In what can surely be considered an understatement; the Red Sox's recent off-season activity has the Major League Baseball community buzzing, namely the population that makes up 'Red Sox Nation.'
On Monday, following reports that discussions surrounding re-signing Jason Bay had soured, the Red Sox proceeded to sign the top available starting pitcher via free agency, John Lackey, to a 5-year deal. The arrival of the former Angels' ace in Boston has been dissected in a bevy of ways since news broke earlier today by nearly every media outlet, each offering their own unique opinion on the situation. Some suggest that Lackey represents a reallocation of the funds originally intended for Bay. However, I don't believe that there is enough emphasis being placed on the big picture as a result of the acquisition, and the subsequent sequence of events that may potentially follow.
While some may argue that because Jason Bay is no longer an option, the Red Sox may have simply taken their money and invested in another big ticket free agent instead. If that were the case, wouldn't it have been more intelligent to focus on someone like Matt Holliday or Adrian Beltre to help fill the holes that Boston has both defensively and offensively, rather than acquire a starting pitcher? While there's no denying that the depth in regards to the starting rotation was a point of emphasis for management heading into the off-season, it seems rather narrow-minded to use such a large sum of financial resources to fill that void while continuing to ignore the ones at third base and left field.
Is it possible that Mike Cameron is set to be Jason Bay's replacement, especially given the defensive upgrade he represents, and that they simply used the money that they saved by not going after Matt Holliday on the combination of Cameron and Lackey? Sure, it's not a farfetched theory by any means. However, after much deliberation on the topic, I have come to the conclusion that there may be more to the Red Sox's recent acquisitions than what is evident on the surface.
One piece of information that slipped through the cracks today, which is understandable given the more notable moves made, is that the Red Sox made a two year contract offer reportedly worth $15 million dollars to left-handed Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman. Chapman, a 21 year-old starting pitcher with a fastball that consistently touches triple-digits, could offer a bit of foreshadowing into the Red Sox's plan of action in relation to their void at third base.
The $80-85 million dollar contract awarded to Lackey is what originally made me look into the potential reasoning behind extending $15 million to Chapman who, like Lackey, is a starting pitcher. No, Chapman would not likely be added to the MLB-level rotation come opening day, but there are still some flags being raised by Boston's pursuit of the young talent. Why continue attempting to accrue starting pitching depth with a hole still evident at not only the third base position, but in the lineup as well?
Consider this; the addition of Lackey now gives Boston six viable options for their rotation, as it stands now, heading into 2010. With Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Matsuzaka, Buchholz, and Wakefield, a once seemingly questionable rotation has become more than formidable, arguably the best in baseball. Where does extending a $15 million dollar contract to a young, unproven, prospect-type pitcher make sense given the Red Sox's glaring needs elsewhere?
It would not only make sense, but it would actually appear rather brilliant in its creativeness, if the plan of action was to turn around and begin shopping the attractive young talent that is Clay Buchholz. Buchholz, known for his devastating arsenal of off-speed pitches as well as his limitless potential, seemingly finds himself immersed in nearly every trade discussion involving the Red Sox the last few years. So why stop now?
One reason that Theo Epstein has been reluctant to move Buchholz to this point is that it is difficult to find a young starting pitcher with that much potential without having to develop internally, as they did with Clay. This is where Aroldis Chapman becomes relevant to this discussion.
Matt Holliday had been the center of rumors regarding the Red Sox's planned route in the event that Bay could not be retained. However, recent reports (especially coming from Holliday's agent, Scott Boras) suggest that signing Holliday would require a deal exceeding that in which Jason Bay is commanding at the present time. Boras has been rather vocal in his opinion that Holliday is a more valuable asset than Bay to an interested team. Having said that, and assuming that Adrian Beltre is now out of this off-season's budget limit, it's hard to imagine that the Red Sox are left with many options to plug third base via free agency. It's also safe to assume that management is left unsatisfied with Cameron replacing Bay if it means that someone like Casey Kotchman is going to take over the first base duties, with Youkilis moving to third base in this scenario (also making the assumption that moving Varitek back behind the plate full-time, while shifting Youkilis to third and Victor Martinez to first, is not a realistic option).
All of this leads me to believe that the Red Sox next plan of action is to begin gauging interest from teams regarding the aforementioned Clay Buchholz.
With the potential signing of Aroldis Chapman, moving Clay Buchholz could become more justifiable to the Red Sox. Essentially, the Chapman signing may simply be a case of replacing one young pitching prospect with another, allowing Boston to utilize Buchholz's trade-appeal and acquire the corner infield-bat that they so desperately need.
San Diego could potentially be a player in any discussion pertaining to Buchholz. The Red Sox have discussed the availability of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez with the Padres recently, but to no avail, citing Boston's hesitation to move Buchholz as a main reason. Reports, prior to the Lackey signing, made it appear as though no progress was being made on that front. Padres general manager Jed Hoyer reportedly requested a combination of Buchholz and either Casey Kelly (a pitching prospect widely considered untouchable in such discussions) or outfielder Ryan Westmoreland.
One interesting aspect of negotiations is that Jason McLeod, a former Red Sox scouting director, is now employed by Hoyer. It has been said that both have a detailed understanding and admiration of the Boston system.
While the Red Sox still expected to retain Jason Bay, it was understandable for Epstein to be adverse to the idea of unloading Buchholz, especially given his opinion that the rotation (even with Buchholz) lacked depth. Also, because Bay was still an option at that point, the need for an offensive upgrade was slightly less glaring. With Bay and Holliday now out of the mix, and the potential signings of both Lackey and Chapman, the attention has to be redirected back to the original need for offense at one of the corner infield spots left vacant by Mike Lowell's departure (still pending). A platoon of Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida is probably not the caliber of replacement in left field that Boston entered the off-season with in mind, but acquiring someone such as Adrian Gonzalez would have to help alleviate any concerns regarding offensive potency that may still linger.
As I implied earlier, San Diego is very interested in Clay Buchholz, even going as far as insisting his presence in any potential package offered by Boston. If Chapman is signed, Buchholz immediately becomes more expendable, and Gonzalez that much more appealing. Boston's interest in Chapman has been evident for some time, is it possible now that his addition could represent the subtraction of Buchholz? Clay's availability has to increase exponentially in the event that the Red Sox land Chapman.
It is starting to appear as though Theo Epstein has been underestimated in his approach this off-season all along. His lack of activity seems to have directly corresponded with the progress made in re-signing Bay. As soon as the discussions began to break down, Theo started making moves. My feeling is that he has had this plan in his back pocket the whole time he was in talks with Bay and his representatives, and is only now beginning to deploy it.
One fact remains certain, Boston's needs a power-hitter to compliment their lineup following the departure of Jason Bay. With Cameron and Hermida joining J.D. Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury, completing a respectable core of outfielders, the most obvious place to fill that void remains at one of the corner infield spots.
It's hard to imagine a better solution than someone like Adrian Gonzalez.