Red Sox have reason to their rhyme

BOSTON -- The pace is picking up. The Boston Red Sox have made their visits to their prime offseason targets, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, while letting Adrian Beltre know that they still like him, even if in the end he might not like their terms.

Thursday, they underscored their commitment to Jarrod Saltalamacchia by bringing back the captain, Jason Varitek, to share the catching position in 2011 while grooming Saltalamacchia to be his successor, a source confirmed.

They are non-tendering left-handed reliever Hideki Okajima and prepare to go to Orlando for next week's winter meetings with a clear set of priorities: add an elite outfield bat, acquire a couple of relievers, identify a first baseman or third baseman for the short-term.

Red Sox fans are not conditioned to accept the kind of risk the Sox are taking in deciding that Saltalamacchia fits their long-term plans better than the All-Star Victor Martinez. Few will admit it now, but there were people distressed that general manager Theo Epstein did not bring back veteran Mark Loretta after the 2006 season, choosing instead to give a chance to an undersized second baseman who impressed no one during his September call-up, least of all Jerry Remy. That first month of 2007, Terry Francona was fending off questions about why Alex Cora wasn't starting ahead of Dustin Pedroia.

There is an extraordinary impatience among the chattering class, which is ready to condemn Sox owner John W. Henry for expanding his sports empire to include an English soccer team, as if he were robbing Peter to pay Sir Paul. Funny, but dual ownership didn't keep Mike Ilitch from winning Stanley Cups in hockey and American League pennants in baseball.

Is Henry enchanted with his new toy? Of course. It's novel and exotic and challenging, and yes, elitist, inasmuch as he has to jet across the Big Pond to watch the Reds play.

Does that mean his interest in the Red Sox has waned, or more importantly, his enthusiasm for spending on the Sox has diminished? The evidence argues indisputably to the contrary -- Henry in 2010 increased the team's payroll by 38 percent, to a record-high $168 million; in a so-called "bridge" year, he already has six players with eight-figure salaries in 2011, and that number is certain to grow by at least one before the new year.

Yes, it should be noted that few owners are as agitated by baseball's luxury tax and revenue-sharing system as Henry, and if significant changes aren't made in the collective bargaining agreement that is due to expire next November, it's conceivable, I suppose, he could decide he'll opt exclusively for corner kicks and headers. But don't count on it. Baseball remains an affair of the heart for the kid who grew up in Arkansas listening to Cardinals games on the radio.

And it's just silly to question whether the Sox are unwilling to spend to win. Yes, you can debate the merits of letting Martinez walk, but to view it as a cost-cutting measure as opposed to a hard-eyed baseball decision is simply wrong. The Sox's vision of the future grew cloudy at making a long-term commitment to Martinez, especially at a dollar level they were unwilling to pay. They were willing to go three years and $36 million for Martinez. The four-year, $42 million offer was essentially a nonstarter from the time it went on the table.

The Sox prefer to allocate the resources that would have kept Martinez in a Sox uniform until age 36 -- in a position for which age erodes skills quicker than most -- to Crawford or Werth. Adding one of those players will help offset the hit the club's offense has taken by losing Martinez and, quite likely, Beltre. So will having Jacoby Ellsbury healthy for a full season, as well as Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.

And a year from now, when Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols could all be free agents, the Sox's decision to not settle for Martinez as their DH of the future will make even more sense.

What is overlooked in much of the discussion of the Sox's strategy is that Epstein built the 2010 team to be much improved in run prevention, and that didn't happen. The offense, meanwhile, thrived. Easy to blame Josh Beckett and John Lackey for the failure in run prevention. But while their struggles were a factor, there was a bigger one: the defense.

According to John Dewan (author of "The Fielding Bible"), the Red Sox ranked 13th out of 14 American League teams in defense. Dewan's calculations have the Sox defense costing the team 56 runs in 2010. Subtract those runs from the runs the Sox gave up last season, and their pitching staff ranked third in pitching runs allowed.

Catching was a weakness. By Dewan's numbers, the Sox catching corps rated minus-8 in defensive runs, which means they allowed eight more runs than the average. The patchwork outfield was a huge problem. In another Dewan metric, a defensive plus-minus rating, the Sox outfield rated a minus-103. The Dodgers were next worst at minus-55. Shortstop, with Marco Scutaro playing hurt all season, also was a hole (minus-17 defensive runs).

These numbers are not perfect, but they point to a key reason the Sox are willing to commit to Saltalamacchia and are looking to add Crawford or Werth (my guess is Werth, with Crawford going to the Angels). They view Saltalamacchia as a better receiver than Martinez, and both Crawford and Werth bring plus defense with their productive bats. And at short, Cuban defector Jose Iglesias is in the pipeline and can be expected to arrive on Yawkey Way sometime in 2011.

Here's a guarantee: You will see Lackey gesturing in frustration at his fielders in 2011 with far less frequency than you did last season.

And here's some unsolicited advice: Give the Sox a few more weeks of team-building before writing them off. In the meantime, consult your local TV listings and check out ancient Anfield Stadium, which hosted its first game in 1884. You may feel right at home.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.