Ben Cherington easing into things

DALLAS -- This is how it went for the new Boston Red Sox general manager in his first winter meetings.

He balked at overpaying for starting pitching, focused on upgrading his bullpen, and showed keen interest in a Cuban defector.

No one was ordering playoff tickets based on those moves.

Funny, though: Things worked out for Theo Epstein, didn't they?

Ben Cherington made no headlines at these winter meetings. Those were left for Bobby ("I Hate The Yankees") Valentine.

As of late Wednesday night, Cherington had made no deals either, unless you want to count DH David Ortiz accepting arbitration, which he made official hours before Wednesday's midnight deadline.

With John Lackey serving as the cautionary tale of what happens when you give pitchers north of age 30 a megabucks deal, Cherington stayed out of the bidding for the top two free-agent starting pitchers, Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson, both of whom will sign for contracts that would not exist in a more rational universe.

But with Epstein as precedent, whose only moves at his first winter meetings in 2002 were modest trades for a second baseman, Todd Walker, and Jeremy Giambi, Jason's brother, Cherington advises impatient Red Sox fans that the team has used these meetings to serve as the groundwork for what lies ahead.

"This is a four-day window," he said. "Stuff happens because we're all here, talking to each other, but by no means does the offseason stop when we go home to Boston."

That's the way it worked out for Epstein after he ascended to the big chair in 2002. He decided against pursuing top-of-the-market pitchers Bartolo Colon and Javier Vazquez when they were shopped by Montreal, lost out on the Cuban defector du jour, Jose Contreras, who signed with the Yankees while Epstein did or did not wreck furniture in Nicaragua, but did sign three relief arms by Christmas: Mike Timlin, Chad Fox and Ramiro Mendoza.

But it was during the normally dormant month of January and the first few days of Feburary that Epstein made the moves that helped define a World Series winner 21 months later: signing free agents Bill Mueller and David Ortiz, claiming Kevin Millar on waivers and signing him after the Marlins thought they had a deal to send him to Japan, and claiming pitcher Bronson Arroyo off waivers.

It is unfair to expect Cherington, in his first go-round as Sox GM, to experience a similar run of serendipity, but it should be a reminder not to pass judgment until he has completed his task of retooling the roster.

Cherington may be headed home with empty shopping bags, but the Red Sox have used their time here to sharpen their sense of potential upgrades and the cost of making them. Eight teams this offseason already have made moves to add a closer, but that hardly has left the Sox in an untenable position. It might even work to their advantage that there are fewer teams in the running for free agent Ryan Madson, who like another Scott Boras client before him, Adrian Beltre, had visions of a much bigger payday; Beltre eventually settled for less.

Boras on Wednesday night disputed that notion, telling reporters it was like a game of musical chairs and all he needed was one chair to be left. That's true, of course, but it appears likely that when Madson signs, his deal will fall far short of the one signed by Jonathan Papelbon, and because the rules have changed, the Red Sox would not lose their first-round draft choice if they sign Madson while having picked up one because the Phillies signed Papelbon under the old rules.

"I would take my chances with Madson over Papelbon," one major league executive said Wednesday, a somewhat surprising declaration in that Madson has had just one season of closing experience.

The Sox have remained in almost daily contact with Boras, who also represents Francisco Rodriguez, who decided to accept salary arbitration from the Milwaukee Brewers, taking another potential closer off the free-agent market.

Here are the closers who are off the market: Papelbon (Phillies), Heath Bell (Marlins), Sergio Santos (Jays), Joe Nathan (Rangers), Huston Street (Padres), Matt Capps (Twins), Frank Francisco (Mets) and Jonathan Broxton (Royals).

The Red Sox were irked that the White Sox did not shop Santos before trading him to the Jays, but they were diligent in inquiring about other trade possibilities, including the one they found most attractive, Oakland's Andrew Bailey. There may not be a match there, but expect further conversations.

Seattle's Brandon League is another possibility, as is Rodriguez, who could be traded the way Atlanta traded Rafael Soriano two years ago after he accepted arbitration.

As for starting pitching, Cherington had a novel description for the type of pitcher the Sox are looking for to fill out their rotation.

"We need to find some guys that look like they have a couple hickeys, but that we could do something with and help them be better," he said.

That doesn't mean the Sox are looking at only the lame and infirm. They talked with Oakland about Gio Gonzalez, but at this stage won't come close to giving up all the prospects the A's want in return. They talked with the White Sox about John Danks and Gavin Floyd, and were approached by the Astros about Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, with Houston reportedly willing to eat some money. Japanese ace Yu Darvish, who reportedly will be posted Thursday, would appear to be out of Cherington's price range.

But here's an example of the type of pitcher the Sox might look to add: Former Tiger Armando Galarraga, author of the Perfect Game That Wasn't, is trying to jump-start his career in Venezuela. The Sox will monitor.

And remember, the Sox already plan to make a starter of Alfredo Aceves and are considering doing so with Daniel Bard, although that decision could well depend on how the closer market falls.

The Sox have pieces with which they can make smaller deals: middle infielders Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles, first baseman Lars Anderson, pitcher Michael Bowden. Their young outfielders, Josh Reddick and to a lesser extent, Ryan Kalish, have value. Other clubs hold Boston's system and its top young prospects in high regard, but after trading away Casey Kelly and Anthony Rizzo last year in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, the Sox will not give up their best readily.

The Sox, like many other clubs, are intrigued with Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, he of the legendary YouTube video. "You see his rib muscles rippling under those tight T-shirts, and he makes you think of Bo Jackson," one major league scout said. But there are cautionary notes. "Right now, he's a great 5 o'clock hitter," the same scout said, alluding to Cespedes' batting-practice prowess. Another scout who has seen him play more than a dozen times said his body has changed considerably in the past couple of years.

And Cespedes is expected to be expensive, with a $50 million deal openly speculated for a guy who has yet to establish residency in the Dominican Republic, which he needs to do in order to touch off the free-agent process. The Sox have sent many of their top evaluators to watch Cespedes, but it remains to be seen how high they'd be willing to go. He fills the need of a right-handed bat/corner outfielder, but Cherington says he would be comfortable with Reddick as his Opening Day right fielder.

That may fall into the same category as Epstein declaring a couple of years ago that he was happy to begin the season with Casey Kotchman in his infield, just days before signing Beltre.

The landscape shifts. The Sox go home Thursday afternoon, after the Rule 5 draft. The work lies ahead.

And incidentally, as of midnight, new Cubs president Epstein hadn't done anything here either.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.