The Red Sox were a destination point for expensive free agents during the tenure of former general manager Theo Epstein, the doors to Fenway Park thrown open each winter for the best players in baseball. Invariably they left with big checks.
Epstein was reliably generous during his eight years in office. With one exception, that coming prior to the 2008 season, he spent at least $15 million every offseason on free agents from outside the organization.
New general manager Ben Cherington, constrained by the expenditures of the past, has been forced to take a new approach. The Red Sox have so far relied on trades to fill holes in their roster and have no plans to sign any of the premier free agents still on the market.
The Red Sox watched from the sideline when pitchers C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle signed elsewhere, and did not bother to make a bid for Japanese star Yu Darvish. They also shied away from the free agent closers, deciding instead to trade for Oakland’s Andrew Bailey last week.
“Ben is listening with free agents, but that’s it so far,’’ said one agent, who asked not be identified. “I don’t think it’s an act, either. They’re hoping somebody falls to them and that may be it.’’
The Red Sox are far from ready for 2012. Outside of Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester, the team does not have a reliable starting pitcher on the roster. There are internal options to fill the two remaining spots in the rotation but outside help is likely to be needed, too.
With seven weeks remaining before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, Cherington’s biggest task is improving a rotation whose collapse at the end of last season left the Red Sox in third place.
“We’ll continue to work and we’re actively considering and looking at starting pitching options, also,’’ Cherington said. “But we haven’t found one, yet, where we feel like the acquisition cost is the right one. That doesn’t mean it won’t come to us, it just hasn’t come, yet.’’
How did it come to this? The Red Sox have little room to maneuver in the free agent market because they will almost certainly exceed the luxury tax threshold of $178 million in payroll next season.
For luxury tax purposes, the payroll is based on the average annual salary of players on the 40-man roster plus medical benefits. The Red Sox are at roughly $176 million now, counting the projected salaries for their nine unsigned players, a group that includes Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz.
Because the Red Sox will be over the limit for the third straight season, they would be taxed at a rate of 40 percent on any amount over $178 million.
So were they to sign one of the premier free agent starters to a one-year deal worth $10 million, the true cost would be $14 million.
Free agents Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, and Roy Oswalt are available. Scott Boras, who represents Jackson, has said his client is a better risk than Darvish and should be paid accordingly. That would seem to eliminate the Red Sox.
The 36-year-old Kuroda and 34-year-old Oswalt reportedly are agreeable to one-year contracts, and the Red Sox have shown interest in both previously.
But Kuroda earned $12 million last season and Oswalt $16 million. Their expectations would have to change considerably for the Red Sox to become suitors.
A more realistic path would be signing a second-tier free agent such as Jeff Francis, Rich Harden, Paul Maholm, Joel Pineiro, or Joe Saunders.
Or the Red Sox could sign a pitcher coming off an injury and hope for a speedy recovery. The lottery-ticket group includes Jon Garland, Scott Kazmir, Ben Sheets, Brandon Webb, and Chris Young.
There are starters available via trade, the best being Matt Garza of the Cubs. Epstein, now president of baseball operations of the Cubs, has said he expects a big return for the righthander. Given the prospects they have used to make trades in the last 13 months, the Red Sox are unlikely to meet his price.
The Red Sox will certainly look within for starters. Daniel Bard has been told to come to spring training prepared to start, and Cherington said the former set-up man will get “every chance’’ to make the rotation.
But Bard has not started since a rocky Single A season in 2007. There remains a chance he returns to the bullpen.
“It’s not 110 percent at all,’’ said manager Bobby Valentine last week on MLB Network Radio.
“He’d like to have the opportunity to win the spot if all other things are equal. I said there’s nothing wrong with coming to spring training being mentally and physically ready to pitch multiple innings. In fact, if that doesn’t work out, be ready for plan 1-A, and that would be where you’ve been the last couple of years. He was fine with that and so am I.’’
The Sox will give the same opportunity to Alfredo Aceves, although his versatility may prove a better fit in the bullpen.
The other in-house options are not appetizing. Daisuke Matsuzaka is returning from elbow surgery and is not expected back until after the All-Star break. He has a 5.03 earned run average over the last three seasons.
Andrew Miller statistically was one of the worst pitchers in the game last season with a 5.54 ERA and 1.82 WHIP. But the Sox remain hopeful that the former first-round pick will unlock his potential after six fruitless seasons.
Felix Doubront, a 24-year-old lefthander, is coming off a rocky season but is one of the few pitchers in the system experienced enough to aid the major league team right away. The Sox also have righthander Junichi Tazawa, who has done little since being signed to a $3.3 million deal in 2008.
Those were the days when signing an unproven pitcher from an industrial league in Japan was pocket change for the Red Sox. Now they hope to find a bargain or two.
“If we can find ways to build depth into the rotation, we will,’’ Cherington said. “We don’t feel like we’re forced into doing that.’’
Cherington said much the same about his bullpen before he traded for Bailey last Wednesday. There are always upgrades available; the question is how creative the Red Sox can be in finding them.Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.