Bargain Shopping

The American League East is going to be stacked in 2009. But, with the recent high-reward, low-risk moves made by general manager Theo Epstein, the Boston Red Sox are in excellent position to contend, despite losing out in the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes, writes Tyler Hissey.

A lot of New Englanders are up in arms that the Boston Red Sox lost out in the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes to their arch-nemesis.

Although this agitated some members of Red Sox nation, Boston is again going to be right in the thick of things in the majors' strongest division.

For starters, adding Teixeira was not exactly a necessity for the Red Sox—especially at $180-million, in a deal with a lot of downside risk.

While the franchise had the financial resources to land the switch-hitting slugger, its lineup is already among the strongest in the American League. True, there are concerns about the health status of third baseman Mike Lowell, who probably would have been dealt had the Red Sox landed the prized hitter in this free-agent class, and David Ortiz.

The Boston offense is coming off a season in which they led the league in on-base percentage and finished second in runs scored, however, and is likely to put up a lofty run total again in 2009. A lack of production from the corners does not appear to be a major issue. Kevin Youkilis was a legitimate M.V.P. candidate who consistently works deep counts and gets on base while hitting for power. If Lowell or Youkilis are affected by the injury bug, though, the organization also has top first base prospect Lars Anderson waiting in the wings at Triple-A. Anderson, who is likely to spend most of 2009 at Pawtucket, provides some excellent insurance in the short term. A cost-effective option who is under team control for several years, he also has the potential to man the position effectively well into the next decade.

While adding Teixeira would have been nice, losing out on his services might end up as a blessing in disguise.

In addition, general manager Theo Epstein is not exactly sitting back on his laurels. Epstein, in fact, has been busy of late in his attempt to improve his roster, making several high-reward, low-risk signings this past week while scouring the bargain bin.

And there is a real chance that the shrewd roster moves made by Epstein and his staff will play a major role in how the American League East unfolds. His discount shopping landed veteran starting pitchers Brad Penny and John Smoltz as well as reliever Takashi Saito, who all agreed to affordable contracts that are laced with incentives. From the perspective of the organization, there is little guaranteed money tied up into the trio, limiting the overall risk.

The lotto ticket analogy that is being thrown around is a perfect way to describe these moves. Each pitcher was slowed down by arm issues this past season, but, considering the price and length on the respective contracts, it is hard not to like the thought process behind the transactions.

Penny is coming off the worst performance of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, thanks in large part to constant injuries and the failure to give his throwing shoulder the proper rest which it needed to fully recover. He was placed on the disabled list on three separate occasions throughout the spring and summer, and probably would have been better off shutting it down much sooner than he did.

Penny, two years removed from starting the All-Star game for the National League, ended up posting a career-high 6.27 ERA. The 30-year-old right-hander was only able to toss 94.2 innings pitched, going 6-9 in 17 starts. Equally as telling, he produced the worst K/9 (4.85) and BB/9 (3.99) rates of his career and a 68 ERA+.

Penny could flourish if he puts his shoulder issues behind him, though, especially in Boston. He will be reunited with Josh Beckett and Lowell, his teammates on the 2003 World Series Champion Florida Marlins. There is no guarantee it will work out, obviously, and he is unlikely to return to his form from 2007, when he was elected to his second consecutive All-Star team and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting after posting an outstanding 151 ERA+. As is the case with every pitcher, moving into the stronger league will not do him any favors as he attempts to get his career back on track, either. Regardless, he adds a nice option at the back end of the Red Sox's starting rotation, with the potential to make a huge impact if he can stay healthy.

Smoltz was also limited by a shoulder issue in 2008. The 42-year-old veteran made only five starts and one relief appearance before undergoing season-ending surgery. There was talk that he would return to the bullpen in order to stay on the field, but the damage was too serious for him to continue pitching at all. Before he went under the knife, though, he continued to miss bats and put up zeroes, striking out 36 in 28.0 innings while posting a 165 ERA+.

Smoltz was equally effective in 2007, when he struck out 197 in 205.7 innings pitched for Atlanta. At 41 years young, he produced a solid 137 ERA+ and rates of 8.62 K/9 and 2.06 BB/9. Clearly, despite the advanced age, he maintained quality stuff and had no problem getting hitters out.

According to reports, Smoltz is making steady progress in his rehab, but is expected to be out until at least June. It will be weird seeing him in another uniform, since he was such a franchise icon for the Braves. Given the fact that he is unlikely to return until mid-summer, though, it was a wise decision for Frank Wren to cut ties with the Future Hall of Famer.

However, unlike Atlanta, Boston can afford to roll the dice on a move like this, especially with the leftover cash at its disposal. If all goes according to plan, look out. Smoltz has experience in numerous roles, having spent part of the decade as one of the most dominant closers on the Senior Circuit. Plus, he has a stellar postseason resume, which cannot be overlooked here. The fact that he has the chance to compete for a ring had to factor in the difficult decision to leave the only team that he has ever known.

