The Red Sox front office has pledged to make smarter decisions, which has been widely construed as meaning their free-spending ways are over.
There's a difference, though, between being smart and being cheap, and with the resources that the Red Sox have at their disposal, their fans are entitled to demand big, bold moves this winter. It's not enough merely to trumpet the coming wave of promising young players, like outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., infielder Xander Bogaerts and pitcher Matt Barnes. It's great to have a core of homegrown talent, and the Sox appear well on their way to creating one when the newcomers are added to Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, Jacoby Ellsbury (if he stays), Jose Iglesias and Ryan Lavarnway.
But there are holes on this roster that can only be filled from the outside, and while general manager Ben Cherington so far has been patching and filling with smaller moves, adding a backup catcher in David Ross and a platoon right-handed bat in Jonny Gomes, there is an obvious huge move the Sox should make that would be big, bold and smart, and recapture some of the enthusiasm eroded during last season's disaster.
When the Red Sox go to Nashville on Sunday for baseball's winter meetings, they should vow to return home with Joe Mauer as their new first baseman. Mike Napoli's visit to Boston last weekend suggests the Sox are considering lesser alternatives, but whatever reservations they have about making a long-term, expensive financial commitment to a player in the aftermath of the Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez signings, here's my suggestion: Get over it.
The Crawford deal came with red flags attached even before the ink was dry on the contract. Gonzalez hardly endeared himself to Bobby Valentine last season, and left with his reputation battered by whispers that he was an excuse-maker and succumbed too easily to pressure, but his numbers argue that he was hardly a bust. Maybe he wasn't the presence the Sox expected when they traded for him, but they sacrificed him in order to get out from under the Crawford and Josh Beckett deals.
Gonzalez's departure leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the Sox lineup, the kind of hole that in the American League East, especially, you fill not with complementary players but with stars. The right star. Josh Hamilton is not that guy. Wonderful talent, to be sure, but too many question marks.
Joe Mauer is that player. Five-time all-star, three-time batting champion, former MVP. He will be 30 years old in April, still in the prime of his career, and almost certainly receptive to making a position change from catcher to first base, to save on the physical pounding he has absorbed in nine seasons in the big leagues.
Last season, he caught only two more games (74) than he totaled at first base (30) and at DH (42). The Twins placed him on revocable waivers in late August as a trial balloon.
"If I didn't go through the process I should be fired; I'm the general manager," Minnesota's Terry Ryan said at the time. "You put people through. Every general manager does it, and if you don't, you're stupid. It's as simple as that. You'd be an idiot not to put your roster through trade waivers."
Parting with Mauer, a hometown hero St. Paul-born-and-raised, would not be a popular move in the Twin Cities, but the Twins owe Mauer $138 million over the next six seasons, an average of $23 million per annum. With Justin Morneau's contract set to expire after next season, they could opt to hold onto Mauer to succeed him as their full-time first baseman, but for a team that doesn't appear likely to be in contention any time soon, having nearly a quarter of the payroll tied up by one player doesn't make the most business sense.
Mauer has much greater value, of course, as a catcher, where offensive numbers like his are rarely found. But his performance plays at any position: His .323 career batting average is second among active players (minimum 1,000 plate appearances), just two percentage points behind Albert Pujols' .325.
He is fifth in on-base percentage (.405), and fifth in strikeouts-to-walks rate (.856). He led the American League with a .416 on-base percentage in 2012, and ranked 10th among all hitters in Bill James' Win Shares, with 25. The one knock on him is his lack of power; he hit 28 home runs in 2009, one of only two seasons in which he had a slugging percentage over .500.
Check out the James projections for both players for 2013 in the table to the right. He expects fairly similar numbers for both players.
The big difference is the 27 home runs James projects for Gonzalez to 11 for Mauer, a not-insignificant gap. But that has not kept Mauer from posting 25 Win Shares or more in his last four full seasons.
And while the Red Sox have been knocked for making baseball decisions with an eye on how it will play in their marketplace, it's foolish and naive to suggest it shouldn't be a consideration. The Red Sox need to win back the support they lost in 2012, when season-ticket holders had trouble giving their seats away. The business model does not sustain rebuilding seasons in Boston; the Sox need to show their fans they're committed to competing in 2013.
How plausible is this scenario? It has been discussed, at least internally. There are obstacles to acquiring Mauer. The biggest is this: He has full no-trade protection, which means any deal will require his approval.
"I signed here because this is where I wanted to play," Mauer said in August, when his placement on waivers became public.
Depending on how much of the contract they're willing to pick up, the Sox should be able to hang on to their very best prospects in a deal for Mauer.
The need is there. The player is there. A player, incidentally, who is universally acknowledged as a terrific guy and teammate. He would win games in Boston; he would sell tickets. This is not throwing good money after bad. This is smart business.