NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Boston Red Sox's $120.2 million shopping spree has bought them a catcher who can't really catch, an outfielder who may not hit, an outfielder who probably should be a DH, a DH who will be a DH and a backup catcher. The free-agent market is Rodeo Drive prices for J.C. Penney production, and no team personifies that like the Red Sox.
And yet to boil it down to pure numbers sells short the upshot of the Red Sox's offseason binge, which continued Tuesday with the signing of Shane Victorino to a three-year, $39 million deal and followed that of Mike Napoli (three years, $39 million), David Ortiz (two years, $26 million), Jonny Gomes (two years, $10 million) and David Ross (two years, $6.2 million). This is as much an overhaul of a poisonous clubhouse atmosphere as it is a restocking of an organization in desperate need of talent. Boston wants to turn the old winning-creates-chemistry adage on its head and hope chemistry creates winning.
These are the new Red Sox … friendlier than the old ones.
Better? Well, it's tough to get worse than the 93-loss debacle that was the Red Sox this past season. Bobby Valentine is gone, and the stench of discontent that permeated the clubhouse all season long left with him. The starting pitching, such a mess in 2012, seemingly can't get much worse. And a clubhouse bereft of personality, leadership and the many intangibles that led to a revolt against Valentine midseason gets a dose of guys with what baseball sorts deem good makeup – the kind of personality that blends into a clubhouse and improves its dynamic.
It's pretty easy to improve on a leaderless, mutinous mess. Doing the same with the on-field product is far more difficult, and each of the Red Sox's signings comes with at least one significant red flag.
Napoli, the catcher who can't really catch, hit .227 this season. The Red Sox rationalized his signing as a testament to his power, which is enormous, and his patience, which is admirable. Still, if Napoli spends most of his time at first base, it leaves the Red Sox with a $13 million-a-year corner infielder who, outside of an outlier 2011, does not hit like a corner infielder.
Victorino, the outfielder who may not hit, comes off the worst offensive season of his career. He is 32. Generally, players are in the regressive states of their career at that age. And he got $13 million a year to play a corner-outfield spot, with Jacoby Ellsbury in center this year and fast-tracking prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. penciled in for 2013.
Gomes, the outfielder who probably should be a DH, is expected to play left. Since becoming a free agent, no team ever has guaranteed him more than one year and $1.75 million, and the Red Sox gave him two for $5 million apiece. He struck out 104 times in 279 at-bats this year. He's got power and he walks, and if he and Napoli can tap into their strengths, this offense has a chance to be dangerous.
Ortiz, the DH who will be a DH, is another such catalyst, back for his 17th season. The good: His 1.026 OPS this season was better than Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown OPS. The bad: He is a 37-year-old DH, and beyond a few choice examples – Edgar Martinez, Jim Thome, Harold Baines – carcasses litter the history of 37-and-over DHs.
Ross, the backup catcher, is a backup catcher. And the Red Sox are paying him $3.1 million a year.
[Related: MLB free-agent tracker]
This is because the Red Sox are one of baseball's whales, and even as the sellout streak at Fenway Park continues only in the minds of executives who want to preserve it, revenues remain robust enough to hike the spending back up after the great purge of August, when the Red Sox shed more than a quarter-billion dollars in contracts. Flexibility was their greatest asset – and in the short term, much to their competitors' delight, they've cannibalized it.
Boston's 2013 payroll stands at $94.2 million after Victorino signed. Their eight arbitration cases should cost about $26 million, and that's including Jacoby Ellsbury, the center fielder who could get moved for some more pitching. Were the Red Sox not to make another move, they would be a $125 million team that, two executives agreed, would still finish toward the bottom of the American League East.
Now, that is no insult. The last-place team in the AL East might win another division. Still, to devote $48.6 million to this season's team and have a mishmash to show for it is the tack of Ben Cherington, the Red Sox's newly empowered general manager. He saw how long-term contracts ate away at his organization's future. He refused to engage in another.
And so while the short-term flexibility does vanish and leave the Red Sox's success in the near-future up to their farm system's ability to graduate Bradley and shortstop Xander Bogaerts and right-hander Matt Barnes and the rest of the stars in an on-the-comeback minor league cache, Boston looks quite dandy down the road.
Five teams do not have a single guaranteed contract for the 2016 season: Houston, Oakland, Miami, Seattle and Boston. These are not often the teams with which the Red Sox find themselves associated: three of the cheapest in the major leagues and a fourth that has lost revenues in recent years. For the Red Sox, this is not out of necessity. It is a plan.
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Jeff Passan on surprises at winter meetings]
They want to rekindle the model that saw Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis and Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon come through the system and sign long-term extensions, which, coupled with free-agent bounties and trades, turned the Red Sox into the envy of organized baseball.
Today, they are the team fixing its broken clubhouse, and if that so happens to translates to winning baseball games, all the better. The 2012 season stunned the Red Sox – the fashion in which the team turned on the manager, and the fans turned on the team, and the ownership turned on its principles.
The model shattered, and this is what $120.2 million worth of glue looks like.
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