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Spending the Red Sox Money

When the Red Sox shipped Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers last year, they cleared a little more than $260 million in guaranteed contracts off their books. It was the salary dump to end all salary dumps, and that they happened to land a couple of flame throwing pitching prospects was just a nifty bonus. The primary motivation for the deal was to recoup the money they’d spent, giving them a chance to reallocate those dollars in a more effective fashion in the future.

This winter, that future is going to become the present. The Red Sox spent last winter redistributing their newly available cash to quality role players on short term contracts, and after the season ends, the team will not longer have any further commitments to the likes of Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, or Joel Hanrahan, and only Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, and Shane Victorino are signed through the 2015 season. Even after acquiring Jake Peavy at the trade deadline, the Red Sox are still expected to have approximately $40 million to spend this winter, and there are going to be opportunities for the team to put that money to use.

The primary decision, and the one that will shape what the rest of Boston’s off-season will look like, will require an in depth look at Jacoby Ellsbury’s value. Ellsbury’s return to excellence has been one of the driving factors in the team’s success, and it would not be easy to replace his production, especially considering that Ellsbury earned just $9 million this season. But, to retain his services for the future would likely require a 100% raise over a long term deal, and the Red Sox might not be that interested in signing another $100+ million deal with an outfielder whose value comes from speed and defense after seeing the Crawford deal go bad so recently.

If Ellsbury asks for something like $18 million per year over seven years — the 7/126 template that was given to Vernon Wells, Jayson Werth, and Barry Zito, making it both a popular and infamous contract total — then his days in Boston are likely numbered. With Shane Victorino capable of moving back to center field in the short term, and Jackie Bradley Jr around as a long term replacement, the Sox are not running low on center field options. The marginal value Ellsbury could provide to another team may very well be higher than the value he can provide to the Red Sox, who could fill his gap with a lower priced corner outfielder instead.

Of course, Ellsbury might not shoot for the moon, and the Red Sox would be foolish to closing the door on his return altogether. Having Ellsbury and Victorino play side by side hasn’t hurt them this year, and if he wants to continue his career in Boston at a less-than-market rate — say, $80 million over five years? — then the Red Sox should be willing to bring him back and figure out what to do with Victorino and Bradley when it becomes a problem. That scenario seems unlikely, however, with Ellsbury likely to command a much larger contract from a team badly in need of a center fielder who can also jumpstart an offense.

So, let’s pencil the Red Sox in for an outfielder not named Ellsbury. They’re also likely going to want a first baseman to replace Napoli, who has been decent but perhaps not quite as effective as hoped. They’ll probably also need an infielder who can slide between shortstop and third base, giving them some depth behind youngsters Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks. And finally, they’ll have a decision to make behind the plate, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia set for free agency.

$40 million and the shopping list includes an OF, an IF, a 1B, and a C? No problem. Here’s one way to spend those funds and keep the team in contention for years to come:

Sign catcher Brian McCann to a four year, $60 million contract.
Sign outfielder Carlos Beltran to a one year, $13 million contract.
Sign infielder Jhonny Peralta to a one year, $7 million contract.
Sign first baseman Michael Morse to a one year, $5 million contract.

McCann has had a huge season in his final year before free agency, answering some of the questions surrounding whether his body was breaking down after carrying a heavy workload in Atlanta since 2006. The Braves seem unlikely to re-sign McCann, but a qualifying offer is a near lock, which should depress the market and allow Boston to forfeit a late first round pick in order to pick up an impact bat at a reasonable price.

And as a bonus, the Sox already have McCann’s former platoon partner in David Ross, who they signed from the Braves last winter. McCann and Ross form a formidable left/right tandem, and Ben Cherington could get the band back together with a contract that lures McCann to Boston. While questions about his health are legitimate, McCann can produce enough to justify a $15 million paycheck even while spending parts of the year on the DL. Yes, it’s another lefty bat on a team that hasn’t hit right-handed pitching that well this year, but we’ll get to that part with the next three signings.

To replace Ellsbury in the outfield, the switch-hitting Beltran is something of the Red Sox ideal player: still productive, hits lefties, won’t require a long term commitment. The Cardinals outfield logjam may force Beltran to look for work elsewhere, and a move to the AL where he could get some days at DH when David Ortiz rests could help prolong his career. He would provide the perfect bridge to Bradley Jr, who could fill in as a part-time player behind Beltran in 2014 before taking a full-time job in 2015, when Victorino might be best served moving back to right field.

Additionally, the acquisitions of Peralta and Morse would give the team two more right-handed hitters who shouldn’t require multiple year commitments, and provide additional depth at multiple positions. Peralta likely won’t have a strong market after serving a 50 game suspension for being linked to BioGenesis, but he’s worth the gamble as a super utility guy who could split time between all the infield positions and play 3-4 days per week, or take over a starting job if either Bogaerts or Middlebrooks shows that they’re not quite ready for prime time. Morse was miscast as an outfielder by the Mariners, but could share the first base job with Mike Carp, allowing both to play the position where their lack of athleticism hurts the team as little as possible, and Morse can still hit lefties and fake it against right-handers if need be.

While the contract figures for McCann, Beltran, Peralta, and Morse are all speculative at this point, they’re reasonable price points for the players, as each comes with some kind of red flag but has enough upside to make the risk worth it. These players fit the mold that Cherington pursued last winter, allowing the team to make key additions when available without threatening the long term health of the franchise.

This is the kind of off-season that would set the Red Sox up for another strong push in 2014, and it’s only possible because of the Great Salary Dump of 2012. This is the trade that just keeps on giving.