Two signings give Red Sox flexibility

Two signings give Red Sox flexibility

BOSTON -- Now that Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has added two significant pieces of his offseason puzzle by adding John Lackey and Mike Cameron, what is next?

Even Epstein can't answer that question for sure at the moment, because he can't control the market by himself.

But one thing is clear. The Red Sox, if a blockbuster trade presents itself, now have far more flexibility to be players. With increased depth on the Major League roster, Epstein at least has the ability to part with players he couldn't have before this move.

The one Hot Stove story that won't go away is whether Epstein can strike a deal with his former assistant Jed Hoyer, who is now the general manager of the Padres, and score the big bat of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

You can be sure Epstein and Hoyer will at least touch base in the coming weeks, but it isn't as if the Padres are desperate to move Gonzalez, a star hitter who will make a modest $4.75 million in 2010 and has a club option for $5.5 million the following year. The big issue with Gonzalez is the Padres will be hard-pressed to sign him after the '11 season. But Hoyer doesn't seem particularly compelled to move his elite left-handed bat before Opening Day. Then again, if he had a can't miss proposal, maybe he would have a change of heart.

Whether it is Gonzalez or another big bat that is made available in the trade, Epstein is now in position to stay patient. He no longer needs to force the issue, whether it comes to a trade or a free agent.

"We'll continue to monitor the trade market to see if there are any further improvements we can make to this ballclub," Epstein said. "That said, I don't think we'll be in a rush. I don't think we feel a sense of desperation. I think we like the pieces that we have right now. I think generally speaking it's easier to add a bat during the season, so I think our pitching staff is going to be extraordinarily deep, so if we do go into the season with a mix similar to what we have right now, and if the need for a bigger bat does develop, I think that's something we can address during the season. By no means am I saying we're done, but I also don't feel so rushed to go out there and do something dramatic."

If the Red Sox were to make a huge splash and get Gonzalez this winter, it's likely they would have to move right-hander Clay Buchholz, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and perhaps a significant prospect or two.

Though the Red Sox now have six starters for five spots -- Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Buchholz and Tim Wakefield -- Epstein is hardly antsy to trade Buchholz. Epstein has been patient with Buchholz's development every step of the way, and last year, that paid off, as the righty became a vital part of Boston's rotation down the stretch.

"My thoughts on Clay haven't changed over the years," Epstein said. "This organization has always been a champion of Clay and his potential. He started to show it last year and there was a six-start stretch in August and September when he was one of the best pitchers in baseball. We think that's what he is. We think that's what he can become."

And when the Red Sox trailed the Angels 2-0 in the 2009 American League Division Series, it was Buchholz who gave them some momentum back turning in a strong performance in Game 3, albeit one that was nullified when Jonathan Papelbon had the first postseason mishap of his career.

"We're not talking about a young unproven guy anymore," Epstein said. "This guy went out there at Fenway Park in a must-win elimination playoff game and threw a really good ballgame. That's kind of lost in the mix of what happened at the end of that game. That was a big moment for Clay."

Though Cameron is now on board, the Red Sox see him as a complement to Ellsbury, not a replacement. The only question now is who will play left and who will play center.

One area the Red Sox haven't quite solidified is the corner positions. Kevin Youkilis will be a starter at first or third. A trade of Mike Lowell and cash to the Rangers for prospect Max Ramirez is pending, once the Rangers are satisfied Lowell is healthy enough.

Do the Red Sox make a push for third baseman Adrian Beltre, an elite defender, albeit one who is coming off the worst offensive season of his career? That could depend on the asking prices. Now that the Red Sox have committed $82.5 million into Lackey over the next five years and signed Cameron for two years at $15.5 million, they might not have as much flexibility to spend on a third baseman.

One cost-effective solution would be to move Casey Kotchman from backup to primary first baseman and play Youkilis at third. Epstein did not dismiss that possibility.

"I'd be very comfortable," Epstein said. "He's a good example of a player who has a chance to go out and build some value by playing. He didn't get an opportunity to play here, but he's outstanding defensively, he's somebody who's a tougher out than the numbers indicate. He can hit really good pitching. He's really tough to get to swing and miss. We think there's a lot of offensive potential there. If we end up with him playing a lot of first base against right-handed pitching, we have a chance to duplicate or build off what he did in 2007, for example, that's a great solution."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.