The Red Sox, beleaguered by talks of a 'bridge period' earlier this off season, caught fans slightly by surprise with their recent flurry of activity within the MLB's Hot Stove Market. Marco Scutaro's arrival in Boston may not have warranted much commotion given the nature of his contract (the length in particular), but the lucrative 5-year deal awarded to pitcher John Lackey has some questioning the exact direction that general manager Theo Epstein is taking the club and the future of pitcher Josh Beckett in particular.
After a very quiet beginning to the Winter Meetings, the Red Sox designated nearly $25 million for next season's payroll with the additions of Mike Cameron and John Lackey alone, moves that will certainly effect those that subsequently follow -- both this season as well as the next.
What does this mean for the likes of Josh Beckett and Victor Martinez, both with expiring contracts, especially considering the addition of Lackey and the potential free-agency of catcher Joe Mauer? With over $50 million in expiring contracts coming off the books following this season, how will management approach the free-agent class of 2010, considered by many to be one of the deepest of its kind in relation to available impact players? If this season is still considered a bridge to the future, then what can fans expect to see from the front office at this time next year?
At the moment, Boston's payroll is hovering around the $170 million dollar mark for the 2010 season (which includes the money owed to former shortstop Julio Lugo). The following players are in the final year of their current contracts; David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek, and Julio Lugo -- contracts that total $55 million. Assuming that Boston doesn't restructure any of the deals involving the aforementioned players, that gives management a large sum of financial freedom to address the incoming class of free-agents, a group that boasts talent trumping that which is offered in this year's crop.
Many have likened the situation to that which resulted in the Red Sox's 2007 World Series Championship. Prior to that season Epstein spent nearly $210 million ($209.1 to be exact) in acquiring J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Again, with the assumption that none of the following players are awarded new deals during the upcoming season, here's a look at the free-agent class of 2010: Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford, Lance Berkman, Cliff Lee, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Carlos Pena, Brandon Webb, Jayson Werth. It's a safe bet that someone like Jeter will be retained by the Yankees, but even that scenario leaves a slew of All-Star caliber talent available for the taking.
Similar to last season when the Yankees cleared themselves of nearly $70 million in contractual commitments that led to the signings of C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira, and ultimately a World Series Championship, Boston will find themselves in a very enviable position heading into next year's Hot Stove action.
It's a safe bet that Boston decides to let the contracts of Varitek and Lowell expire, but what about Josh Beckett and Victor Martinez?
After the signing of John Lackey, Theo Epstein immediately sent a text message assuring Josh Beckett that the addition of Lackey will in no way effect Boston's interest in re-signing him. However, we've seen this before, and nobody can blame Beckett for remaining skeptical regardless of how convincing Epstein may have appeared. After acquiring Curt Schilling in 2003, management sent a similar message to then staff-ace Pedro Martinez, who also found himself entering a contract year at that time. Martinez was not a member of the Red Sox in 2005 as management was never able to work out a deal to retain the right-hander, leading many to question Beckett's future in Boston. John Lackey received a 5-year deal worth $82.5 million dollars this off-season, raising speculation as to how serious the team is about keeping Beckett. It's hard to ignore the likenesses between Lackey and Beckett as pitchers, and with Lackey receiving a contract similar to that which Beckett is expected to command; did Boston simply sign Lackey to replace Beckett upon his departure? The situation is eerily similar to that which led to the end of the 'Pedro era' in Boston.
Victor Martinez is considered a very valuable commodity amongst the Red Sox's lineup. Martinez's ability to play both catcher and first base at a high level makes him just that much more appealing to the Red Sox, who currently owe him just under $8 million this season, making him widely considered one of the best bargains in baseball. However, there has been a lot of discussion recently surrounding the potential trading of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox by the San Diego Padres. If that happens, how will it effect the way in which Boston approaches Martinez's expiring contract? With the versatile slugger likely to command big money in the open market, will Theo then shift his focus to Joe Mauer, assuming that he isn't re-signed by Minnesota this season? With Gonzalez coming to Boston in this scenario, Martinez's ability to play first base becomes less relevant in relation to addressing the team's need for a catcher. It's no secret that Theo loves the type of player that Mauer embodies, and with good reason, as Mauer is regarded as one of the best all-around talents in baseball. Martinez is an ample catcher, but Mauer is a great one. Couple that with the upgrade that Mauer would represent offensively as opposed to V-Mart and it's not a stretch to assume that the Red Sox would rather utilize a good sum of that newly available $55 million on the former MVP/All-Star/Batting Champion/Gold Glover [Mauer].
