Red Sox changed their fiscal tune

BOSTON -- Mere months after insisting they were cut from a more modest cloth, the Boston Red Sox are back in the potentate business. Turns out they really weren't Sam's Club kind of guys, after all. What's the point of owning an American Express black card unless you use it?

One-hundred-ten million dollars over five years (including a vesting option) for Hanley Ramirez, even though he's turning 31, will most likely be playing an unfamiliar position -- left field -- and has been on the disabled list five times since the start of the 2011 season. One hundred million or so over five years for Pablo Sandoval, a 28-year-old switch-hitting third baseman with a quick bat and glove, deft feet and an expandable waistband sewn into his uniform pants.

That was just the loose change in John W. Henry's left pocket. Still tucked away in Henry's back pocket is a blank check for ace free-agent pitcher Jon Lester, still the object of the Red Sox's most fervent desire even if it means blowing through the luxury-tax threshold, plus a forget-me-not card from elite reliever Andrew Miller, whom the Sox believe will give them the courtesy of last call before he signs anywhere else.

The good news is that by most measures, Ramirez and Sandoval represent the most prolific bats on the free-agent market and should do wonders for an offense that scored 219 fewer runs in 2014 than it did when winning the World Series in 2013.

The bad news is they come with only slightly less risk than a penny stock peddled by the wolf of Wall Street -- Ramirez because of his health and mixed reputation as a clubhouse presence, Sandoval because of fears that he could morph into the Kung Fu Porker.

But it's only wasteful spending when the other guy does it, which the Red Sox were more than happy to point out last winter.

This was Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, at the baseball writers dinner in January. The Sox were coming off a Series title. The Yankees had just spent close to $500 million on improving their roster, which included signing former Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. You haven't heard such clucking this side of Owen's Poultry Farm in Needham.

"You can't just go into the grocery store and buy exactly what you need to win," Lucchino said. The Sox were as committed to winning as anyone else, he said, but not when it means "crazy expenditures that might be commonplace in New York."

The Yankees, he insisted, were a "different flavor" of ice cream from the Red Sox. So were the high-rolling Dodgers.

"These guys want to win and they want to win now," he said. "Money is not an issue. I suppose potentates in other leagues around the world want to do that too, but it's a different business plan than we have. They don't want to win any more than we do. They're just not as concerned about reasonable spending as we are."

Oh, really? Turns out Red Sox membership in the Potentates Club did not expire after they dealt away more than $250 million in salary commitments by trading Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers in August 2012. When the Sox won the Series in 2013, that title was hailed as a tribute to fiscal restraint, escaping from under the burden of onerous long-term contracts in favor of more selective shopping, eschewing the most expensive prizes on the market for a more holistic concept of team-building.

Well, it looks like reasonable spending has about as much place in Boston's 2015 roster-building as Jackie Bradley Jr. does in next season's outfield.

The Sox first flexed their financial muscle in August, when they signed Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo to a six-year, $72 million deal, which, given the fact Castillo is entering the prime of his career, could be viewed as a sound investment.

Now, in the course of a single weekend, the Sox struck deals with Ramirez and Sandoval that rank as the third- and fourth-largest free agent signings in team history, eclipsed only by the $160 million John Harrington and Dan Duquette gave Manny Ramirez and the $142 million Henry and Theo Epstein gave to Carl Crawford.

In terms of average annual value, the $22 million a year given Hanley Ramirez stands unchallenged in team annals, free agent or otherwise.

The world evidently looks different than it did when Henry was peering off the cover of Business Week's "Success Issue" this spring, and espousing the same philosophical bent as Lucchino, couching themselves as the anti-Yankees.

"It is a wildly different approach," Henry told BW writer Josh Green. "We haven't participated in this latest feeding frenzy of bidding up stars."

Henry cited a study that argued that "youth dominance" -- a team's reliance on younger, cheaper players not yet eligible for free agency -- was a much stronger predictor of success.

"To me, the most important thing this study shows is that virtually all of the underpaid players are under 30 and virtually all the overpaid players are over 30," Henry said. "Yet teams continue to extravagantly overpay for players above the age of 30."

But after finishing in last place for the second time in three years, a worst-to-first-to-worst odyssey that has no precedent in major league baseball, Henry is tacking the Sox ship back into familiar waters, identifying a problem and throwing money at it.

Which can have its pluses. On paper, the Sox's lineup looks top-to-bottom lethal. Manager John Farrell will have little trouble writing these names on his lineup card on a daily basis:

  1. Castillo, CF

  2. Pedroia, 2B

  3. Ortiz, DH

  4. Ramirez, LF

  5. Sandoval, 3B

  6. Napoli, 1B

  7. Bogaerts, SS

  8. Betts, RF

  9. Vazquez, C

Such a lineup presumes that the Sox will be trading outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, fulfilling the prediction of another club's talent evaluator who said at the GM meetings in Phoenix that Cespedes would be dealt by Christmas. Yes, the Sox value Cespedes's power. Not so much his low on-base percentage, high strikeout rate and indifferent defense, and now they have Ramirez's slugging to replace him.

Cespedes's greatest value to them now is as a trading chip to add a front-line starting pitcher, of which there are better than the average suspects available. Even trading Cespedes leaves the Red Sox with a logjam of useful players, which has led to speculation that they might consider trading Mike Napoli, who has a year left on his contract, and plug first base with Daniel Nava, Allen Craig or perhaps even Ramirez.

At the end of the season, Napoli had dismissed the thought he might be traded. He was a core guy, like Dustin Pedroia playing hurt and rarely saying a word about it, valued for his work ethic as much as his ability to drive in a run from second base. The clubhouse would be a much different place without him. But when you've finished last twice in three years, no one is safe.

Sox fans, as a rule, have no problem with the team spending money. They expect it. And in more innocent times, the Boston Herald would be preparing to break out its "Greatest Team Ever" front page, the way it did in the first spring of Gonzo and CC. But the dissolution of that team at the end of 2011 and its total collapse in 2012 has wised up folks around here. You can't just buy a title. They'll love the Ramirez and Sandoval signings as long as they play at a high level and the Sox win.

But if they prove to be as ill-fitting as Crawford and Gonzalez were, the players won't be the only ones hearing catcalls. The potentates will too.