Now That Red Sox Are Looking Alive, It’s New York’s Move

Now That Red Sox Are Looking Alive, It's New York's Move And you were beginning to buy all that “bridge year” talk, weren’t you?

On Monday, the Red Sox ditched their conservative plans and reportedly dished out $87 million over five years to John Lackey, the best free-agent starting pitcher on the market. Then, they turned around and inked three-time Gold Glove outfielder Mike Cameron to a two-year, $15 million deal.

The only bridge in this scenario is the one Jason Bay must be ready to throw his agent off.

Over the weekend, Bay and his agent Joe Urbon rejected another Red Sox offer and then said they were ready to move on. They had an offer from the Mets on the table — you know, for leverage.

They called Theo Epstein’s bluff. And man, did it ever backfire on them.

It became clear after the winter meetings that the Red Sox just didn’t see the point in overpaying for Bay. Anything above four years and $60 million was just too much to sink into a player who couldn’t give you the one area that the club’s offseason game plan seems focused on improving: defense.

As solid a hitter as Bay was in his season and a half in Boston, the team viewed him as an average left fielder, at best — however right or wrong that assessment may be. Adding Cameron, who is still an elite defensive player even at age 36, is a significant boost to an already strong defense. 

Sure, by going this route you sacrifice some of Bay’s bat — though Cameron has hit 20-plus home runs in his last four seasons (and five of his last six). You can also argue that Cameron strikes out way too much (156 in 2009), but then so does Bay (162 in 2009). 

Maybe you’re not comfortable paying $7 million per to a .250 guy who’s going to give you 20 home runs and 80 RBIs in a good year. And maybe you’d prefer to throw more millions at the .280 hitter who’ll at least give you 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, even if he does walk back to the dugout with bat in hand in almost a third of his trips to the plate.

But we’ll come back to the offense.

The bottom line here is if you’re going to play one player $87 million over five years, is it going to be Jason Bay or John Lackey?

Exactly.

There are three pitchers who have won 10 games with an ERA under 4.00 for at least five consecutive years. Any guesses?

Johan Santana. Roy Halladay. And John Lackey.

He’s a third ace in the Red Sox rotation, joining Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. He’s also pretty darn good insurance, should Beckett end up somewhere else in a year. 

But Theo’s worried about two or three years down the line. I’m just dealing with next year.

Which brings us to the ultimate reality here: This is about the Yankees. It has to be.

At the winter meetings, it was New York creating all the buzz by dealing for Curtis Granderson. It was as if you could hear Hank Steinbrenner laughing, “Your move, Boston.” (Of course, he did so while gazing into the Yankees 27th World Series trophy. Or maybe he was polishing it. Anyways, you get the point.)

Meanwhile, the Sox were coming off a season in which they watched New York outbid them for Mark  Teixeira and then outplay them for a title. That has to impact your decision making process, doesn’t it?

As much as Red Sox owner John Henry cautioned about not spending like the Yankees, well, he kinda has to, doesn’t he? I mean, you’ve gotta play the game.

And let’s face it, as of last weekend, you couldn’t look at the Red Sox and Yankees and think they were even going into next season. There were too many unanswered questions coming out of Boston, and too much talk about bridge years and growing their prospects instead of trading them.

But add Lackey, and now we can at least make an argument. The Red Sox will challenge the champs, simply by virtue of a rotation that includes three aces. 

Now, about that lineup. Clearly, this Red Sox team will place a premium on pitching and defense in 2010. But who knocks in the big run that Mike Lowell or Jason Bay usually did? And who protects David Ortiz in this lineup? 

The signing of Lackey allows Boston to be flexible with Clay Buchholz. They can plug him in as a starter, or …

It’s entirely possible that Buchholz could still be used as a chip in a deal for a bat — say, Adrian Gonzalez? The thing is, Jed Hoyer doesn’t seem too keen on parting with his best and most marketable player. Yet. Plans can change by next July’s trading deadline, and it’s possible that the Sox wait that long to see how the offense develops.

They can, with pitching and defense like this. Or, while the checkbook is still open, they could always throw more millions in the direction of, say, Adrian Beltre. His glove would fit the defensive-minded approach, and the Green Monster might be just what his bat needs (Safeco Field sure isn’t). But if the Red Sox balked at a five-year deal for Bay, that same logic should follow with Beltre, right?

Meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to see the reaction in New York to the Red Sox' moves. The Yankees still need a left fielder. What do you want to bet both Bay and Matt Holliday get a call from the Bronx?

Your move, Hank.

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