After the Red Sox dumped as much payroll as they did during the season, some fans may have been expecting an offseason full of exclamation marks. Zack Greinke! Josh Hamilton! Anibal Sanchez! The Sox, after all, could afford to go big. Bigger than anyone saving the Dodgers, who appear to be limited only by what numbers they can think of.
Those who are regular readers here at OTM will have come across a rather different sentiment. One that hoped the Sox would go into the offseason with caution, looking at 2013 and 2014 as years where the Sox can win, but 2015-and-on as the true prime real estate for championship hopes as the likes of Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, and Matt Barnes join Will Middlebrooks and hopefully establish themselves as the team's future. Outside our halls, though, there were plenty of calls for big names and big money.
So far those calls have been left unanswered, and the signing of Ryan Dempster is no different. He is not an ace, or even likely a #2 in the American League. He doesn't come with a ton of fanfare or acclaim, and frankly he's not even that safe given his age.
That being said, he's exactly what we should have expected, and if you like the moves for Victorino and especially Napoli (assuming that gets done), then you should probably like Dempster too, because it's a move coming from the same strategy as those two.
Throughout the offseason the Sox have been linked to just about everyone shy of Greinke. Hamilton, Swisher, and to some extent Sanchez have always been in play. But so far their actual targets have come from a bit lower in the pack. If you were to divide the free agents up into tiers, you might call it the third, behind the superlatives of Greinke/Hamilton and second-bests in Swisher/Sanchez. It's where the good players with question marks find themselves, and where teams always end up retreating to in the event that they strike out up above.
The Red Sox, however, have not waited to be forced into that market, but instead went early to it.
Considering the situation the free agents find themselves in there, any team heading in will face some challenges if they're really trying to secure a bargain. While none of those players wants to wind up like Edwin Jackson last year, signing a one-year deal after the market fell away, they also don't want to be the one who takes two years and $20 million before Hamilton signs for $30 million a year and bumps the price range up a notch or two.
But for a team that's willing to pay a middle-ground price that players feel comfortable with, it's prime hunting ground. Safety is a big thing for these guys, and when it's offered to them in a straight-up manner rather than coming from a team that's hoping to luck into a deal, they have to seriously consider it.
Why is this perfect for the Sox? Because they have a lot of needs and a lot of money, simply put. Their main goal is to get away from the massive deals like Crawford and Lackey, which rules them out of most of the top-tier markets anyways. And when we get down to the guys like Napoli, Victorino, and the rest, the quibbles we might have over their contracts start to become much less impressive under scrutiny, at least given the situation we're in now.
"They gave Anibal Sanchez six years and $96 million? That's insane! He's barely even pitched in the American League! I thought we were done giving away these massive deals? I'd have gone 4/$60 at the most."
"They gave Shane Victorino 3 years and $39 million? Did they not see how mediocre he was at the plate last year? He could keep right on declining next year. I'd have gone 2/$24 at the most."
Now, some of you might be thinking Shane Victorino was only worth 2/$20, or that Mike Napoli wasn't worth more than 3/$15, or that anyone offering Anibal Sanchez only 4/$60 is off their rocker. But the point, I think, remains the same. The difference between a high Anibal Sanchez contract and a low Anibal Sanchez contract is about the same as the total amount of the deals the Red Sox are making this offseason. At some point it comes down o arguing about paying $10 million out in a year where the Sox have not a single player set to be under contract, though more often it's a matter of $1 or $2 million a year in years where money is not hugely important.
Last offseason the Sox could not play this game. Every single penny counted, it seemed. These days it's different, and while that doesn't mean that the Sox should be going out and wasting millions of dollars, it does mean they can afford to pay a premium. In some cases that means giving a few extra dollars out to keep an extra year off the deal. But in terms of when these free agents are signing, it means foregoing the hope of a really great deal to ensure that they manage to get someone who they think can actually play.
They may not be the likes of Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton (though that last one could still be in play if Ellsbury ends up being dealt)*, but they also aren't the dregs left over. Just as no pitcher wants to be the one to settle for the one-year deal, the Sox don't want to be the ones picking up Aaron Cook and Vicente Padilla again. And that much we can all get behind.
*Not anymore. That changed at an inconvenient time.