Epstein arrives ready to build on blockbuster
After adding Gonzalez, Red Sox seek relievers, righty bat
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Day 1 of the Winter Meetings was nearly complete by the time general manager Theo Epstein arrived early Monday evening, but his late entrance was more than worth it. Fresh off a Fenway Park news conference in which he helped unveil the long-coveted bat of Adrian Gonzalez, Epstein hopped down to Florida to focus on the rest of his offseason business.
"Getting down here late today was better than it would have been if we were getting down here late today without Adrian Gonzalez," Epstein said. "It was fine. It was definitely worthwhile to stick around for the press conference. I think it was an important moment for Adrian and his wife, and for the Red Sox. It was worth being there. [Assistant general manager] Ben [Cherington] and the guys here were working full steam ahead and just keeping me updated. I was on the phone with GMs and agents while I was en route."
So now that he has secured his big prize, what are his other areas of focus?
"Bullpen, bullpen," quipped Epstein.
In order to go as deep as they want to go in 2011, the Sox know they need a much better bullpen than the one that squandered too many leads last season.
Daniel Bard is one of the best setup men in the game, and the team is reasonably confident that closer Jonathan Papelbon will bounce back from the downturn he had in 2010. But the goal is to surround those two power arms with a collection of others manager Terry Francona can depend on.
Lefty Hideki Okajima had been vital for the Sox his first three seasons, but he was non-tendered after a poor 2010. Epstein said that the dialogue remains open with Okajima and his agent, and a return cannot be ruled out.
Beyond that, there are free-agent relievers on the market who could help Boston, including Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, Ron Mahay and several others.
The other thing Epstein is seeking is a right-handed bat, perhaps an outfielder. It won't be Jayson Werth, a player the Red Sox had plenty of interest in before the Nationals stunned many in the industry by signing him to a seven-year contract.
"The direct answer is that Jayson Werth won't be a Red Sox, and he's certainly somebody we considered pursuing under the right circumstances," Epstein said. "But how it affects us beyond that would be purely speculative."
The Red Sox currently have a starting outfield of Mike Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew. The first two missed much of the 2010 season with injuries. And while Drew was relatively healthy last season, he's been prone to health maladies throughout his career and is entering the final year of his contract.
"We may integrate a right-handed bat into the mix, if we can find the right one and the right spot," Epstein said. "Our outfield, there's been a lot of talk about our outfield, and we've talked about it internally. I feel like if we brought back the same group, we'd be OK. There's some benefit to bringing the right player into the mix for a couple of different reasons.
"It might allow us some time for some of our outfielders' development paths to take hold, provide more depth for guys who are coming off injury, and might provide a better mix against right or left-handed pitching. I think there is the possibility of us doing something in the outfield. It might be a more complementary-type move. And if we don't find something that makes sense, then we are comfortable going with the group that we have. We actually have some nice depth as it is. I think the right piece might work as well."
When Epstein mentions the "right piece" or "a complementary-type move", it sure doesn't sound like he is speaking of Carl Crawford, a free agent he met with last week.
Now that Gonzalez is in the fold and the Red Sox will likely sign him to a long-term extension within the next year, does that preclude them from signing a high-impact free agent this winter?
"The acquisition of Adrian is something we have to factor in to our short-, medium- and long-term forecasts," Epstein said. "But in a way, he helps our outlook, too, because he's on such a great contract this year. And because he's such a good player, he kind of addresses multiple needs at the same time. He's a foundational piece that affects the big picture. It changes what you're looking for in some respects. I wouldn't rule anything out. I wouldn't rule anything in."
One player the Sox won't pursue any longer is free-agent slugger Adrian Beltre, who had a tremendous 2010 season in Boston. Once the Gonzalez trade was complete, Kevin Youkilis instantly moved across the diamond on Boston's depth chart and became the club's starting third baseman.
In fact, Epstein confirmed Monday that he told Youkilis immediately after the season that he would move to third base if Beltre didn't return.
"We talked to Youk at the end of the year and said, 'There's a real good chance you'll be playing third base next year. Prepare there, and you can move to first. Unless Adrian is a Red Sox, you'll probably be playing third,'" Epstein said. "Now Adrian is a Red Sox, and he's playing third. I just didn't specify [which Adrian]. He's excited about the prospects of playing third."
As for the tandem behind the plate now that Victor Martinez is gone, Epstein thinks the Jarrod Saltalamacchia-Jason Varitek combination will fit nicely together. Varitek's new contract -- $2 million plus incentives -- isn't official yet, but will be once he passes his physical.
"It would be a nice mix," Epstein said. "You have two switch-hitters. You have a young catcher eager to learn who's always looked up to Jason Varitek. You've got a more veteran catcher who knows his role, who took a liking to the younger catcher and is eager to pass on his knowledge and wisdom, especially when it comes to handling a pitching staff. You have one catcher who hits right-handed pitching a little better and one who hits left-handed pitching a little better."