By Jeff Louderback
Red Sox fans are an enigmatic bunch.
Though there are exceptions – as there always are when there is a fan base as expansive as the one that composes Red Sox Nation – many Red Sox fans possess a high baseball IQ.
They understand the importance of slapping a grounder to the right side with a runner on second base and no outs. They recognize that a pitcher’s WHIP and a hitter’s OPS are more important than a win-loss record and a batting average. Yet some of these same enthusiasts remain caught up in their desire to see big-name free agents brought in rather than useful names like Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes and David Ross.
The Red Sox still have holes to fill. Boston general manager Ben Cherington says the team is looking for a starting pitcher to join Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and John Lackey; and a left-handed hitter who can play first base, right field or both.
Josh Hamilton remains a possibility for the Red Sox, if he would be open to a three-year deal with an annual salary in the range of $25 million to $30 million. The club appears hesitant to offer more than three years to the left-handed slugger.
As for a starting pitcher, chances are Boston signs someone like Francisco Liriano to a one-year contract or trades for an arm like Justin Masterson than give Anibal Sanchez or Kyle Lohse the number of years they are seeking. yan Dempster already turned down a two-year offer from the Red Sox.
According to their posts across the blogosphere, many Red Sox fans appear frustrated over what Cherington has done with the payroll flexibility granted by unloading the cumbersome contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers. Yet those same fans are likely to thank Cherington when the season begins.
Cherington has taken heat from the baseball media and some Red Sox fans alike for signing Napoli and Victorino to matching three-year, $39 million deals. Yes, Boston overpaid a bit for both players, but it did so because it has so much payroll flexibility and the front office did not want to be locked into long-term contracts. That demonstrates discipline that Theo Epstein lacked in the final years of his Red Sox tenure.
Though it remains a work in progress, the projected 2013 Red Sox roster is reminiscent of what the team fielded in 2003. Napoli, Gomes, Victorino and Ross are guys who play the game the right way and are popular in the dugout and the clubhouse. They are not superstars, but they are names that join together to form what they Red Sox were lacking in 2011 and 2012 – a true team.
Cherington has also been wise to refrain from unloading any of the high-ceiling prospects in the Red Sox system. Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley are prospects who will not and should not be traded because they will have integral roles with the Red Sox as early as 2014. Bradley is the center fielder of the future and could make his Major League debut as early as 2013. Bogaerts is an uber prospect who projects as a middle of the order bat and could be moved from shortstop to third base or left field if Jose Iglesias proves he can hit enough to accompany his exceptional defense.
Add other top prospects like right fielder Bryce Brentz; right-handers Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster; left-hander Henry Owens; and infielder Garin Cecchini, and you have a plethora of Red Sox prospects who can contribute at the Major League level within the next few seasons.
It is true that not every prospect fully realizes his potential. Some ascend to greatness. Some become useful Major Leaguers. Others flop when they reach the big leagues. Yet the Red Sox have enough promising prospects that it is feasible to project several of them bolstering the club’s Major League roster for the long term. This allows more financial flexibility for the team to more easily sign a big-name free agent to fill a hole that can’t be accommodated from the farm system.
I would like to see the Red Sox sign Hamilton if they can get him for no more than four years and trade Jacoby Ellsbury for a starting pitcher. if that doesn’t happen, I feel confident about the lineup and the rotation by adding a left-handed hitting role player and a back of the rotation starter to accompany this offseason’s signings, the returning core players and the Major League ready prospects.
After falling victim to throwing money at high-profile free agents like Crawford and trading for a $20 million a year disappointment like Gonzalez, the Red Sox are exercising intelligence by building a roster of players who fill roles and reflect the Dirt Dawg style that lifted the team in 2003 and 2004.
You can issue your proclamations of doom for 2013 and share your misery about signing guys like Napoli, Victorino, Gomes and Ross. I will embrace the moves and look forward to 2013 with excitement and feeling confident about this team emerging as a contender.