The Red Sox have made a few big moves this offseason. They signed Carl Crawford, traded for Adrian Gonzalez, and picked up Bobby Jenks--certainly the team is much-improved from last year. In a way, it's been a very unusual winter for the Red Sox.
The obvious difference is that the organization has brought itself up to New York levels of spending; while the team has made some big moves in the past, they've never approached this territory before. But just as they've been making the best moves when it comes to the big-money pickups, they seem to have faltered when it comes to the small transactions.
When the offseason started, the Red Sox had a few big holes: the bullpen, corner outfield, and at catcher. Their corner infield problem was sewn up nicely by the Adrian Gonzalez signing, but it's in dealing with the other two problem areas that the Sox have made a series of minor moves that just don't really make any sense. It began, innocently enough, with the re-signing of Jason Varitek.
O Captain! Why Captain?
On the surface, bringing Jason Varitek back is an easy enough move to get behind. The Sox give their captain and consummate veteran a contract half out of loyalty and, perhaps, half in search of a veteran figure who can provide a mentor and backup to Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Looking a little deeper, however, there was no reason for the Sox to pull the trigger so early.
In making Jason Varitek the backup catcher, the Sox essentially locked Jarrod Saltamacchia into the starting position, leaving the biggest question mark on the team unanswered. The team would be hard pressed to cut Jason Varitek from a PR standpoint, and with Saltalamacchia out of options, removing either man from the team would mean the resources spent on acquiring them were completely wasted.
Admittedly, there were not that many great options out there for the Red Sox, there were certainly enough that would at least provide a good defensive starter who could fill in should Satlalamacchia prove inadequate. Instead, the Red Sox have a young prospect-type who has yet to prove himself a Major League starter, and an old veteran who hasn't performed well as a starter in years.
The day that news of Jason Varitek's return to the Red Sox broke also happened to be the deadline for teams to tender players a contract -- a deadline which resulted in some more puzzling choices by the front office.
The Other Buchholz
Taylor Buchholz and Andrew Miller were two of the first additions made by the Red Sox this past offseason. Neither were tendered a contract by the Red Sox. On some level, it made sense for the Sox to let both players go -- they were both due arbitration, and as uncertain commodities, Boston could hardly afford to be guaranteeing them significant salaries. With Miller, it all worked out, too. The Sox managed to re-sign the former first-round pick to a minor league deal, stashing him away for the future should he manage to work out his problems and make good on his old potential without having to deal with a $2 million or more contract.
Taylor Buchholz, however, is now a New York Metropolitan.
Like Miller, Buchholz was in no way a sure thing. Coming off Tommy John surgery, he had only thrown 12 innings in 2010, but the upside was, once again, big. Before the surgery, Buchholz had emerged as a premier reliever with Colorado, posting a 2.17 ERA in 2008. Realistically, his salary would not have been particularly exorbitant -- he had come in well under $2 million in his first year of arbitration, and missing time with surgery is not exactly the best argument for a raise.
Hello Okajima, Goodbye Ramirez
But still, $2 million is a decent amount, right?
Then why sign Hideki Okajima?
Another casualty of a non-tendered contract, Okajima has spent the last few years on a downward slope, getting worse with frightening consistency as the seasons pass. Once one of the great "small moves" by the Sox, the former setup man did little more than blow games in 2010. With no great ability to get even lefties out, Okajima did not project to be a contributing member of the 2011 Red Sox.
The non-tender was almost a certainty going into the offseason. It was a move that just made sense. And then one month after the Red Sox made the smart decision, they undid it, signing Hideki Okajima to a $1.75 million contract with incentives. It's not that Okajima was their only option, either -- a number of solid lefty specialists were still available at the time.
Okajima's signing would have been bad enough if it were just money down the drain, but the roster spot proved costly too. Days before making the Okajima signing official, the Sox had picked up Max Ramirez off of waivers. While Ramirez is no great asset -- essentially Jarrod Saltalamacchia version 2.0 -- he at least provided the Red Sox another shot at striking gold. To give that up for a shot at striking brass? It just doesn't make sense.
Risk - Reward
After the 2008 season, the Red Sox emphasized a strategy of low risk, high reward. The idea didn't pan out. John Smoltz and Brad Penny were unimpressive, and while Takashi Saito was a solid reliever, he was mostly used for seventh innings and out-of-hand ninths. Still, the logic behind the approach was sound. Just because the players they picked up didn't perform doesn't mean the Sox should shy away from the approach, but more and more, they have.
In 2010, it was the low-risk, low-reward approach of throwing a ton of relievers at the wall and hoping some of the quadruple-A players and major league washouts would overperform. They didn't. Now, going into the 2011 season, the Sox have just decided to go all-out and spend millions on top-quality players. It's the Yankees approach, and yes, it will get results. But that only works for so many roster spots, and the Sox have 25 to fill. So why not go back to that low-risk, high reward strategy? Especially for that last spot in the bullpen, or the seemingly-hopeless catcher's spot?
That's what they were doing with Taylor Buchholz, and that's what they were doing with Max Ramirez. Which makes it all the more confusing that they've decided to suddenly turn away from that path and go back to -- and I hate to say this with what these players have done for the team in the past -- mediocrity with Hideki Okajima and Jason Varitek.
The Red Sox will be a great team in 2011. Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez will make sure of that. But they could have had a shot at being better, even if it were a small one.