On the other hand, it's worth mentioning that there has been some speculation that the Red Sox may plan to invest in both Martinez and Mauer, shifting Victor to first base and affording them a more than acceptable option behind the plate on days that they would decide to rest Mauer. Obviously this scenario becomes more likely in the event that Adrian Gonzalez is not acquired via trade.
Another key element that makes Martinez less of a necessity is the availability of Lance Berkman and Carlos Pena next off season, both viable options to fill the void at first base in the event that Boston is unable to retain Martinez. Similarly, Beckett's contract demands may become less appealing given the pending free-agent status' of pitchers Cliff Lee and Brandon Webb and the newly acquired Lackey.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz may also find their time in Boston heavily influenced by the free-agent class of 2010 and the moves made to this point in 2009. Both players have been mentioned in discussions surrounding potential trade scenarios involving Adrian Gonzalez. Does Ellsbury become more expendable with Werth and Crawford being available next season, as well as the recent signing of Mike Cameron? Does Buchholz become easier to part with given the potential signing of Aroldis Chapman and the potential free-agency of both Lee and Webb?
Every move that management makes from here on out must be calculated and will be heavily dependent on other deals that are or are not completed. For instance -- the addition of Lackey aside, even the situation at the catcher position effects the likelihood that starting pitcher Josh Beckett remains with the Red Sox.
Joe Mauer is believed to be in line to receive one of largest contracts in baseball history from whomever he decides to sign with. Therefore, if Martinez opts to explore free-agency and Boston decides to make a push for Mauer, it becomes less likely that they do so successfully while still being able to afford Beckett. Again, John Lackey's signing plays a major role in this as well. It's easier to let Beckett go and pursue Mauer with Lackey locked up for five seasons, and harder to justify retaining Beckett with the same thing in mind.
Going full-circle, it's easier to let Martinez walk with the addition of Gonzalez. In the event that Gonzalez is acquired, it becomes more feasible that Boston goes after Mauer, letting Martinez go and possibly making a concerted effort to retain Beckett.
It is still my belief that the Red Sox are pushing hard to acquire Adrian Gonzalez. In a previous article listed here, I explain that the Red Sox's moves to this point lead me to believe that Gonzalez is the most important player currently on Boston's radar. For one, signing Aroldis Chapman could help justify trading a young pitcher like Buchholz. Also, given the Red Sox's payroll commitments for 2010 and their still-glaring need to acquire a power-hitting corner infielder, the friendly nature of Gonzalez's contract for the next two seasons makes him the most appealing option for Boston if they truly desire an impact player to fill that void while still remaining within the $170 million dollar payroll goal set by Epstein.
However, the Gonzalez trade would be a blockbuster-type deal and is anything but a certainty. In the event that no progress is made in relation to Gonzalez, I think that Boston will shift their attention away from Beckett for the time being and make Victor Martinez their primary focus this season in terms of restructuring any of the expiring contracts. Talks with Martinez will likely correspond with the progress made by Minnesota in retaining Mauer. If it appears that Mauer will re-sign, Martinez should become priority number one in Boston. In the event that Mauer and the Twins cannot find common ground, the Red Sox will assess how badly they want to pursue Mauer, whether it be via trade or during the 2010 off season.
The point being that the signing of John Lackey, as well as any move made from this point on, does more than impact the future of Josh Beckett and the outlook of next year's club. Each move shifts the potential makeup of the roster for years to come. The job of a general manager is one of the most stress-inducing positions in sports for a reason and is not for short-sighted individuals. You can bet that Theo Epstein and the rest of the front office are making every move during the course of this off season with the next one in the back of their minds.