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Agreed to terms with LHP Hideki Okajima on a one-year $2.75 million deal, avoiding arbitration; signed LHP Brian Shouse to a minor-league contract. [1/14]
Signed OF-R Darnell McDonald to a minor-league contract. [1/15]

Usually, the thing about any Boston action is that it almost requires its own appropriate soundtrack to provide the reliable background beat, but this one managed to stay below the radar for a while, even while being a seemingly done deal for more than a week without any official announcement (we’ve got him projected as a Red Sock in the book, for example). That’s slightly unusual, but let’s face it, the mid-January doldrums can anesthetize even the most enthusiastic local media market. That, or the shock of total victory by Eastasia the Yankees hasn’t worn off yet.

At any rate, with Shouse in the house, this would seem to firm up Boston’s southpaw picture, as Okajima and Shouse may well be the pen’s pair of left-handed persons. Shouse’s benefits are pretty much cut and dried. He’s employable against lefties, although less so these days, as his strikeout rate against the people he must get dropped to 20 percent, his lowest figure in four years, while he also allowed his highest ISO to them in that same span. Against righties, he flees for the dugout at the first sign of a right-handed batter more dangerous than Cristian Guzman. That combination is why he wasn’t getting guaranteed offers, because pitchers past 40 don’t get much benefit of the doubt as far as things automatically getting better.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are full-up on their 40-man, but that doesn’t mean Shouse faces especially long odds in his bid for another spin as somebody’s situational specialist, as long as he doesn’t have a disastrous camp. While gangly organizational soldier Dustin Richardson represents his in-house competition, if Shouse wins the fight, there’s room to fit him in, not even necessarily at Richardson’s expense. That’s because Theo Epstein’s usual acquisitiveness of the semi-interesting makes for a number of candidates of the readily disposable: there’s at least one Ramon Ramirez too many, and you can bet it isn’t Ram-Ram who’s going anywhere. November waiver claim Robert Manuel could be another at-risk 40-man2, because let’s face it, that’s the lot of 11th-spot aspirants without plus stuff.

Beyond Richardson, there’s another dark horse in the race to keep the roster spot out of Shouse’s clutches. Diminutive Dominican southpaw Fabio Castro‘s non-guaranteed deal might be just as easily converted into PawSoxery, but like Manuel, he’s interesting for his results, while also throwing harder than your average lefty; he also started off doing relief work in the White Sox and Rangers systems, before eventually getting moved into rotation work by the Phillies. The Jays, who got him for Matt Stairs in 2008, really didn’t seem to know what to do with him; he torched the Eastern League in four turns (24 Ks against three walks in 21 2/3 IP), which got him promoted to Las Vegas, which he survived (no mean feat) while doing less well, allowing 4.9 runs per nine, while his strikeouts dropped to 5.1 K/9. I don’t think Castro’s future is in a rotation, even if he’s only entering his age-25 season, because I don’t think anyone in the industry really believes a 5-foot-7 lefty would last as a rotation regular. However, the fastball and the fact that he didn’t wilt makes him interesting, and there’s a chance he’ll be much more useful than the Shouse types.

Meanwhile, credit Darnell McDonald (or his agent) with going to the right place. Where better for a veteran minor-league speedster than the team that made Dave Roberts briefly famous, let alone the team that made a point of putting Joey Gathright on its postseason roster just a few months ago?

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Re-signed C-R Ramon Castro to a one-year, $800,000 deal, with a $1.2 million club option for 2011 ($200,000 buyout); designated C-L Cole Armstrong for assignment. [1/12]
Signed RHPs Daniel Cabrera and Greg Aquino, LHP Erick Threets, UT-L Freddie Bynum, RF-L Josh Kroeger, and DH-S Jason Botts to minor-league contracts. [1/13]

As we saw last year with Bartolo Colon, not everything Don Cooper touches turns to gold; whether you’ve got the philosopher’s stone or not, you can only take some material, on the subatomic level or on the mound. So it’ll definitely be interesting to see what Cooper and company can make of Cabrera, if anything. They aren’t the first team to try, and they probably won’t be the last.

As for expectations that Jason Botts would be a monster in Japan, he wasn’t, winding up with sub-Gabara status by slugging .436 in barely more than 200 NPB plate appearances between a season and a half. So, while he’s interesting to note among the non-roster invites, he’s pushing 30 and is now almost five years removed from that big 2005 age-24 season in Oklahoma (.286/.375/.522) when it seemed like he might push into the Rangers’ DH and outfield picture and turn into something. Instead, he may have to settle for a nice stateside spin with the Knights, even with the Sox’ DH situation still stocked with the likes of Andruw Jones and Mark Kotsay. At this rate, I’m not counting out a Jim Thome return to the South Side until Opening Day, and perhaps not even then.

