This was the first test for the Boston Red Sox, the first chance for general manager Ben Cherington to demonstrate what his newfound commitment to "discipline" in player acquisitions truly means.
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The Minnesota Twins placed catcher Joe Mauer on trade waivers Monday, according to a major-league source. But the Red Sox, after purging more than $275 million in contract obligations last week, did not claim Mauer. No team did.
The Sox intend to be more disciplined, as Cherington suggested after the team sent first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, right-hander Josh Beckett and left fielder Carl Crawford to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Passing on Mauer, a player who once was their Holy Grail, indicated that the Red Sox are indeed serious about showing more restraint.
Mauer, 29, has about $142.5 million remaining on his contract, including $138 million from 2013 to ’18. Boston did not want to take on that much money so soon after busting out of payroll jail, according to a source with knowledge of the club’s thinking. But they had to be tempted to claim Mauer, don’t you think?
Heck, even though the Red Sox passed, they could explore a deal for Mauer in the offseason — particularly if they clear additional salary, perhaps with a trade of center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Red Sox could do worse than Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway as their catchers of the future. But Mauer could fill the role that Victor Martinez occupied during the final two months of 2009 and all of 2010, playing catcher, first base and designated hitter.
Few have noticed with the Twins stumbling to the worst record in the American League, but Mauer is back. He has appeared in 120 of the team’s 129 games, putting to rest the questions raised by his injury-marred 2011 season. And his performance reflects his good health — he entered Tuesday second in the AL with a .403 on-base percentage and 21st with a .828 OPS, despite having only eight home runs in 447 at-bats.
How eager would Mauer be to play in Boston? Good question — his contract includes full no-trade protection. He has spent his entire life in the relatively low-key Minneapolis-St. Paul market. But unlike Crawford, who spent his career in obscurity with Tampa Bay before signing as a free agent with Boston, it’s not as if Mauer has been completely sheltered.
Fans and media in the Twin Cities criticized Mauer for the first time last season, questioning whether he was willing to fight through his injuries. Even before that, Mauer had to adjust to the heightened expectations created by the eight-year, $184 million contract extension that he signed with the Twins in March 2010.
In a sense, the difficult part for him is over. And who knows? Mauer might be ready for a new challenge, considering that the Twins do not appear ready to win anytime soon.
According to a source, Mauer sought an opt-out clause when he negotiated his long-term deal, just in case the team fell into a losing rut. The Twins declined to include such a clause, and might not even want to move Mauer. But the Red Sox or another team eventually could offer Mauer a lifeline by persuading the Twins to make a trade.
It wouldn’t be easy; the Twins could not justify an outright dump of their hometown hero. No, they would want an ample return for Mauer, just as the Red Sox wanted an ample return for Gonzalez, Beckett and Crawford. And here’s the biggest obstacle: Starting pitching is the biggest need for both clubs.
The Sox could begin their package with left-hander Felix Doubront, who was claimed on waivers by an unidentified club Tuesday (the Twins had the first crack at Doubront, but if they passed on him, only the claiming club could acquire him during the waiver period; after that, Doubront cannot be traded until the off-season).
Class A right-hander Matt Barnes, the 19th overall pick in the 2011 draft, is another pitcher whom the Twins surely would covet. The Sox surely would balk at that notion; they need more pitchers like Doubront and Barnes, not less. But if the Twins included enough money in the deal — money that the Red Sox could redirect toward free agents — perhaps the idea would gain greater traction.
Of course, this is precisely the kind of logic that got the Sox into trouble in the first place, and none of the starting pitchers in the upcoming free-agent class is especially appealing. But then the question becomes: What exactly will the Red Sox do with their newfound savings?
One strategy would be to target players who grow too expensive for low-revenue teams, the Shin-Soo Choos and Chase Headleys of the world. But other teams will target those players, too — and the Red Sox, in their new world order, probably will be even more protective of their prospects than in the past.
The difficulty in acquiring impact talent is one reason the Dodgers were so attracted to Gonzalez — and so willing to absorb Beckett and Crawford while also sacrificing prospects in the trade.
The Red Sox will face the same challenge as they retool, which is why ultimately they could pursue Mauer. But by passing on their first chance, they showed that they’re serious about being the new Lords of Discipline. At least for now.