Saito has been one of the most productive relievers in the majors since coming over from Japan three years ago. Serving as the Dodgers' closer, he racked up 81 saves while posting a 229 ERA+ and .0912 WHIP in 180 appearances. He has shown the ability to consistently miss bats—12.29, 10.91 and 11.49 K/9 rates from '06-'08, respectively—and is not prone to give up home runs or walk a lot of hitters.

After making 135 appearances in his first two campaigns in the United States, though, Saito was limited to only 45 in his last stint with the Dodgers. He was still effective when he was healthy enough to take the hill, striking out 60 in 47.0 innings pitched while putting up a 2.49 ERA and 171 ERA+. An injury to his right elbow limited his productivity, costing him most of the second half.

There are some red flags with Saito, of course. He recently had a non-surgical procedure on the elbow, which could turn into a major issue. In addition, the former All-Star is entering his 39-year-old season. With that said, Boston is only on the hook for between $1.5- and 2.5-million in guaranteed money in an incentive-laded one-year deal. If he performs like he has in the past, the Red Sox will have no problem tacking on the additional salary. Similar to the other moves, it is a gamble worth taking. If all goes well, Saito adds another capable option to pitch high-leverage situations in the late innings.

The Red Sox now have incredible depth in the bullpen, with several capable relievers—Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima and the recently acquired Ramon Ramirez—who can bridge the gap to Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth. What was an area of weakness at times for the club with the likes of one-pitch Mike Timlin soaking up innings in the recent past has the chance to turn into an area of real strength for the Red Sox, who on paper have the premier relief unit in the AL East.

Epstein also added three position players: outfielder Rocco Baldelli, catcher Josh Bard and infielder/outfielder Mark Kotsay, who filled in nicely at first base for Boston when Lowell went down.

The sad tale of Baldelli is well-documented. A tremendous talent coming out Bishop Hendricken High School in Rhode Island, he burst onto the scene in 2003 with an excellent rookie performance with the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays. A plethora of injuries, however, have prevented him from fulfilling the potential that made some scouts compare him to another center fielder who wore the number five. During spring training, the story took another sad twist; Baldelli was diagnosed with mitochondrial disorder, a rare muscle fatigue condition. At that point, many within the Tampa Bay organization doubted that he would ever step on a field at the major league level again. In a pleasant turn of events, he was able to play a surprise role for the AL Champion Rays down the stretch and in the postseason, even hitting big homers in the ALCS and World Series.

Earlier this offseason, Baldelli received some more excellent news. His initial diagnosis of mitochondrial disorder, he learned at the Cleveland Clinic, was actually not entirely accurate. The doctors in Cleveland determined that he was actually suffering from channelopathy, a less severe disorder that he should be able to bounce back from.

Baldelli is still an injury risk for the obvious reasons. With the new update on his health status, though, his chances of playing the outfield on back-to-back days have gone up significantly. Plus, he is only expected to make $500,000 guaranteed. He gives Boston one of the most talented fourth outfielders around, with the chance to really succeed for his hometown team in a cost-effective signing.

Kotsay was brought back as insurance for Baldelli, if he was forced into an everyday role because of an injury to Jason Bay or J.D. Drew and could not handle the responsibility of playing full-time.

Are all of these signings going to work out?

Probably not.

Epstein is playing a numbers game, though, and the more chances to strike gold, the better. Considering the minimal guaranteed money tied up—estimated to be around only $14-million—this seems like a sound approach. Plus, it provides Boston with some nice flexibility, from both a financial and pitching standpoint. Arms come at a premium during the regular season, but Epstein has enough depth to work with—especially with prospects Michael Bowden, Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz ready to make an impact if needed—that is unlikely he will have to test the trade waters to upgrade his pitching staff anytime soon. If he does need to fill a hole externally, he also has a nice pile of cash to work with.

Some question marks remain in Boston, especially at catcher. Epstein has called Scott Boras' bluff in regards to the Captain, Jason Varitek. He is doing the right thing by letting the market come to him with Varitek, who seems to be stuck in Type-A Free Agent purgatory; no competent general manager could be able to justify giving up an early draft pick to sign an aging catcher who was practically a guaranteed out in the second half.

In addition, it would not be a surprise to see Epstein work out a deal with the Texas Rangers, who have a surplus of young catching prospects and are looking for pitching help. Either way, it is doubtful that Bard will break spring training camp as the everyday guy behind the plate.

Regardless of what happens on the catching front, though, the Red Sox are still in excellent position to compete for a playoff spot in a stacked division.

To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com. In a recent show of Around The Majors, Tyler discussed Boston's offseason with Randy Booth, who covers the Red Sox for OverTheMonster.com. Pete Hissey, a fourth-round selection by Boston in the 2008 draft, filled in as a guest host, offering some insights on his experiences in professional baseball to this stage of his young career. Click here to listen to the show.

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