Red Sox could seek out big-name targets this winter

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The Red Sox have had an average payroll in excess of $170 million the last three years. With Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett departing and David Ortiz, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Cody Ross all set to become free agents, they’re currently looking at something less than half of that for 2013. It figures to give them more flexibility and financial muscle than any other team in the league this winter.

That said, it’s doubtful the Red Sox will jump right back up to $170 million right away. There simply isn’t the talent available in the free agent pool, and overspending for veterans is what got them into the current mess in the first place. Still, they should have feelers out for all of the big names available this winter, and they’ll probably land one or two.

Here are some possibilities:

OF Josh Hamilton: I think this is a big long shot, but the Red Sox would certainly have the money to make a big run at the 2010 AL MVP. Hamilton has stayed healthy this year and hit .286/.352/.575 with 34 homers and 107 RBI in 117 games for the Rangers. He’s the only available option in free agency that could match Adrian Gonzalez as a middle-of-the-order bat. Hamilton, though, would be a huge risk on a long-term contract, not only because of his past battles with addiction but also because of the likelihood of his body breaking down as the enters his mid-30s. Next year will be his age-32 season.

C-1B Mike Napoli: The Red Sox tried to get Napoli from the Angels a couple of years ago, but came up short. If they target him this time, they’d likely pitch him on starting at first base most of the time and catching a couple of times per week. Napoli’s average has collapsed from .320 to .223 this year, but he’s always been more about the secondary skills anyway. Worthy of note: he’s hit .306/.397/.710 with seven homers in 62 career at-bats at Fenway.

1B-OF Nick Swisher: There’s been talk recently of the 32-year-old Swisher aiming for Jayson Werth money (seven years, $126 million), but that’s not within the realm of possibility. Something like $48 million for four years is more likely. The Yankees want to get under the luxury tax threshold come 2014, so they might be willing to let him depart without a big offer. He’d probably be Boston’s best option for a 2013 first baseman. Still, the team shouldn’t be looking to sign non-superstars to long-term deals right now.

1B Justin Morneau: While they’ve been loathe to admit it, the Twins are going nowhere. Dumping the final year and $14 million on Morneau’s deal would make plenty of sense, and now that he seems to have found his stroke, he’d look pretty good as Boston’s No. 5 hitter.

SS Stephen Drew: J.D.’s young brother has the most upside of the free agent shortstops available this winter, and he’ll probably be undervalued this winter after missing almost a year with a busted ankle before returning last month. Shortstop won’t be the Red Sox’s highest priority, but if they can snag Drew on a modest two-year deal, it’d be a nice gamble.

1B-3B Kevin Youkilis: I’m not sure how far-fetched this is, but the main reason Youkilis is gone from Boston is Bobby Valentine, and it seems doubtful that Valentine will be back with the team in 2013. The Red Sox could certainly do worse at first base than their former MVP candidate. The White Sox hold a $13 million option on Youkilis for 2013, but they’re not expected to exercise it.

OF B.J. Upton: Upton has struggled to put it all together in Tampa Bay, but whereas most players enters free agency with their best seasons behind them, Upton may yet have some additional upside. He’d also likely be an excellent defender in Fenway’s tough right field. With Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino and Angel Pagan also available, center field is the lone crowded position in free agency this winter. Should Upton’s stock slip a bit as a result, the Red Sox could pounce.

OF Shin-Soo Choo: The Indians chose to hold on to Choo at the trade deadline, but they could send him packing this winter as they try to keep their payroll down. Choo figures to make $7 million-$8 million in arbitration next year in his final season before free agency.

SP Zack Greinke: The thinking is that the big-market teams will shy away from Greinke due to concerns about how he’d handle the pressure that comes with such a spotlight. The Red Sox may decide to avoid him for that reason. Still, he pretty easily eclipses guys like Edwin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez and Kyle Lohse as the top free agent starter available.

SP Hiroki Kuroda: A year ago, everyone assumed that Kuroda would stay with the Dodgers or return to Japan. Instead, he signed a one-year deal with the Yankees and is working on a terrific season in the AL East. One imagines he’ll want to stay in the Bronx and sign another one-year deal this winter. The Red Sox should at least try to make things more difficult for the Yankees to keep him, though.

SP Dan Haren: Haren’s back woes and recent struggles could lead the Angels to decline his $15.5 million option for 2013 and buy him out for $3.5 million instead. If so, there’s a good chance the Red Sox would pursue him on a one-year deal. Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd are also possibilities should the White Sox decline their options.

SP Josh Johnson: The Marlins opted to hold on to Johnson at the trade deadline, but if they’re not going to be serious contenders next year, then trading him this winter should be the plan. He’s due $13.75 million next year in his final season before free agency. It’d probably take a couple of very good prospects to pry him away.

Astros push ALCS to Game 7 with 7-1 stunner against Yankees

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There’s just something about playing in your home ballpark. The Astros decimated the Yankees at Minute Maid Park on Friday, riding seven scoreless innings from Justin Verlander and a pair of big runs from Jose Altuve to win 7-1 and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

Through the first four innings, however, the teams looked equally matched. Luis Severino no-hit the Astros through 3 2/3 innings, losing his bid on Carlos Correa‘s line drive single in the fourth. The Astros returned in the fifth to do some real damage, drawing two walks and plating the first run of the night with Brian McCann‘s ground-rule double off of the right field wall. Things didn’t get any easier for Severino. Jose Altuve lined a two-RBI base hit into left field, upping Houston’s advantage to three runs.

Verlander, meanwhile, muted the Yankees’ offense with seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball. While he didn’t come close to matching his complete game effort in Game 2, he was still plenty dominant against a struggling New York lineup. No player reached past first base until the sixth inning, when a pair of base hits from Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees their first runner in scoring position. That didn’t last long, though, as Gary Sanchez grounded out on a 3-0 slider to end the inning.

In the seventh, Houston’s ace got into another spot of trouble. He walked Greg Bird on six pitches to start the inning, then plunked Starlin Castro on the wrist. Aaron Hicks struck out, in part thanks to a questionable call by home plate umpire Jim Reynolds, but it was Todd Frazier who presented the biggest threat after returning an 0-1 fastball for a 403-foot fly out to left field. Luckily for Verlander, George Springer was there to bail him out with a leaping catch at the wall.

The Yankees kept things exciting in the eighth, too. Aaron Judge ripped his third postseason home run off of Brad Peacock, taking a 425-footer out to the train in left field to spoil the Astros’ shutout. That was the only real break the Yankees got, however, as Altuve, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis returned in the bottom of the inning to tack on another four runs, including Altuve’s solo shot off of David Robertson:

Ken Giles handled the ninth, expending 23 pitches and giving up a base hit and a walk before retiring Frazier and Headley to end the game. Thanks to Houston’s winning efforts, the two teams will compete in their first seven-game Championship Series since 2004 — and this time, at least one of them is guaranteed to come away with a win.

Game 7 of the ALCS is set for Saturday at 8:00 PM ET. Houston right-hander Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) is scheduled to face southpaw CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA).