BOSTON -- When we're all in self-righteous mode, like when the Red Sox unloaded the massive contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett in one fell swoop last August, it's easy to agree that self-discipline is a virtue to be admired and practiced.
Be gone, mega-year signings. Enough of the wild spending. Tight wallets, rejoice.
It becomes a little harder, though, when other teams don't operate under similar constraints, when free agents you know the Red Sox could use -- like pitcher Zack Greinke or outfielder Josh Hamilton -- become the property of teams that spend whatever it takes. For Greinke, $147 million and six years from the Guggenheim Dodgers. For Hamilton, $125 million and five years from Arte Moreno's bottomless war chest in Anaheim.
Especially when the Sox have missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, endured an epic collapse in 2011 and were historically bad in 2012.
For the better part of a decade, Red Sox fans have grown accustomed to their team being among the bidders for the biggest names on the market, price be damned.
But on a day the Red Sox were announcing the signing of outfielder Shane Victorino just before the news broke that the Angels were going all in on Hamilton, the landscape has obviously changed.
The Sox are still spending money -- the tab so far this offseason is $150 million-plus and counting -- but other than the $26 million they laid out to retain David Ortiz, the cash has been all about addressing needs with complementary players rather than marquee talents. That has led to a certain amount of grumbling among the faithful, especially since the Sox have paid what not so long ago was considered top dollar for Victorino, Mike Napoli and Ryan Dempster, all of whose deals call for them to average at least $13 million a season.
And the Napoli deal is hung up by issues raised by his physical which are requiring that some of the contract language be reworked before his signing becomes official. "We hope to be able to resolve the issues," said GM Ben Cherington, while not identifying Napoli by name. "We're working on it. There's no more I can say."
So far, the Sox have added a backup catcher (David Ross), a right-handed platoon outfielder (Jonny Gomes), a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher (Dempster) and an everyday right-fielder (Victorino) in addition to keeping Ortiz, with a first baseman-catcher (Napoli) expected to be added sooner than later. All of the players acquired are north of 30 years old; none of them has been signed for more than three years, with Ortiz, Ross, Gomes and Dempster each signing for two years.
The Sox met with Hamilton last week in Nashville, but were adamant about not going more than three years. They didn't even bother with Greinke or Anibal Sanchez, the former Sox prospect who has reportedly reached a 5-year, $80 million deal to re-sign with the Detroit Tigers.
Cherington is trying to negotiate that tricky line between fielding a team that can contend next season and preserving the pieces he believes essential to the team's future: Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Bryce Brentz and others.
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: The Red Sox are betting that the whole Cherington is assembling will be greater than the sum of its parts, and that new manager John Farrell will be able to restore Jon Lester to the level of consistent excellence he has demonstrated in the past.
The skepticism comes from the fact that Napoli and Victorino are both coming off down years, Dempster was uneven in his first foray into the American League with the Rangers, and the luster has come off Lester over the past two years. Mix in Napoli's injury history, the huge question mark Jose Iglesias' bat poses at shortstop and the doubts surrounding John Lackey, and you have a recipe for another disappointing season.
It may be shaping up to be exactly what the Red Sox have vowed can't happen here -- the dreaded "bridge year" to better days ahead.
Or, with another move or two, it could be better than that, a crew of devil-may-care battlers who will mesh as a force in the AL East. Could that additional move be Nick Swisher? The Sox are one of four teams in on the switch-hitter, although he would cost the Sox a draft pick and probably will get more years than the Sox are willing to give. Packaging catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia in a trade for pitching help? An unexpected act of boldness like trading Jacoby Ellsbury, with Victorino an alternative to play center?
"The winter's not over," said Cherington, whose own competence understandably remains questioned after last year's debacle. "We'll keep working. We're trying to add to the team, trying to improve the team as much as we can without being focused on the headlines. We're building the deepest team we can, filling the clubhouse with guys. The proof will be in the pudding, to see if we can execute that well enough.
"Certainly, we've got a road map we're trying to follow. Sometimes you've got to veer off the map a little because certain things get thrown your way you have to consider. We will continue what we've started to do, but there's still a lot of work to do."
The Sox have been Tea Party conservative this offseason, with an eye on the debt ceiling (the luxury tax threshold) while carrying the flag of fiscal responsibility. In an era in which big league teams are flush with cash and willing to spend it, it remains to be seen whether it is the right philosophy for the times. The answer may not come in 2013. Do Sox fans have the patience to wait another year?