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December 10, 2010

On the Beat

A Winter for Run Production

by John Perrotto

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The Yankees always say that if they don't win the World Series then it has been an unsuccessful season. Their main rivals, the Red Sox, don't have standards quite that high, but it's close. When the Red Sox fail to make the postseason, Red Sox Nation considers it a failure.

Thus, John Henry and the Red Sox ownership came under fire from the fans last season for finishing third in the American League East behind the Rays and Yankees. The fans felt Henry didn't spend enough time or money on the Red Sox because he was in the process of buying legendary English soccer team Liverpool FC.

However, it is safe to assume that Henry and general manager Theo Epstein are back in good graces after the moves of the past week in which they traded for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and agreed to terms with free-agent left fielder Carl Crawford on a seven-year, $142 million contract. The Red Sox and Gonzalez are also said to have agreed on the parameters of a seven-year, $154 million deal.

Henry has made an outlay of $296 million to upgrade an offense that was second in the major leagues last season to the Yankees in runs scored with an average of 5.05 a game. Epstein would not talk directly about Crawford on Thursday, as the Winter Meetings ended at the Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort, because he had yet to undergo a physical examination. However, as Epstein talked in generalities, it was obvious he is very excited about how the Red Sox stack up for 2011.

Gonzalez and Crawford join a lineup that also includes second baseman Dustin Pedroia, third baseman Kevin Youkilis (who moves across the diamond with the addition of Gonzalez), Marco Scutaro or Jed Lowrie at shortstop, Mike Cameron or Jacoby Ellsbury in center field, right fielder J.D. Drew, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia at catcher unless the Red Sox sign free agent Russell Martin.

“If things come together the way we hope and expect, we’ll be really satisfied,” Epstein said. “I think you go into every winter with a Plan A, and sometimes it’s hard to pull that off and then you move on to Plan B and C. I think adding an impact player was very important for where we were for the short, medium, and long term. Adding two, as long as they were the right players, in the right spots, in the right situations, would be even better.”

The Red Sox took plenty of heat for the way they approached the offseason last winter, emphasizing run prevention by signing right-hander John Lackey, third baseman Adrian Beltre, Scutaro, and Cameron as free agents. While scoring runs did not turn out to be a problem, the Red Sox allowed 4.60 runs a game, which ranked 23rd in the majors and 11th in the AL. Yet Epstein's plan from the first day of the offseason was to add impact hitters.

“It was all a product of hopefully well-thought-out thought over a long period of time, well-documented, lots of scouting, following players over the course of whole half-seasons, white papers written up about how the parts all fit together, a lot of thought and a lot of commitment and belief, commitment to winning and belief from ownership," Epstein said. "Plan A involves a well-rounded club with all our weaknesses shored up and adding some impact talent. We still have some work to do.”

The Red Sox want to strengthen their bullpen and have been linked to a number of free-agent relievers, including left-handers Scott Downs and Brian Fuentes and right-hander Kevin Gregg. While signing any of those pitchers would be a significant move, it wouldn't match the buzz of adding Gonzalez and Crawford or cost $296 million.

Although it is a lot of money to spend, even for a team with large revenue streams, Epstein believes it was wise to invest in the 29-year-old Crawford and 28-year-old Gonzalez. The Red Sox also considered signing 32-year-old right fielder Jayson Werth as a free agent but declined to match the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed with the Nationals.

“I don’t think there’s a bright line with age, per se, but getting players in their primes—or in the early parts of their primes—is really important,” Epstein said. “If you’re going to sign a long-term contract, you want to make sure it at least starts at the right age and ends at a reasonable age. Most elite position players sign through age 36. If you can get a player signed through 35, I know it sounds silly, but that might be a victory in and of itself, capturing more of a player’s prime years from 29-35. If it’s the right player and you expect him to age well, it can be a more tolerable risk than signing a player who’s already into his 30s and you go into the late 30s. If you look at the history of big, long-term contracts, just narrowing it to position players, most of the ones that in hindsight can truly be deemed mistakes are ones that captured years in the late 30s or mid-to-late 30s. If you focus more on the prime years, you give yourself a much better chance to get the kind of return on investment that you’re looking for."

---

The Angels had been considered the favorites to sign Crawford since the offseason began, but they wound up losing him to the Red Sox when Crawford turned down a reported take-or-leave-it offer from Angels owner Arte Moreno.

The Angels, who were third in the AL West last season after winning three straight division titles, were also expected to make a strong run at Werth. GM Tony Reagins was stoic about losing Crawford.

"We're committed to winning," Reagins said. "We're going to play baseball, play it hard, play it every day. Free agency is part of the process. Our commitment is to our fans and we're going to put a championship-caliber team on the field and we'll keep moving forward."

The Angels are now expected to target Beltre on the free-agent market and Reagins all but conceded that it is difficult for his team to land the most expensive free agents.

"In the future we'll probably be on this side of things," Reagins said. "I think a lot of other clubs have players going in the other direction. It's not unique. It's something that happens every year. I think you compete (with the Red Sox and Yankees) by developing and scouting. You do those things well, you can compete. They have revenue streams that other clubs don't have."

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Speaking of Werth, the Phillies refused to go more than four years in their effort to re-sign him, an offer that his agent Scott Boras called "well below" market value. However, Boras also refrained from criticizing the Phillies and GM Ruben Amaro.

"Philadelphia's an organization that's really well-run," Boras said. "They're really one of the Goliaths in the industry. They can do what they want to do, what they choose to do, economically because they're that successful. Whether or not, baseball-wise, they felt that was the right decision, you'd have to talk to Ruben about that. But, certainly, they have the ability to attract any player."

Rookie Domonic Brown is expected to replace Werth in right field for the Phillies. Brown is also a Boras client and was released from his winter league team in the Dominican Republic after going 2-for-29 in nine games. Brown had a .230 True Average in 70 plate appearances with the Phillies last season.

"I think he was really tired, to be honest with you," Boras said of Brown's disappointing time in the Dominican. "He played a full season, and then he was in the big leagues in September. That's the longest baseball season he's ever had. He went over there and was really, I think, physically tired. We wanted to get him in a training regimen so he has a chance to prepare for the season and get his strength back up."

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While Crawford and Werth received huge contracts, the tipping point for Reds GM Walt Jocketty deciding to sitting out free agency this winter came when the Dodgers signed infielder Juan Uribe for three years and $21 million.

"They (the contract totals) seem a little higher than I expected," Jocketty said. "I don't like to comment on what other teams do. Some teams find it harder to attract free agents. They pay more because of that."

The winter contract that could affect the Reds the most is the extension shortstop Troy Tulowitzki signed with the Rockies. The seven-year, $134 million deal takes Tulowitzki through the 2020 season and could impact the Reds' chances of singing first baseman Joey Votto to along-term contracts after they agreed to term on a six-year $51 million pact with right fielder Jay Bruce on Thursday.

"It probably will to some extent," Jocketty said. "It's a different situation. They already had him signed for three years. They thought it was important for the long-term security of the team and player to extend it. We're not in the position to do that."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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