Don't hold your breath for the Red Sox to make big, newsworthy deals for players such as Adrian Gonzalez, Felix Hernandez, or especially Roy Halladay. The cost in terms of prospects is just too high, and the Sox have far fewer chips today than earlier this year.
In the case of Halladay, the cost would also include a massive long term contract for a pitcher entering his mid-thirties. That's just the kind the Red Sox are loathe to give.
In deals for Victor Martinez, Adam LaRoche/Casey Kotchman, Alex Gonzalez and Billy Wagner, the Sox gave up eight minor leaguers. That impacted their upper minor league ranks. And two of their most highly anticipated prospects–Michael Bowden and Lars Anderson–took big steps backward this year and may have been overrated from the start.
Theo Epstein always has an eye on the future, and on future payroll costs. The GM wants to use free agency and trades to supplement and deepen a roster built on homegrown talent.
With that in mind, the Red Sox are not likely to strip down their minor league system any further, and the chances of them parting with some combination of Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard and/or Casey Kelly are slim and none.
At this point, Buchholz and Bard are beyond prospects. They have proven themselves, to varying degrees, at the Major League level.
Kelly is now the Red Sox' prized pitching prospect, and could be ready for the Majors by 2011 or 2012, at the latest. He will be under team control, and therefore very cost effective, for six years thereafter. That makes him a keeper.
No doubt, Kelly could eventually implode, as Bowden has. But Kelly was more highly rated from the start. For what it's worth, Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said Kelly has a bright future as a pitcher and called him a "great kid."
"One of the best kids I've ever dealt with. Very mature," raves Oppenheimer.
The Red Sox will have a full season of Victor Martinez next year, and won't be saddled by the daily presence of Jason Varitek's bat in the everyday lineup. That's a big improvement by itself.
And it's likely that the Red Sox will retain Jason Bay after all. The Mariners have already spent big on Chone Figgins and are still in play for John Lackey. That would doubly hurt their division rival Angels.
Speaking of the Angels, last month Angels owner Arte Moreno said that he has roughly $12 million to spend on improving the club. That seems to preclude them from signing Bay or Lackey.
And manager Mike Scioscia has said the Angels have "more pressing needs... right now than the talent that Jason can bring," and that Bay might not be "a great fit for our club."
Unless that's a smokescreen, there's one less potential big market suitor for Bay.
And the left fielder probably has a limited market anyway, since his tepid defensive skills make him better suited for a DH role during the later years of a long term contract. It's hard to envision anyone topping the Red Sox' four-year, $60 million offer.
Assuming the Red Sox re-sign Bay (or sign Matt Holliday), their offense should be improved next year with the addition of Marco Scutaro and a full season of Martinez. As it was, their offense was very good in 2009.
The Red Sox 212 homers and 872 runs last season were better than the 166 homers and 867 runs they produced during their 2007 World Championship season.
Last season, the Red Sox were in the top five in all of baseball in ALL major categories. In fact, the Sox finished in the top two in many areas – second only to the Yankees.
They will be a playoff competitor again next year. But they will return with largely the same team as last season, which was swept in the ALDS.
But Epstein will not sacrifice his long term plan for a short term splash.
As he put it recently, “I’d say 90 percent of our time as baseball operations is spent trying to build the foundation and build our long-term outlook. Ten percent of our time is spent maximizing our competitiveness in any one particular year."
Unless the Red Sox sign free agents, trades would merely result in addition by subtraction, which doesn't seem like a great strategy. Other teams aren't eager to trade for Big Papi or Mike Lowell and their $12 million salaries. The players other teams call about are Ellsbury, Lester, Buchholz, Bard, etc.
The Red Sox will spend big next winter when the contracts of Papi, Lowell, Josh Beckett, and Julio Lugo come off the books, and the free agent market will be deeper.
In the meantime, they will resist the temptation of a short term payoff, focusing instead on larger, long term rewards. They will try to balance wise trades and free agent signings with the goal of keeping the pipeline of talented prospects flowing to the big league club. All the while, they will attempt to do this without ever entering into a rebuilding mode.
"The short fix – the shiny toy – it’s always attractive," said Epstein. "It’s always a temptation. There’s always a seduction there. I think we talk to each other about staying disciplined and making the move when it actually will have an impact, but not if it hurts us more in the long term than it helps us.’’
Keeping the GM's perspective in mind will help to temper any unrealistic expectations this offseason.