As much hysteria as came with Theo Epstein's "bridge" talk earlier this month, the topic is worth revisiting -- if for no other reason than the fact that most analysts seem to have missed the point.
Here's the money quote again:
"We talked about this a lot at the end of the year, that we’re kind of in a bridge period. We still think that if we push some of the right buttons, we can be competitive at the very highest levels for the next two years. But we don’t want to compromise too much of the future for that competitiveness during the bridge period, but we all don’t want to sacrifice our competitiveness during the bridge just for the future. So we’re just trying to balance both those issues."
Here's what Epstein seems to be saying:
1. He has an eye on the arrival of some of his top prospects in the next couple of years, prospects that can re-infuse the Red Sox with talent.
2. He believes his team can be competitive "at the very highest levels for the next two years" without sacrificing all of that talent.
Keep in mind: Sacrificing talent doesn't mean trading talent. Sacrificing talent can mean blocking talent indefinitely -- thus all but forcing a trade. That's where Adrian Beltre comes into play -- not to mention names like Russell Branyan and Adam LaRoche that have been thrown around. The Red Sox still need a bat, or so they're saying, and Branyan, Beltre or LaRoche might be just enough to help them replace Jason Bay.
Beltre, one of the best defensive third baseman in the major leagues, has been rumored to be seeking anywhere from a three-year contract to a five-year contract worth upwards of $10 or $12 million a year.
The 30-year-old Beltre would be a terrific fit for the Red Sox next season: Not only would he replace Bay as the No. 6 hitter in the lineup, but he'd allow Kevin Youkilis to play first base and give the Red Sox four Gold Glove-caliber defenders in their infield.
(The assumption here is that Youkilis is an elite defensive player at first base but, while above average, not quite at that level at third base. Part of that has to do with the fact that it's generally easier to play first base than to play third base.)
Should the Red Sox sign Beltre for three years and $39 million, just as an example, they'd lock themselves into starting him at third base -- and, thus, Youkilis at first base -- for the next three seasons. Unlike outfielder Mike Cameron -- who's signed for just two seasons, by the way -- Beltre isn't exactly going to move around defensively. He's played all of 15 innings at shortstop and second base in his 12-year major-league career. If Beltre signs a three-year deal, he's staying put for three years.
What happens if cancer survivor Anthony Rizzo tears apart Double-A this year and is beating down the door to the major leagues midway through the 2011 season? What happens if Lars Anderson rediscovers the power stroke that generated so much hype last season?
Even more likely: What happens if Adrian Gonzalez becomes available in July the way many expect him to be?
Same goes for a name like LaRoche. The first baseman was a terrific fit during his 3 1/2 hours with the Red Sox last July, slugging .526 in his 19 at-bats and looking every bit like his swing was tailor-made for Fenway Park. He would be a terrific fit in the Red Sox lineup this season.
The reason the Braves made little effort to retain him, though, is because he reportedly was looking for a three-year contract -- and thus would have blocked prized prospect Freddie Freeman, a 20-year-old who Baseball America called "Keith Hernandez and Mark Grace with more power." If LaRoche was unwilling to go back to Atlanta as a stopgap solution -- a bridge, if you will -- it's not likely he'd be willing to go back to Boston for less than three years, either.
It likewise seems hard to believe that the 34-year-old Branyan would accept a one-year deal for short money coming off the best season of his career -- at least, until the market dictactes he has to. If he can get a two- or three-year offer from someone impressed by his 31 home runs and .520 slugging percentage last season, he's going to take it.
Signing Branyan or LaRoche for three years presents you the same issue as signing Beltre for three years does: Gonzalez is going on the market. It's inevitable. It might not happen now because Jed Hoyer doesn't want to give up on his first season in San Diego before it's even started, but unless the Padres somehow are in first place in the National League West come July, Hoyer is going to start fielding offers.
If the Red Sox are obligated to pay LaRoche $8 million a year in 2011 and 2012 -- or Beltre $13 million a year in 2011 and 2012 -- what do they do with him if they're able to acquire Gonzalez? Give another player away and eat his money? Haven't they done enough of that already?
Epstein has options going forward. Gonzalez will be available on the trade market. Victor Martinez will be a free agent, an intriguing issue given the uncertainty about where he's going to play as he gets older. Anderson might develop. Rizzo might develop.
Heck, Albert Pujols is scheduled to hit the open market after the 2011 season -- and while it's a longshot he'd ever leave St. Louis, do the Red Sox really want to eliminate themselves from the Pujols sweepstakes because they're still paying Beltre $13 million a year until 2012 or 2013?
Epstein's much-discussed "bridge" doesn't mean finishing in third place for the next two seasons. It means keeping the team's options open with prospects on the way and parts moving all over the major leagues.
A two-year contract for Cameron fits that philosophy -- especially given that he easily could shift into a reserve role should Ryan Kalish or Josh Reddick be ready to take over in left field in 2011.
A three-year deal for Beltre doesn't fit that philosophy at all.