Yesterday marked the second day the Red Sox handed out a three year almost $40 million contract. The first went to first baseman/catcher Mike Napoli on Monday, the second to center fielder/right fielder/left fielder Shane Victorino on Tuesday. The deals are similar in a few ways, including the obvious years and dollars, as are the players' ages (Victorino will be 32, Napoli 31). The thing that binds them together beyond that though is the flexibility they provide for the Red Sox. Even after signing these two the Red Sox have, in a word, options.
We are all familiar with the kind of havoc Mike Napoli can cause in Fenway Park (and, it bears mentioning, against Red Sox pitching). Re-purposing that havoc for good was the primary goal of Napoli's contract. But the fact that he can both catch and play first base shouldn't be lost. Napoli joins a squad already saturated with catching after adding David Ross to incumbents Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway. On the face of it you might think, 'What are the Red Sox doing with four catchers?' It's a fair question and you'd hope there would be a fair answer. There is.
Let's look at the players in question. Ross is going to be the back-up catcher. He may start a few more games than a traditional back-up catcher, but his role is set. Beyond that, little is chiseled into granite. Lavarnway has a minor league option remaining so the Red Sox can safely stash him back in Triple-A whether due to a roster crunch or the belief that the guy who hit all of .157/.211/.248 in 166 plate appearances for Boston last season might benefit from it. While that slash line isn't impressive, last year represents the first time in his career since short season Lowell immediately after getting drafted, that Lavarnway failed to hit. As such, he has some trade value as well. The Red Sox could move him and, at least for 2013, still be rich with available catchers.
Salty is a different story. He can't be sent to the minors so he doesn't have that kind of organizational flexibility, but he can offer something else: trade value. With one year left before attaining free agency, Salty can catch in Boston or be dealt for other assets. He's not Brian McCann but as our own Marc Normandin has noted more than once, league average players have value and Salty is roughly league average. Last year catchers hit .247/.319/.399 (a .718 OPS) as a group. Salty hit .222/.288/.454 (a .742 OPS). It might not always look pretty but given the state of catcherhood in baseball right now, Salty has value. How much value is up for debate, but the Red Sox could cash that value in on the trade market should they desire.
Finally we get to Napoli who can't be traded (yet) but who can split catching duties should the Red Sox deal Salty and stash Lavarnway at Triple-A. Alternately, he can be a sort of third catcher should one of Salty or Lavarnway remain in Boston. Picture this. It's the eighth inning of a one run game. Up comes Jarrod Saltalamacchia with runners on first and second and two down. The pitcher is a lefty which means Salty would bat right handed except Salty isn't a very good right-handed hitter. With Napoli, the Red Sox could pinch-hit for Salty without having to use their back-up catcher. Not that that situation will occur often, but it speaks to the flexibility the Red Sox roster now possesses.
Beyond in-game roster machinations, the Red Sox can use one of Salty or Lavarnway to improve their 2013 roster in a deal, or they can move forward with all four guys. It seems clear that one of those two will be traded by opening day, but that doesn't have to happen. The Red Sox can wait for the right deal and if it doesn't come along they can stand pat. That's some flexibility and it's helped along by having Napoli on the roster.
The outfield situation is not dissimilar. With Jonny Gomes likely getting the majority of work in left field, the signing of Shane Victorino would seem to close the book on the 2013 Red Sox outfield. Right?
Rival officials believe that the Red Sox are laying the groundwork for a trade of Jacoby Ellsbury, for the pitching they need.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 5, 2012
The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham followed that up with a tweet proclaiming that "explorations are ongoing" regarding an Ellsbury trade. The reason the Red Sox can "explore" like this is because Victorino can play center field if Ellsbury isn't on the roster. We've talked about whether or not dealing Ellsbury now is a good idea in this space before, but no matter which side you come down on, the ultimate arbiter will be the return. If the Red Sox can significantly improve the starting pitching or acquire a young, cost controlled franchise player (likely it would take more than Ellsbury for that, but still), they can deal Ellsbury safe in the knowledge that center field will be competently manned next season by Victorino. They won't have to rush Jackie Bradley and they won't have to force Ryan Kalish into the lineup out of position.
Beyond all of that there is one more thing to address in terms of flexibility. Much has been made of Red Sox minor league system recently and some of the players in it. After the duel calamities of 2011 and 2012, Boston has recommitted themselves to building from the ground up. With that in mind, it's worth noting that neither the Napoli and the Victorino contracts blocks an up-coming prospect nor do they cost a draft pick. The Sox first round pick is protected by virtue of being one of the top 10 (hooray for small favors) but signing a free agent who turned down the qualifying offer, like Nick Swisher for example, would cost the Red Sox both their second round pick and that pick's contribution to the team's draft budget. Both Victorino and Napoli didn't cost the Red Sox a thing except money and draft picks not lost are draft picks earned.
After the spending spree of two years ago melted into a contractual stasis, the Red Sox found themselves staring at not just bad on-field results, but six plus years of $20 million payouts to multiple aging and injured players. The massive Dodgers trade fixed all that but like cancer surgery by cannonball, it left gaping holes in a roster that was supposed to have All Stars in left field and at first base. Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino might not be of the same quality as Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, but their signings don't close the door on positional flexibility, building through the draft, maintaining trade value, or making other potentially significant moves that will help make the Red Sox competitive for the long haul. Mostly the deals say the Red Sox aren't done improving their team and they're open to doing so on every level available.