Hot Stove Daily: Boston Red Sox

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Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Boston Red Sox.

2008 record: 95-67, AL wild-card berth

Finish: Second in American League East, two games behind the Tampa Bay Rays

2008 opening-day payroll: $133.4 million

2009 estimated opening-day payroll: $125 million to $127 million

OFFSEASON ACTION

The Red Sox had visions of Mark Teixeira anchoring the middle of their lineup for the next eight years and took it personally when agent Scott Boras – at the direction, he insists, of his client – gave the Yankees last call on the switch-hitting first baseman.

The fallout from that snub appears to have had a direct impact on catcher Jason Varitek, as the Red Sox broke off talks with Boras until after team owner John W. Henry and Varitek had an air-clearing meeting last weekend in Atlanta, where Varitek maintains his offseason home. In December, Varitek inexplicably turned down the team’s offer of salary arbitration, which would have guaranteed him of at least matching his $10 million salary in 2008. With other teams unwilling to give up draft choices to sign the Type A free agent, the Red Sox captain appears to have little choice but to return to Boston at a deep discount.

Varitek is coming off the worst offensive season of his career – .220 batting average, three months under .200 and a .672 OPS, 200 percentage points below his career-best .872 in 2004 – and with his 37th birthday looming in April, the Red Sox are casting about for his eventual replacement. To date, they have resisted unloading either of their top pitching prospects, Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden, for a catcher the caliber of Jarrod Saltalamacchia of Texas or Miguel Montero of Arizona. That could change in spring training.

Unable to land the big-ticket Teixeira, Boston general manager Theo Epstein instead bought low, signing free agents from the damaged bin: starting pitchers John Smoltz and Brad Penny, reliever Takashi Saito, catcher Josh Bard and outfielder Rocco Baldelli. Smoltz, coming to Boston after 21 years with the Atlanta Braves, may provide the highest return: While early projections had him returning in June after undergoing surgery for a torn labrum last June, Smoltz dazzled Boston brass with a December workout, and appears highly motivated to prove that the Braves erred badly in not offering him more guaranteed money.

Epstein also traded outfielder Coco Crisp to Kansas City for reliever Ramon Ramirez, who will join Justin Masterson and Manny Delcarmen as right-handed setup men. The trade also assured that Jacoby Ellsbury, who led the AL in steals with 50 as a rookie in 2008, will be the everyday center fielder, though a healthy Baldelli presents a platoon option. Epstein also made a precedent-setting move by signing pitcher Junichi Tazawa out of a Japanese industrial league, much to the distress of Japanese professional teams opposed to the poaching of amateurs by MLB. Tazawa is likely to start in the minor leagues, but projects the potential of a high-round draft pick.

Epstein also gave the Red Sox some future payroll certainty by signing AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and All-Star first baseman Kevin Youkilis to long-term deals, while quickly striking a one-year deal with closer Jonathan Papelbon, whose $6.25 million deal is an arbitration record for a closer with three years service.

REALITY CHECK

While Epstein cited the uncertain economy for the Sox culling the discount racks, he has done similar shopping in the past with spectacular results, most notably in 2003, when he added David Ortiz (nontendered by Twins), Kevin Millar (bound for Japan), Bill Mueller and Todd Walker, all key contributors on a team that won 95 games that season.

Even without Teixeira, the Red Sox boast a team that was outscored only by the Texas Rangers (901 to 845) in the AL, and that was with Ortiz battling a wrist injury all season. A bounce-back season by Ortiz is essential and third baseman Mike Lowell needs to show that at 35, he can recover from hip surgery. Reports are encouraging and Lowell was listed on the provisional roster for Puerto Rico’s entry in the World Baseball Classic.

This will be the first time since 2001 that the Red Sox begin a season without Manny Ramirez in the middle of the lineup. No one is pretending that Jason Bay is Ramirez, but Bay’s 128 OPS+ in his two months with the Red Sox compared favorably to Ramirez’s 136 OPS+ before he was traded to the Dodgers. The Red Sox rattled off 18 wins in August, with the Ramirez soap opera behind them.

The Red Sox run differential of 0.94 was first in the AL and second in the big leagues, while the team’s .699 defensive efficiency was fifth in the majors. Second baseman Pedroia did not make a single throwing error. Boston expects starter Josh Beckett to return to his 2007 form, and Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka could be No. 1 starters on other clubs. The Red Sox have young alternatives (Buchholz, Bowden and Masterson) if their gambles on Penny and Smoltz do not work out, and the bullpen is deep and balanced.

Next: Milwaukee Brewers.

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