Which brings me to the “big” move. Inviting Castro back as A.J. Pierzynski‘s caddy isn’t exciting, because heading into his age-34 season, there’s just not going to be some new revelation about what an older Castro can do. Liberation was a long time ago, and you can expect that he’s going to slug a little, walk a little, struggle to deliver much of an average, catch well enough to keep his job, and generally do more than most backup catchers. The interesting development is that this should mean that we can excuse Tyler Flowers from that list of DH options. My reasoning is that carrying Flowers at the same time as Pierzynski might have worked if, beyond backup backstopping, Flowers also got first-base play during Paul Konerko‘s days off as well as a couple of DH starts per week. Now that Jones and Castro are signed up, there’s not much of that left, either in terms of playing time or roster room, so Flowers’ lot seems to involve at least a few months in Triple-A while the Sox see how far their veterans can take them. That can change, of course, since the Sox could always trade Pierzynski in the last year of his contract to make room for Flowers any time between now and August; given Flowers’ upside, that wouldn’t even represent a “season surrender” moment.

The other interesting factor here is the Sox freeing up Armstrong. Not that he’s a huge hidden asset, but lefty-batting catchers with modest sock don’t grow on trees. Heading into his age-26 season, Armstrong offers those two benefits, good receiving skills, a playable arm behind the plate, and that ought to add up to an employable backup. It’s just my two cents, but teams like the Blue Jays, Padres, or particularly the Astros ought to pick up the phone and see if there’s a minor exchange to be worked out before he hits waivers.

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Signed C-R Mike Redmond to a one-year, $850,000 contract. [1/15]

I like seeing Redmond wash up as a veteran caddy and placeholder, because there isn’t a ton to separate him in the broadest strokes from the Gerald Laird types of the universe, and with Carlos Santana‘s eventual greatness being one of those big, impending discoveries just over the horizon, the question is what seems solid in the meantime, and I’d suggest it might be Lou Marson‘s increasingly narrow window of opportunity. It isn’t that Marson’s terrible-I figure his upside is that he can be someone like Laird or Redmond, entirely employable, but as a big-league non-star. Even if Redmond only winds up being Marson’s caddy in the early going, it’s almost a pity that, no matter how well Marson does, his future’s not really in his hands. Santana’s already on the 40-man, and when his performance and the Indians‘ preferences for how to structure his arrival as far as service time align, Marson’s going to have hopefully taken notes from Redmond on what it’s like, being a useful player stacked up behind a star at his own position.

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Signed RHP Jose Valverde to a two-year, $14 million deal, with a $9 million club option for 2012; agreed to terms with RHP Joel Zumaya on a one-year, $915,000 contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/14]

There’s something spectacularly uninteresting to me about some closer signings, in that there’s not a lot to say about the particular pitcher. Is Valverde an established closer? Check. Does he throw hard? Generally. Will he be healthy for a good part of this deal? Again, as much as you can tell, generally yes. There’s nothing Kreskin-like in noting such things. If healthy, he’ll generate saves. He won’t be the best closer, but he’ll be effective, and compared with the likes of Todd Jones or Fernando Rodney, he’ll be a major improvement. Having an alpha reliever in a pen that’s counting on Ryan Perry and Daniel Schlereth to grow up and Zumaya to be healthy isn’t a bad thing, either.

No, what’s interesting about signing Valverde isn’t him per se as much as what it says about how the Tigers see themselves. Even with last month’s huge three-way swap, this club still has a major financial commitment to 2010, as they’re guaranteed to top a $100 million payroll, and that was going to be the case with or without Valverde. The fact that they’ve added Valverde to that mix means more than just a commitment to having a snug security blanket for a rotation relying on youngsters like Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer, it means that they still see themselves as in the AL Central race right now, with or without Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson. It’s well that they might, what with the modest standards for what constitutes contention in the division, but why not? Just because they’ll be breaking in young lineup regulars at second or behind the plate or in the outfield doesn’t mean they don’t also have enough stuff in play to be an 80-win team in a division where nobody looks like a lock for 90. The fact that they were willing to go two years on Valverde means they take that more seriously than, say, a one-year spin with someone else would have, because this isn’t just about 2010, and because with as much salary room as the Tigers figure to have beyond the expiration of so many contracts after the year, they could afford to make the commitment.

It’s certainly interesting, but given that they might be a bat (and a center fielder) short, it’s interesting to wonder if they see themselves as done, or if they wouldn’t go for a one-year solution. A one-year, incentive-laden spin with Jim Edmonds, perhaps? Rick Ankiel? Endy Chavez, even? There are worse ideas, with a couple of them already in Kansas City.

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Signed 4C-L Brad Nelson to a minor-league contract. [1/13]

There’s no surprise here, as Nelson’s a former Brewers farmhand and a Jack Zduriencik product (fourth round, 2001) just getting a repeat spin as a Tacoma file-filler after last season’s waiver-wire salvage operation. His virtues as a third baseman are sort of notional, and to call him a poor man’s Russell Branyan would be almost too complimentary. However, he has some pop and patience, generally being good for about 200 points of ISO and a walk rate around 10 percent when he’s rolling in the upper levels, so it isn’t inconceivable that he’d be able to contribute in a bench role or as a spot solution at first or an outfield corner in case of injury.

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Agreed to terms with RHP Brandon McCarthy on a one-year, $1.3 million contract, avoiding arbitration. [1/15]