Sox Offseason - Back on Track?

The way this offseason is progressing, I expect a lot of Red Sox fans are discouraged.  Victor Martinez is gone, and Adrian Beltre appears to be next on the chopping block. Fan-favorite Jacoby Ellsbury might be traded.

Some people are horrified. Not me. The departure of Martinez suggests that the Sox are back on the wagon, back on track. It suggests that the team has a plan beyond throwing money at free agents and doing their best impersonation of the New York Yankees (aside: it's not very good.). Read on for a look at recent Sox history and what we might expect going forward.

If we take a roseate stroll through recent Red Sox history, you can see the workings of an overall plan for transforming the team. Beginning with the seminal offseason leading into 2003, Theo worked to change the organization's M.O. from one depending on aging veterans and free agents, to a more fluid model, depending on a strong farm system supplemented by undervalued acquisitions and choice free agents.  At the start, he sought out underrated players like Kevin Millar, David Ortiz and Bill Mueller in 2003, and got immediate value from them.

In 2004, Theo added Curt Schilling to a solid core, producing one of the best offensive teams in recent memory (949 regular season runs). Coming off a WS victory, some were shocked when starters Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe were allowed to leave in free agency, but that set the stage for a draft with 4 1st-round draft picks, including Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, and Craig Hansen. Along with other farm hands like Youkilis, Paps, Pedroia and Lester, this signified the beginning of a youth wave that has immensely helped the team. The emergence of such players makes it easier to swallow the failures of the replacement free agents like Matt Clement and Edgar Renteria.

2005 and 2006 were rebuilding years - although the team made October in '05, its pitching wasn't enough to get anywhere. The subsequent acquisition of Josh Beckett and Lowell wasn't Theo's decision, but it was made by his lieutenants and with advice from the then-ousted GM. The non-signing of Damon ahead of the 2006 offseason was a vintage Theo move - allow an aging, injury-prone and overrated player to sign elsewhere for too much money, and take the team's draft picks all the way to the bank.

After being decimated by injuries in '06, Theo rocked the free agent market signing a very underrated (and oft-hated) J.D. Drew, posting for Daisuke Matsuzaka and grabbing the best available shortstop, Julio Lugo. These acquisitions, along with Hero-in-the-Dark Hideki Okajima and strong youth performances led directly to another World Series title. 

For the offseason following 2007, Theo re-upped Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek, both of whom would decline precipitously in the coming years. In 2008 the team, nearly unchanged from 2007's squad was one game away from another World Series (and likely another title), aided by a timely if controversial trade of Manny Ramirez mid-season. 2009 saw a similar blockbuster trade for VMart.

In the long-term, the Red Sox under Theo have shown a strategy of committing to younger players and the youth movement, valuing draft picks and young talent highly, and being willing to cut overrated players, even team heroes like Pedro or Manny, go. The offseason heading into this year was in some ways a departure from that winning strategy. The team invested a lot of money into aging starters Beckett and Lackey, hired  37-year-old Mike Cameron 34-year-old Scutaro, both for 2 years. [In fairness, Beltre at 1 year has been a smashing success, as was the non-move in letting Jason Bay walk.]

The departure of Victor Martinez, disappointing as it may be for 2011, bodes well for the team long-term. Sometimes short-term pain, like the downgrade to Saltalamacchia (or a mediocre FA like Barajas) at C, is necessary for long-term success; I'm looking forward to seeing who VMart's draft pick produces. And while the Sox haven't had great luck with free agent acquisitions (Lugo, Renteria), they have been largely on the money in letting free agents go - witness everyone from Pedro to Damon to Jason Bay. The aging veterans they have extended, from Lowell to Tek to Beckett, have often disappointed. As much as I love VMart, if the team doesn't want him at 4 years, $50 million, then neither do I.

Beltre is almost certainly next out the door. His offensive explosion in 2010 is unsustainable and will price him out of Boston, while setting the buyer up for massive disappointment when his stats return to earth. While Beltre's defense is admittedly spectacular, the downgrade from him to Youkilis at third will be made up for by 1) the fact that Youk is cheaper, 2) the draft pick Beltre produces, and 3) Youk's superior offense. Theo may use this opportunity to squeeze Adrian Gonzalez into the lineup.

How the outfield shakes out is anyone's guess. I can see Jayson Werth being acquired if the price is right, as he is a better J.D. Drew, but given the organizational depth, Theo may not want to indulge in signing him. Crawford seems both overrated and likely to be overpaid, and I will take back every nice thing said here (and then some) if he is signed.

However it plays out, I have a better feeling about this offseason than the last. The Sox seem to be on-track with their longitudinal plan, poised to profit from a purportedly deep draft class in 2011 and to take advantage of the trade and free agent markets.

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