This offseason has already seen a former Boston Red Sox star join the New York Yankees. Boston's next big step may be to respond in kind by signing Rafael Soriano.
The free-agent closer is still looking for work, but at least one man in the know thinks the Red Sox may be targeting him. This would be Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe, who responded to a question about Soriano and the Red Sox in a mailbag piece by saying, "I think Soriano is on their radar."
Not exactly an earth-shattering scoop as far as rumors go, but there's some sense here. The Red Sox don't necessarily need Soriano, but they could be looking for a closer upgrade and they have the money to sign Soriano if they so please.
Various reports have put Soriano's asking price at $60 million over four years, a demand that stems from comments that Yankees president Randy Levine made to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com in October. Scott Boras refuted that he and Soriano have an actual number in mind, but he did suggest that a new deal for Soriano would have to be worth more than $14 million per year.
The Red Sox have already spent a ton of money this winter, and so far they've avoided signings that would force them to give up a draft pick. Since Soriano rejected a qualifying offer from the Yankees, signing him would indeed mean a lost draft pick for the Red Sox.
All the same, they're one of a small number of teams that can afford to give in to Soriano's demands. Their payroll was over $175 million on Opening Day in 2012, and they have less than $112 million in salaries committed for 2013 as things stand now.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Soriano does not deserve to be one of the highest-paid closers in baseball. He's only had two great seasons as a closer, and one of them was a lot better than the other.
Soriano's 2012 season, in which he had a mediocre 1.17 WHIP and a mediocre 2.88 K/BB ratio, was nowhere near as dominant as his 2010 season with the Tampa Bay Rays. That year, he had a 0.80 WHIP and a 4.07 K/BB, and he held opponents to a .509 OPS.
But based on their recent spending habits, these concerns won't necessarily keep the Red Sox from overpaying Soriano. If they're willing to overpay Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino, then they may be willing to overpay Soriano too, especially given the payroll space they still have.
Their justification would be that they just signed a better closer than the one they already have, and they wouldn't be wrong. Andrew Bailey does have good stuff and a track record of success, but he's had trouble staying healthy since his rookie season in 2009, and the Red Sox don't know for certain how well he's going to pitch in 2013 after posting a 7.04 ERA in 19 appearances in 2012.
Thanks mainly to Bailey and Alfredo Aceves, getting through the ninth inning unscathed was a rarity for the Red Sox in 2012. Red Sox relievers posted a 4.19 ERA in the ninth inning, giving up a whopping 16 home runs.
Save situations were especially troublesome. Red Sox relievers had a 4.86 ERA with the game on the line, and they allowed opponents to hit 10 home runs and compile a .776 OPS.
Soriano may have overachieved in 2012, but he deserves credit for being at his best in save situations. In them, he posted a 1.82 ERA, giving up only four home runs and holding opponents to a .562 OPS.
No matter how much the Red Sox would be overpaying Soriano if they were to sign him, there would be no arguing that their bullpen would be a lot better off than it was before. He would tighten up the glaring weakness the Red Sox had in the late innings in 2012, and adding him would also make Boston's bullpen as a whole significantly deeper.
In addition to Soriano and Bailey, the Red Sox would have a highly underrated right-hander in Koji Uehara, a very promising righty in Junichi Tazawa, two capable lefties in Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow and a huge bounce-back candidate in Daniel Bard.
Also in the mix would be Mark Melancon and Aceves, who is one of the more versatile pitchers in the league and a good guy to have so long as his emotions are in check (it helps not to have Bobby Valentine around to stir them up).
A bullpen like this would be deeper than Toronto's bullpen, which features an underrated closer in Casey Janssen but then a mixed bag of setup men. It would also be deeper than the Yankees' bullpen, which features an aging Mariano Rivera who's coming off a major injury and a setup corps that isn't overly impressive beyond David Robertson.
Boston's bullpen would be more along the lines of what Baltimore's and Tampa Bay's bullpens were like in 2012. Both pens featured a strong collections of setup men wrapped around elite closers. Orioles closer Jim Johnson led baseball in saves, and Rays closer Fernando Rodney set an all-time record for relievers with a 0.60 ERA.
The strength of Baltimore's bullpen was a key reason why the Orioles were able to go an absurd 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in games that went to extra frames. The strength of Tampa Bay's bullpen allowed the Rays to blow only eight saves all season, fewest in baseball.
These are areas where the Red Sox struggled mightily in 2012. They went 17-22 in one-run games, 2-10 in extra-inning games and they tied for the American League lead with 22 blown saves. Conceivably, they could have been a .500 team rather than a 69-win joke with a better bullpen.
The Red Sox are due for an improvement in 2013 even as their bullpen stands right now. The additions of Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and the pending addition of Mike Napoli have made their offense into a respectable unit. Jacoby Ellsbury could be an MVP candidate again if he stays healthy, and the Red Sox know what to expect from Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz.
Pitching-wise, the arrival of John Farrell should help fix Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, and Ryan Dempster will provide stability for a rotation that had none to speak of in 2012. Felix Doubront has some upside, and John Lackey could return to form after missing a year due to Tommy John surgery.
If the Red Sox don't make any more moves, they have the look of a team that could win between 85 and 90 games in 2013 if things go their way (i.e. the exact opposite of what happened in 2012). Such an improvement would be a pretty big step forward from where they were this past season.
That many wins would put the Red Sox in wild card contention, but Red Sox Nation shouldn't kid itself by thinking that 85 or even 90 wins is going to be good enough to win the AL East. It was a quality division in 2012, and it's shaping up to be even better in 2013.
The Blue Jays have the most talented roster in the division and maybe the most talented roster in the American League. The Yankees have gotten weaker this winter, but they must not be underestimated. The Rays are always good, and should be good again in 2013. The Orioles overachieved in 2012, but they have too much talent to suddenly retreat back to the cellar from whence they came.
The Red Sox have more work to do if they're looking to contend for a division title as soon as 2013, and therein lies the rationale for why Soriano may be on their radar rather than far, far away from their thoughts.
It could be that the Red Sox feel that they have more than just a team of hired guns meant to hold down the fort for a couple years. It could be that they think they have put a legit contender together. And since Soriano could fix the problem they had with sure wins turning into losses in 2012, they may view him as the final piece to an elaborate puzzle.
For the Red Sox, Soriano may be the difference between "good enough" and "good."
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