EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 9, 2013

Don't lose sight of Sox being big-market team

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — Don’t expect the Boston Red Sox to sign any big-name free agent such as Shin-Soo Choo during the Winter Meetings in Orlando this week.

With first baseman Mike Napoli signed to a new two-year deal, catcher A.J. Pierzynski inked to a one-year contract and both right-handed pitchers Burke Badenhop and Edward Mujica added to strengthen the bullpen depth, the Red Sox admittedly might be done this offseason except for some minor acquisitions/signings.

“It could be that we’ve done most of our heavy lifting for the winter,” GM Ben Cherington said.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the baseball world that the Red Sox aren’t considered a serious suitor for Choo or that they weren’t linked to any big-name free agent this offseason. Likewise, the Red Sox never were serious about re-signing center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who accepted a seven-year, $153 million contract from the Yankees.

Since the Red Sox unloaded Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez on the Dodgers and declared their main principle to be drafting and developing players (and not overspending on free agents), the organization seemingly has been viewed in the same fashion we view small and mid market organizations.

But don’t lose sight of how the Red Sox remain a big-market team and have the resources to sign a top free agent at any moment. It’s difficult to fathom Cherington going the rest of his tenure in Boston without signing a top-five free agent to a contract of five or more years.

But when will the Red Sox again be willing to offer a deal of five or more years to a free agent who they didn’t develop within their system? Could the Red Sox even surprise us and add Choo, the top position player remaining on the market, this week?

Realistically, Cherington and the front office won’t sign any free agent to a deal of five or more years until they identify that player as a 100 perfect fit for the organization both immediately and long term.

The best teams build their cores from within and use free agency to add the necessary players to put them over the top. Sometimes, that player is a superstar.

In past offseasons, the Red Sox would have been considered very much in the running to sign someone like Choo.

After all, the Red Sox need a leadoff hitter. Choo is a leadoff hitter.

The Red Sox also need a center fielder. Choo is a center fielder.

Additionally, Choo’s offensive approach fits Boston’s grind-it-out philosophy perfectly. The 31-year-old left-handed hitting Choo has speed, 20-homer power and his .423 on-base percentage in 2013 ranked fourth among all major leaguers, behind only Miguel Cabrera (.442), Joey Votto (.435) and Mike Trout (.432). His ability to get on base at a high rate likely will allow him to be a productive hitter as he ages.

Choo would be a perfect immediate fix to replaced Ellsbury.

But Choo isn’t the perfect fit long term because he is a below-average defender (and is better off playing a corner outfield spot), he struggles against left-handed pitching, he probably isn’t going to get any better as a hitter and Boston already has a 23-year-old center field prospect Jackie Bradley Jr., who is considered an above average defender with similar on-base percentage potential.

Bradley still needs to improve as a hitter and he might struggle against left-handed pitchers this coming year. There also is a good possibility Bradley’s offensive totals in 2014 won’t come near Choo’s.

But the Red Sox aren’t thinking about just 2014. They are thinking about the next five to seven years and they trust in Bradley’s potential.

But again, don’t view Boston like you would the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland Athletics. If Cherington decides Choo or any other free agent is the right fit, he will pull the trigger on a deal.

THE OUTFIELD

With center fielders Jacoby Ellsbury (Yankees) and Curtis Granderson (Mets) as well as right fielder Carlos Beltran (Yankees) all off the market, it appears the Red Sox will head to spring training with Jackie Bradley Jr. as their starting center fielder. That is barring any trade.

Cherington feels comfortable with Bradley opening the season there. The GM also feels comfortable with moving Shane Victorino to center if Bradley falters. But the Red Sox want Victorino to remain in right field where he feels comfortable and where he won a Gold Glove this past season.

If the Red Sox are to add any outfielder via free agency or trade, it likely will be a right-handed hitter to complement Bradley, a left-handed hitter who hits better against right-handed pitching.

A potential right-handed hitting outfielder to platoon with Bradley doesn’t have to be a center fielder either. Victorino could shift to center on days when the Red Sox face a southpaw.

Free agents Michael Morse, Rajai Davis, Franklin Gutierrez and Delmon Young are four right-handed hitting outfield platoon options.

Also of note, the Red Sox already have decent outfield depth. Daniel Nava is a better left fielder but has the ability to shift to right field if and when needed. The left-handed hitting Mike Carp adds depth in left field. Heposted an .885 OPS in 243 plate appearances last year.

THE MARKET FOR AN INFIELDER

The Red Sox have had off and on discussions with free agent shortstop Stephen Drew, but talks have stalled recently between Cherington and Drew’s agent Scott Boras.

“Obviously we feel pretty good about our alternative at shortstop (Xander Bogaerts) but we’ll see what happens the rest of the way,” Cherington said.

The Red Sox obviously feel good about Bogaerts. But they most likely don’t feel the same about Will Middlebrooks who struggled tremendously with the bat last year in his second major league season.

Middlebrooks’ unpredictability as a hitter probably is the main reason Cherington has said he hopes to add an infielder for the left side.

“Whether it be a more prominent player or more of a complementary player,” Cherington said.

Rafael Furcal is no longer an option. He signed with the Marlins.

Third baseman Eric Chavez, who just turned 36, is someone the Red Sox were interested in last year. Chavez played with the Yankees in 2011, ‘12. He batted .281/.332/.478/.810 in 254 plate appearances for the Diamondbacks this past season and is a possibility.

Michael Young is another free agent third baseman. The Red Sox had some interest in Young before the 2013 trade deadline. But the 37-year-old’s power has declined over the past two years.

GREAT COMMAND

I mentioned in a column during early November that Cherington needed to add insurance at closer in case 38-year-old Koji Uehara were to break down or struggle in 2014 after pitching more innings last season than he had ever pitched before in one major league season.

Edward Mujica, who the Sox inked to a two-year deal, is that insurance. The 29-year-old right-hander was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals this past summer and during part of 2012. He lost his job as closer to Trevor Rosenthal this September after struggling while being bothered with a groin injury and weakness in the neck.

He finished the season with a 2.78 ERA and 37 saves in 64.2 innings. His ERA rose a little more than a run during September.

This appears to be a solid deal for the Red Sox. Mujica possess top-notch command. He has walked just 1.4 batters per nine innings during his career.

THE BEARD IS BACK

As I’ve written before, Mike Napoli’s value extends beyond his mediocre home run total (23) in ‘13. Napoli was sixth among all major league first baseman with 63 extra-base this past season, his .360 on-base percentage ranked fifth among AL first baseman and he saw more pitches per plate appearance (4.59) than any other major league hitter.

And his value extends way beyond his on-field production. Napoli, who played above-average defense at first last year, is a great clubhouse guy who wanted to remain in Boston.

SALTY’S DEAL

Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s three-year, $21 million deal with the Marlins was less than many expected he’d receive. He received the same number of years as Carlos Ruiz did from the Phillies but ended up receiving $5 million less than Ruiz.

That was a bit surprising considering Saltalamacchia is much younger than Ruiz and had better offensive numbers than did the Phillies backstop last season.

That said, re-signing Saltalamacchia would not have been a poor financial decision for the Red Sox. And the length of contract wouldn’t have hindered their longterm plan with prospect catchers Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart.

It goes to show the Red Sox were never serious about re-signing Saltalamacchia.

ON THE MARKET

Thirteen of the top 20 free agents (ranked by ESPN) already have signed. But several top names still remain as the Winter Meetings officially begin today.

Choo, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew, A.J. Burnett, Matt Garza, Bartolo Colon, Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales are some of the interesting free agents still available.

Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB