LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Boston Red Sox were bold. They were resolute. They were a little sly.
In the hours after the New York Yankees went all in on Cliff Lee(notes) and awaited his reaction, as the Los Angeles Angels became consensus favorites to land the finest position player on the free-agent market, when their trade for Adrian Gonzalez(notes) looked like all that might carry them away from third place and into 2011, the Red Sox became the best team in baseball.
[Photos: Boston's newest catch]
Late Wednesday night, as the lights were going down on the winter meetings, the Red Sox struck a landmark deal with Carl Crawford(notes), the fleet and strong and elegantly talented left fielder who could make them all champions again. He will be paid $142 million over seven seasons, a contract that in overall value rates second all-time among outfielders. Ten years ago, the Red Sox signed a different left fielder, Manny Ramirez(notes), to an eight-year, $160-million contract, over the course of which they won two World Series championships, ending nearly nine decades of futility.
Crawford comes straight from the Tampa Bay Rays, who were AL East winners, but who on the same December day lost first baseman Carlos Pena to the Chicago Cubs and then their most complete offensive player to the Red Sox.
And he drove directly through the Bronx, where attentions had been on Lee as the Red Sox – over three riveting days – dealt four prospects to the San Diego Padres for Gonzalez and then shoveled $140 million at Crawford.
To an offense that ranked second only to the Yankees in 2010, the Red Sox have added two productive left-handed bats and two Gold Glovers (although they did lose right-handed sluggers Victor Martinez(notes) and Adrian Beltre(notes) to free agency). In Crawford, they have added the second-most stolen bases among active players, 409. And they have added depth to a lineup that will be harsh on right-handers; Crawford, Gonzalez, J.D. Drew(notes), David Ortiz(notes) and Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) bat left-handed.
So the balance of power in the Northeast corridor, in the American League, and in the game over, shifts toward Boston and toward owner John Henry and his deep pockets.
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“The bar,” one American League GM said early Thursday morning, “keeps getting raised. Crazy.”
While the Yankees bickered over cab fare with their iconic shortstop, the Red Sox pulled up in a limo and boarded one of the sport’s better players, a 29-year-old version of what the Yankees once were trying to become: more athletic and closer to their prime.
It’s going so well for the Red Sox, even their moments of failure become serendipitous. When they agreed to the trade that would bring Gonzalez, it was with the hope they would sign him to a long-term extension. Their negotiating period ended without a deal, and they went through with the trade anyway, perhaps spawning the idea that money not spent immediately on Gonzalez could be funneled to Crawford.
Maybe that’s why folks have taken to calling Crawford “The Perfect Storm.” On the Red Sox roster, beneath a Red Sox front office that once dubbed the Yankees “The Evil Empire,” Crawford’s $140 million joins Josh Beckett’s(notes) $68 million, John Lackey’s(notes) $82.5 million, Drew’s $70 million, Ortiz’s $62.5 million, Kevin Youkilis’(notes) $41.1 million, Daisuke Matsuzaka’s(notes) $52 million and Pedroia’s $40.5 million. The Red Sox spent $165 million on player salaries in 2010, and again will be in that neighborhood.
Going on midnight here, the Yankees had not yet heard back from Lee’s representatives, but they had heard from Crawford’s. If they were going to upgrade their outfield and their offense – Jayson Werth(notes) had signed three days earlier with the Washington Nationals for seven years and $126 million – it would be from somewhere else.
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The more devastating call, however, went to the Angels, who should have been counting on Crawford to make them whole again. A year ago, when they’d fallen to third in the AL West, they were poor defenders. They lacked certainty on the basepaths. They were growing old in the outfield. They couldn’t get on base and they slugged with some of the worst offenses in the league. Their once dynamic game had grown stale.
Crawford, so highly recommended by Angels team leader Torii Hunter(notes), would have solved much of that. They’d get first baseman Kendry Morales(notes) back from the disabled list, and feel the freshness of a new generation, and push the game from the basepaths again. Perhaps now they turn to the third baseman Beltre, who’d been the best of the Red Sox the season before, though Angels ownership is said to be resistant to negotiating with Beltre’s agent, Scott Boras. They could also fight the Yankees and Texas Rangers for Lee, though they almost surely would lose that, too.
The Yankees did not make an offer to Crawford and it’s unclear whether the Angels did. But the fact is, the off-season from here – for the Yankees, in particular – will all be a reaction to what the Red Sox did late Wednesday night, to what the light of Thursday morning will bring to the American League.
The Red Sox were bold. Now everyone else is trying to catch up.