Theo Epstein's payroll for the upcoming season is not going to be Yankee-sized, but it certainly isn't going to be on par with the Marlins and Pirates, either. With almost 130 million dollars committed to 15 players, plus players like Manny Delcarmen, Jeremy Hermida, Casey Kotchman, Hideki Okajima, Jonathan Papelbon and Ramon Ramirez all due raises in arbitration that could total anywhere from 20-30 million dollars (with Papelbon possibly getting in to the 10 mil range), the Red Sox had to fill out a roster in a different way then just re-signing big ticket items like Jason Bay or Matt Holliday if they were going to keep the luxury tax hit within reason. The team's tactic this winter is to build the team around defense and pitching, similar to how football teams build around defense and special teams. In theory, this could work really well or go horribly, horribly wrong, and I don't believe there is going to be a middle ground.
Red Sox games are going to be much, much shorter this season. Let's face it, with the defense improved (in theory), it means fewer errors and fewer hits, which in turn would lead to less pitches being thrown by the pitching staff. So those marathon 4 to 5 hour Yankee games should be a rarity than the norm, and pitchers like Billy Traber won't have to be thrown to the wolves as much and left for dead. This team allowed 736 runs last season, 41 of which were unearned. The thing is, the 2009 Yankees allowed 753 runs, 64 of which were unearned, and they have added Curtis Granderson as a centerfielder while improving the defense by subtracting Johnny Damon, regardless of who his replacement is. What does this mean? It means that good offense can overcome defensive errors and bad pitching. If the Red Sox have a bad pitching performance or a bad day in the field, can the offense carry them for a game or two? Maybe. If the pitching and defense go into a week long funk, can the offense carry them then? Probably not.
What's curious is the mid-market approach Epstein is taking. Could they have signed Matt Holliday to a big deal? Of course they could have. Could they have re-signed Jason Bay? Yes, they could have. They went with a different tact, thinking that signing Marco Scutaro, John Lackey, Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre would be better than signing Holliday or Bay, re-signing Alex Gonzalez and getting another salvaged pitcher hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, a la John Smoltz, Brad Penny and the like. It's almost a newer version of Money Ball with a focus on UZR.
It's a huge gamble, and it relies on Jon Lester to get off to a good start for the first time in his career, Josh Beckett to pitch consistently for a full season, for John Lackey to stay healthy, for Dice-K to stay away from the buffet, Tim Wakefield to have a working back, and Clay Buchholz to make more progress (without having his personal pitching guru Mike Cather in the organization now to fall back on in case he meltss down). Which Manny Delcarmen shows up? How many days a week does Jason Varitek play and what happens to the lineup when Victor Martinez is out? Who sits? Does David Ortiz get fewer at-bats? What's the over/under on heart attacks caused by Papelbon this season?
Anyone who believes they know what this team is and has right now is wrong. No one knows. Adrian Beltre is still looking for his first Fenway Park home run. It's great that the infield defense is the best it has ever been, but you can't score runs when you're not at the plate. I do expect the improved defense will translate into more quality starts for the pitching staff, heck maybe Dice-K can even go 6 innings regularly (ok, not realy, he is the epitome of 5 and fly), but when this team gets into late July and August, which bat will carry the offense? One thing is for sure, depth-wise and defensively, this team is better than the one last season that went 95-67. It's a huge gamble for Theo, because he is banking on Red Sox Nation to embrace this new philosophy once they see it work. If they don't see results right away, sports-radio, print media and the like will blast the Red Sox for being cheap, when in reality, they are spending alot of money on an experiment. Whether that translates to a better record than last season is the 170 million dollar question.