Jason Bay strolled through the door of free agency when it swung open at midnight Friday morning, with the Boston Red Sox still tugging at his jacket and Theo Epstein's cell phone number tucked away in agent Joe Urbon's pocket.
But there was no last-minute rebuff of the Sox, as implied by one report that enjoyed wide circulation Thursday. Epstein and Urbon have agreed to keep negotiations as private as possible, but the sides' positions have changed little for months. The Red Sox haven't moved from their offer of around four years and $60 million; Bay is exercising his right to see if another club might be willing to offer a better package of years and dollars, more in line with the pre-recession deals scored by such outfielders as Torii Hunter, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee, all of which easily cleared the thresholds set by Epstein.
Lee (six years, $100 million) and Soriano (eight years, $136 million) signed in 2006; two years ago, Hunter signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the Angels at age 34, which should put to rest any notion that Bay thinks his age (31) should be a deterrent to enjoying a grand payday.
And while the economic landscape has changed markedly since then, the elite players have still gotten theirs. That's why the Red Sox, while considering Matt Holliday as a potential alternative if Bay goes elsewhere, are anticipating the Holliday shopping will ultimately prove too rich for their blood. And yes, they suspect the Yankees will be laying in the weeds for Holliday, too, just as they did with another Scott Boras client, Mark Teixeira, last winter.
And you can forget about free-agent pitcher John Lackey, too. The Red Sox don't see an upside in adding the Angels right-hander, not when he expects to use A.J. Burnett's contract with the Yankees (five years, $82.5 million) as a starting point for negotiations, and not when he's had elbow problems in the past.
The Sox are focused on making a major push for Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, while conceding that Toronto may decide that better offers may be forthcoming at the July trading deadline. Clay Buchholz figures to remain as the centerpiece of the Boston offer, but the Sox will have to find other pieces to replace the players they sent to the Indians in the Victor Martinez deal: swingman Justin Masterson and minor league lefty Nick Hagadone, the former No. 1 draft pick.
Re-signing Bay, then, remains a top priority for the Red Sox, who anticipate competition from perhaps as many as four to six teams. Keep a close eye on the Angels, whose owner, Arte Moreno, cited Bay's "great bat and great makeup" as reasons they may make a run at him. Adding a power hitter is critical to the Angels, with Vladimir Guerrero a free agent and in obvious decline.
Moreno gave further credence to Bay being a prime target when he ruled out a possible run at Holliday, saying "we are not looking at Holliday at all.'' Moreno, like Red Sox owner John W. Henry, felt burned by Boras during the Teixeira negotiations, and clearly he has no interest in repeating that experience.
The Giants were expected to be a player for Bay, but San Francisco GM Brian Sabean this week all but scotched that notion, saying he wasn't interested in being used to drive up market price. Bay, a native of British Columbia, has interest in Seattle, which scored the fewest runs in the American League last season, but the Mariners have superb outfield defense and Bay would be a liability in Safeco Field. A more likely suitor is the Mets, though pitching would seem to be their primary need. The Yankees, of course, can never be ruled out.
Boston's other obvious need is shortstop, and bringing back Alex Gonzalez at a reduced rate remains a viable option, though it was notable to hear manager Terry Francona earlier this week cite Gonzalez's modest on-base percentage (career .294) as a mitigating factor. Marco Scutaro, who had a terrific year in Toronto, would be a nice short-term solution and will draw interest from the Sox, but his Type A free-agent status will be a factor, since it would cost Boston two draft picks, which is not something you give up for a 34-year-old short-timer. But the draft picks won't come into play if the Blue Jays decide not to offer him salary arbitration, a plausible scenario, and the Sox might be willing to surrender picks if they get back some from the signing of their own free agents.
Four other Sox players besides Bay and Gonzalez were among the 171 who filed for free agency and were granted the right to negotiate with other teams as of midnight: reliever Billy Wagner, outfielder Rocco Baldelli, pitcher Paul Byrd and infielder Chris Woodward. The Sox have interest in keeping Wagner, but he's pursuing the opportunity to close elsewhere.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.