By Jeff Louderback
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington has a plan, and this offseason he has demonstrated the discipline and will power to implement his vision.
Though the Red Sox were granted expansive payroll flexibility after last summer’s trade that unloaded the contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Los Angeles Dodgers, they have refrained from doling out expensive, long-term free agents deals during the present Hot Stove League.
Instead, the club has given three-year contracts to outfielder Shane Victorino, and first baseman/catcher Mike Napoli; two-year deals to catcher David Ross, outfielder Jonny Gomes and starting pitcher Ryan Dempster; and one-year arrangements with right-handed reliever Koji Uehara and now shortstop Stephen Drew.
According to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com on Monday, Boston inked Drew to a one-year contract for $9.5 million.
Bringing Drew aboard is a prime example of Cherington’s offseason strategy. The Red Sox are rich in top prospects who are almost Major League ready. At shortstop, for example, 22-year-old Jose Iglesias is already considered an elite defensive player, but he has yet to show that he can hit Major League pitching. He will benefit from opening the 2013 campaign at Triple-A Pawtucket to work on his hitting.
Uber prospect Xander Bogaerts is just 20 but is expected to start next season at Double-A Portland with a possible mid-season promotion to Pawtucket. Currently rated by MLB.com at No. 31 on the top 100 prospects list, the right-handed hitting Aruba product is projected as a middle of the order bat. Since he continues to gain bulk, chances are he will be moved to third base or left field for the long term, but currently he remains at shortstop.
Drew, who will be 30 in March, suffered a severe ankle injury last season that limited his mobility. He hit .223 with a .657 OPS between Arizona and Oakland, though he did rebound with the A’s to bat .250 with five home runs in 172 plate appearances.
When healthy – and the Red Sox would not have signed him if they did not think his ankle would rebound – Drew is a proficient defensive shortstop who has some power in his left-handed bat. He has a career .265 average and .762 OPS.
If the Red Sox deem that Iglesias is Major League ready, they could use Drew in a utility role, meaning that Pedro Ciriaco could spend time at Pawtucket in 2013.
Drew has a career .274 average and .784 OPS against right-handers compared to .242 and .699 versus left-handers. If the Red Sox open the season with Iglesias at Pawtucket and Ciriaco in a utility role, the right-handed hitting Ciriaco could see time at shortstop when a southpaw is on the mound.
Regardless, the signing of Drew gives the Red Sox depth and allows Iglesias and Bogaerts more time to develop in the minors. Adding Victorino and Gomes provides Boston with productive outfield bats without clogging roster spots for the long term since the organization has a myriad of promising outfield prospects like Ryan Kalish, Jackie Bradley and Bryce Brentz. Add Bogaerts to the mix as well since it is possible he could occupy left field for many seasons.
By signing Dempster, the Red Sox added a durable middle of the rotation arm who can serve as a bridge until top prospects like Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa and Henry Owens are Major League ready. After the 2014 season, Boston can let Dempster and John Lackey go (though Lackey can be retained at the league minimum in 2015 based on a clause in his contract). The club could also part ways with Lester, who has a team option for 2014.
Many Red Sox fans have expressed displeasure over the offseason signings, not recognizing that these additions bolster a roster that includes returning core players like Dustin Pedroia, the re-signed David Ortiz, Will Middlebrooks and Jacoby Ellsbury (if he is not traded) in the lineup and Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and John Lackey in the rotation. The bullpen should be a strength, especially with a healthy Andrew Bailey and the addition of Uehara. However, what differentiates the 2013 Red Sox from the club’s previous three seasons is that several top prospects can be called upon to help, if needed.
If Jarrod Saltalamacchia is not traded this offseason, Ryan Lavarnway will likely open the 2013 campaign at Pawtucket, providing depth behind the plate. Kalish, who the Red Sox are understandably high on, could start the season on the Major League roster, but chances are he will be given regular at-bats at Pawtucket since he has missed chunks of the last two seasons with shoulder and neck injuries that are expected to be healed by spring training. Brentz is expected to be part of the opening day outfield at Pawtucket as well.
Iglesias will be a short drive away at Pawtucket, if he is not on Boston’s opening day roster. By mid-season, chances are Bogaerts and Bradley (who could replace Ellsbury in 2014) will be promoted to Triple-A.
Barnes will open 2013 at Portland but could earn a promotion to Pawtucket at some point next season. The Pawtucket rotation will likely include Webster (who is No. 72 on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list), De La Rosa (who could have a higher ceiling than Webster) and intriguing knuckleballer Steven Wright (who is more like R.A. Dickey than Tim Wakefield), so there will be starting pitching depth.
Don’t forget Alfredo Aceves and left-hander Franklin Morales, both of whom are arbitration eligible, under cost-effective team control and provide versatility as arms that can serve in long relief roles, set-up roles and as starters.
Beyond 2014, the Red Sox have these players under contract:
- John Lackey ($500,000)
- Mike Napoli ($13 million)
- Shane Victorino ($13 million)
- Clay Buchholz ($7.4 million)
- Dustin Pedroia ($11 million option)
By 2015, the club will also have a plethora of young players under the minimum salary or arbitration eligible. Also, the Napoli contract has not been finalized, so it could be trimmed to one year or two years, or nullified and the Red Sox could pursue someone else.
Regardless of what happens with Napoli, the Red Sox are not tied long term to any player, and they have enviable payroll flexibility. Since there are so many top prospects who are almost Major League ready, the club will be able to fill holes internally, giving them the added money to sign a premium free agent in the future, if they prefer.
To many Red Sox fans, the team’s current strategy is not popular. Yet the club’s approach makes tremendous baseball sense for 2013 and beyond.