BOSTON -- While their pursuit of free agents Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth has grabbed most of the attention, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has quietly been laying the groundwork for what could be the team's biggest offensive acquisition since Manny Ramirez.
Epstein has been engaged in ongoing discussions with his former top lieutenant, San Diego Padres general manager Jed Hoyer, about a trade that would bring slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to Boston. It appears Epstein is making some headway, one baseball source with knowledge of the negotiations said Friday, in tempting Hoyer with a package of top prospects in the Red Sox minor league system.
The momentum toward a trade did not slow Friday night. Asked if the deal might be completed before officials from both teams go to Orlando for the baseball winter meetings Sunday, the source said, "Possibly."
Acquiring Gonzalez, while signing one of two free-agent outfielders, Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth, would give the Red Sox their most potent offensive lineup since Ramirez's trade to the Dodgers in 2008 and make clear why they were willing to lose free agents Victor Martinez and potentially Adrian Beltre. It also would help ease the sting of losing out to the Yankees on Mark Teixeira, the switch-hitting first baseman the Sox imagined in the middle of their lineup two years ago.
The Sox have long coveted the 28-year-old Gonzalez. As far back as the 2009 trading deadline, the Sox made a pitch for Gonzalez, a three-time All-Star who last season finished fourth in balloting for the National League's Most Valuable Player.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound first baseman, a left-handed hitter, batted .298 with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs for the Padres last season. He finished fifth in on-base percentage (.393), ninth in slugging (.511) and led the league in hitting with runners in scoring position (.407). Opposing pitchers issued 35 intentional walks to Gonzalez last season, a number exceeded only by Albert Pujols.
In addition to his offensive prowess, Gonzalez is a gifted defender, a two-time Gold Glove winner.
With David Ortiz nearing the end of his highly productive run with the Red Sox, the team views Gonzalez as an ideal successor to Big Papi as a middle-of-the-order run-producer. The Sox lineup could look something like this in 2011:
The trade, however, will not be an easy one for the Padres to make. Gonzalez is the team's most popular player, with great crossover appeal to the team's Mexican-American market, a native son who carried the Padres to within a game of a playoff spot last season. He is signed through 2011 at the bargain price of $6.3 million. The Padres exercised his 2011 option on Nov. 1. His contract called for a $5.5 million salary, but performance bonuses pushed the figure above $6 million.
The Padres, however, are working under significant financial constraints. The team's 2010 Opening Day payroll was $37.7 million; only the Pirates had a smaller payroll. Attendance, despite the team's improbable run for a playoff spot, showed only a modest increase from the previous year. The Padres drew just more than 2.1 million fans in 2010, ranking 11th out of 16 NL teams.
Offensively, the Padres were one of the weakest in the majors, even with Gonzalez, finishing 22nd in runs scored, 23rd in on-base percentage, and 28th in slugging.
And after meeting with Gonzalez and his agent, John Boggs, after the season, Hoyer acknowledged that the team has no chance of signing Gonzalez to an extension, not when he's in a position to command a contract in the $22 million-$25 million per year range, like Teixeira and Ryan Howard of the Phillies.
"Nothing that's happened is unexpected," Hoyer said when Gonzalez's option was picked up last month. "He's had a fantastic career and he wants to test out the free-agent market and see if he gets that franchise-player contract he's been working toward. To his credit, he signed a deal that has worked out very well for the club and he's never said a word about it. There's always been a desire to see what's on the free-agent market for him."
The Padres, then, essentially have three options: Keep him for the 2011 season, then collect two draft picks when he signs elsewhere as a free agent; keep him until the July trading deadline, then move him to another club; or trade him before the season. Here's one problem in waiting until the July trading deadline: If the Padres are in contention, a trade potentially would alienate both the fan base and the clubhouse, both of which could see such a move as the front office quitting on the club.
Trading Gonzalez now would allow Hoyer to address the multiple holes the club has entering the season while acquiring low-cost players that would remain under the team's control for up to six years.
According to the source familiar with the negotiations, the proposed deal centers only on minor leaguers, meaning the Red Sox would not lose star young reliever Daniel Bard. Hoyer and his assistant, Jason McLeod, who served as Boston's scouting director until going to San Diego, are intimately familiar with the Red Sox system. They almost certainly would seek pitcher Casey Kelly and first baseman Anthony Rizzo in any deal, with outfielder Ryan Kalish, shortstop Jose Iglesias, outfielder Josh Riddick, 19-year-old outfielder Reymond Fuentes, pitcher Stolmy Pimentel, and catcher Ryan Lavarnway also potential targets.
It is reasonable to assume it may take at least three top prospects to make a deal, with perhaps another minor leaguer or two of lesser skills included. The Sox probably have never been in a better position to make a trade of this magnitude, with the depth of prospects they have,
There are other teams with significant interest in Gonzalez, too, so Hoyer will have options. But are the Red Sox intent on making this happen? Will they? The next stage in this drama will take place in Orlando.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.