Offseason slugfest not in cards for Yanks, Red Sox

By Bryan Hoch /11/27/12 10:14 AM ET

NEW YORK -- The last time we saw the Yankees and the Red Sox go head-to-head on the field, if we're being completely honest, it didn't exactly represent a storied showdown that will inspire flowery books years from now.
New York was looking ahead to the postseason, while a fatigued Bobby Valentine was filling out his final lineup cards for a 93-loss Boston club -- not what the schedule-makers envisioned when they dispatched the Red Sox to finish the regular season in the Bronx.
Now, with the offseason in full force and the kickoff of the Winter Meetings less than a week away, the brand of free-agent slugfest that the media craves between the Yankees and the Red Sox hasn't materialized -- and may not at all.
"There's some options in the free agent market," Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said. "There's not a handful of high-end options. There's opportunities to build a team through free agency; you've just got to find the right ones."
In theory, the Red Sox should have cash to spend, having cleared nearly $300 million in payroll with the August trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.
But Cherington has often talked about being disciplined and smart with Boston's newfound payroll flexibility, regretting the decisions that tempted the Red Sox to try to emulate, well, the George Steinbrenner-era Yankees.
Though the Sox have flirted with Mike Napoli and already signed Jonny Gomes and David Ross to two-year deals, it may prove wiser for them to focus on the trade market and watch free agency from the sidelines rather than dabble on, say, the Josh Hamilton front.
The Yankees are also in an unfamiliar situation -- one in which they are willing to spend but reluctant to do so for more than a one-year deal, a direct result of managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner's directive to lower payroll to beneath $189 million for 2014. They, too, promise to watch most of this class go by.
The Yanks had little issue with giving right-hander Hiroki Kuroda a $15 million payday for 2013, as he fit GM Brian Cashman's criteria of "short-term circumstances on high-end players." Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera would fit similar bills; Ichiro Suzuki could as well.
Yet even with a vacancy in right field following the expected departure of Nick Swisher -- rumored to be on Boston's radar -- New York never tendered an offer to free agent Torii Hunter, who instead signed a two-year, $26 million deal with Detroit.
"He is a quality guy who would have fit the bill as a potential player for us," Cashman said of Hunter. "He makes the Tigers better."
Cashman notes that he has "never said we wouldn't do multiyear deals," and if the Yankees are to retain catcher Russell Martin, they'll likely have to -- New York offered Martin a three-year, $20 million pact this spring, an offer that was declined.
That's a special case, because though some may scoff, the $189 million objective is legitimate. That figure comes from baseball's Collective Bargaining Agreement, which provides tremendous incentives if a perennial big spender such as the Yankees can get beneath that number for just one season.
If they avoid paying a 50 percent tax on every dollar over $189 million in 2014, the Yankees would receive amnesty, and if they exceed it in 2015, with a big free-agent class ahead, could return to a "first-time offender" rate of 17.5 percent.
"I've made it clear that it's very important to me, for several reasons," Steinbrenner said last month. "Again, you're talking about a 10 percent reduction in payroll. I don't see that as an outrageous concept. I never have."
While the Red Sox and Yankees speak about setting down their mighty checkbooks in favor of creative solutions, the landscape of the tough American League East is changing, with the Blue Jays aiming to leap past both the Wild Card Orioles and the pitching-rich Rays.
Coming off an 89-loss season, Toronto has made the loudest noise in the division thus far, sounding the alarms by completing a blockbuster 12-player deal with Miami that imported shortstop Jose Reyes, pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, and outfielder Emilio Bonifacio.
"I know the sleeping giant that exists up there," Cashman said. "Last year wasn't a true reflection of how good they could have been, because they got derailed with injuries. I think their additions are going to serve them extremely well. It doesn't change how we go about our business."
And with an accelerated rebuilding process under way, the Red Sox aren't in position to try to win the winter either, despite holes at first base, shortstop and the outfield, and a desire for starting pitching help.
Insiders expect that the Red Sox will continue seeking veterans on shorter-term contracts to help bridge them to 2013 or 2014, when some of the organization's top prospects are ready to make an impact in the Majors.
"Your flexibility can go very quickly if you don't use it wisely and do the right things," Cherington said. "We've got to find the right opportunities. We'll do some things this offseason, but building a team doesn't stop on Feb. 15. You keep going."