The Boston Red Sox are a dark horse in 2013, but GM Ben Cherington continues his flurry of free-agent signings. What appears as an effort to compete is nothing but an illusion—in what can only be classified as a bridge year.
To date, Boston's big acquisitions have been outfielders Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino, starting pitcher Ryan Dempster, shortstop Stephen Drew and possibly first baseman Mike Napoli.
Of all these moves, the only one that really makes sense is Napoli, as Boston has no long-term solution at that position.
Outside of free agency, the Sox have kept their hands in their pockets when it comes to trades.
2011 and 2012 have been disappointing for the Red Sox. After the media explosion of last season, the dedication and sanity of the front office have constantly been called into question by the fanbase.
Until something big happens, these kinds of moves can only be classified as window dressing.
The offseason signings will make Boston better, but still keeps them out of contention: New York and Baltimore retain their cores from last season, while Toronto and Tampa Bay have made hefty improvements.
Would it be unfair to assume these moves are an attempt to satisfy the fanbase? Or is it a sincere attempt toward winning the division?
It's no surprise that Boston's future is on the farm
The Red Sox currently have five prospects on MLB's Top 100 List: Two are outfielders, two are starting pitchers and one is a shortstop. Amazing, as those are Boston's problem areas.
And Boston has been far from mysterious about its intentions. The front office has kept all its signings to short-term—the longest deals they have given out so far are three years to Victorino and (possibly) Napoli.
So it's obvious that these free agents are nothing more than stopgaps. And it's not often that a team wins the World Series with a slew of stopgaps.
Boston's reluctance to pursue any starting pitchers raises alarms
Red Sox pitching posted a 4.70 ERA last season, which ranked 27th amongst all MLB teams—and last in the AL East. Their starters had a total ERA of 5.19.
Boston lacks any front-line starter, and who knows what level Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz play at in 2013.
Dempster could be a good No. 3, but he still has the challenge of adjusting to the American League—which didn't go so well in Texas.
Top prospects Allen Webster and Matt Barnes have fringe No. 1 to No. 2 potential. Unless the Sox make an aggressive move, that rotation won't be top tier until those two come along.
This doesn't mean that Boston should have been pursuing Zack Greinke all offseason, but an attempt at Dan Haren or Anibal Sanchez would have made sense.
The Sox signing of Stephen Drew is a telltale sign of their attempt to buy time
Boston's top prospect is shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who slugged his way to Double-A Portland in 2012. He could move positions over time, but did show some development with his glove last season.
And Jose Iglesias is still with the organization. Any improvements with his offense could land the defensive whiz in the everyday lineup.
Everyone knows Stephen Drew isn't a long-term solution at short for Boston. He's an injury risk, a massive disappointment offensively and was only signed to one year.
But in that year, Drew will make an absurd $9.3 million. Is it because the front office finds him worthy of such money, or to give the illusion that he's more valuable than he really is.
In truth, Drew is nothing more than a giver of time. He could be supplanted at any moment by either Iglesias or Bogaerts—though he would require a tremendous showing in the high minors.
Once again, it's Boston finding moves to build time instead of compete.
The outfield situation doesn't make a ton of sense either
Boston needed to fill left and right. Jonny Gomes was understandable, but Shane Victorino was a very strange signing. The Sox plan on playing him at right, but he's a center fielder by trade.
Cody Ross had a stellar 2012 for the Sox, and it would have made sense to bring him back. He would have come cheaper than Victorino and was already well-adapted to playing right in Fenway Park.
The only way the Victorino signing makes sense is if Boston plans on trading Jacoby Ellsbury—which would move Victorino to center.
Ellsbury has Scott Boras as an agent—who will undoubtedly post a high price for his client. If Boston had plans to sign him long-term, one would expect the front office to be more proactive in an extension.
One of the Sox top prospects is center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. Bradley has good speed, tremendous discipline and stellar defense. He made it to Double-A in 2012 and could be cup-of-coffee material in 2013.
Bradley and Victorino make Ellsbury expendable. Trading the 29-year-old would set the team back competitively in 2013, but it seems to be the direction the club is headed—and it makes a lot of sense.
Once again, we find ourselves at the theme of youth and transition
These examples all point to two things—the promise of youth and the need for stopgaps. Put those together and you get a prototypical "bridge year."
The last time a front office member dropped that term was former GM Theo Epstein in 2009. The outcry from Red Sox Nation was so overwhelming that Epstein was forced into desperation mode.
The outcome was John Lackey.
Given the depth of the farm system and the needs of the organization, Boston is in a bridge year. Its free-agent signings are stopgaps, and the team could return to prominence by 2014-15.
But to make such a declaration could strike an ill-tempered cord in Red Sox fans. And after the last two years of disaster, the front office can't afford to further alienate it's fanbase.
Now, that's not to say these are bad moves. Boston has a tremendous wealth of prospects, and these signings are designed with them in mind.
But the Sox can never come out and admit that's the plan. Thus we are left with window dressing. These players make Boston look proactive, but no one really expects them to bring home a World Series.
And as long as the illusion helps avoid another Lackey, Red Sox Nation should just enjoy the ride.