Ellsbury's pop that fell between center fielder Torii Hunter and second baseman Howie Kendrick in Game 3."[Monday] night hey scored on a broken-bat ground ball and a fly ball that anywhere else in America is an out, and he's fist-pumping on second base like he did something great."Asked to describe his feelings, Lackey said, "Like I want to throw somebody through a wall."

No wonder Pedroia and Ellsbury didn't want him as a roommate.

Maybe this is a bigger idea for another day, but it must be noted that the Red Sox currently have tremendous lineup and roster flexibility. They can still pursue Adrian "Brooks Robinson" Beltre to play third base and go all the way with the run-prevention model. They could move Kevin Youkilis to third and bounce Victor Martinez between catcher and first base while finding playing time for Casey Kotchman and Jason Varitek. (More for the former, obviously.) And don't tell me that with Lackey and Cameron on board the chances of dealing Clay Buchholz and Ellsbury in a package for a legitimately elite hitter didn't increase to some degree.

Anyone for an Adrian Gonzalez deal? No, I haven't heard or read a thing about it being a real possibility, either.

Which, given the stealth manner in which Epstein apparently operates, might be the best news we didn't hear all day.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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