With a deep Cy, Red Sox bank on Martinez era Record contract paid to seek O's, N.Y. level

March 04, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The rest of baseball may have waxed apoplectic when the Boston Red Sox paid a record $75 million to sign National League Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez, but the message got out.

If there had been any doubt about the organization's desire to crack the status quo in the American League East, it was obliterated by the biggest contract in baseball history.

Now for the $75 million question: Did the Red Sox do enough to end the two-year, two-team hold that the Orioles and New York Yankees have on one of the game's deepest divisions?

"We needed to get better," said general manager Dan Duquette, who took some heat for the magnitude of Martinez's six-year deal. "This is a very competitive division. You've got a lot of teams in strong markets. It's a big challenge."

Duquette met that challenge in 1995 when he gambled on two unheralded free-agent pitchers (Tim Wakefield and Erik Hanson) and won an unlikely division title, but the stakes this year are much, much higher.

The Red Sox have boosted their payroll and blown a hole in baseball's salary structure, which could set up their front office for a big fall if the team comes up short again in 1998. Duquette took some heat from other large-market teams for setting a new salary standard, but he has never been one to apologize for the way he does business.

"The people who criticized it publicly would take that contract in a trade," Duquette said. "I'm sure they would. There were some other teams trying to get him from the Expos. Do you think they would have acquired him and not tried to sign him?

"The thing about Pedro Martinez at 25, he has put up numbers equivalent to some of the great pitchers in the history of the game -- Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux, Juan Marichal -- at the same point in their careers, and very few players approach free agency at that age."

No one doubts Martinez's talent. He was 17-8 with a 1.90 ERA and 305 strikeouts last year and promises to be an even bigger winner with the support of one of the league's top offensive clubs.

The Red Sox also acquired veteran closer Dennis Eckersley and should be improved on defense with the acquisition of outfielders Damon Buford and Darren Lewis, but the question remains open. Did the Red Sox do enough?

"I don't know how much talent we have because I'm not as familiar with this organization as I was with the Montreal Expos'," Martinez said, "but I can see there are some good players here some big-name players who put up numbers. I think the key for us is to stay healthy. If we do, we can do some serious damage and compete with anybody."

Health already is a major issue in camp. The Red Sox lost starting second baseman Jeff Frye for the season eight days ago when he crumpled to the ground with a severe knee injury during a rundown drill. The club, already short a veteran infielder after Tim Naehring's elbow surgery, lost what figured to be its everyday leadoff hitter.

Still, the main concern of manager Jimy Williams is the pitching staff, which got decidedly better when Martinez arrived, but remains a montage of rehabbing veterans and unproven youngsters.

Martinez and knuckleballer Wakefield are set to start at the top of the rotation, but the season may turn on the ability of veteran left-hander Butch Henry to fill the No. 3 job or Bret Saberhagen's comeback from shoulder surgery.

The Red Sox also are hoping that one of their top minor-league prospects -- perhaps right-hander Brian Rose -- will fill the fourth slot, but the pitching depth of the organization was eroded by the loss of top prospect Carl Pavano in the Martinez trade and Jeff Suppan in the expansion draft.

"I think pitching is pivotal on every club," said Williams. "You've got to have starters. You need a good starting corps. That's what we're trying to put together here. We might use Rose, who won 17 games at Triple-A last year, or we might go with someone else. You have to ask yourself, 'Is that the right spot for him?' and you hope that you make the right decision."

If there is plenty of uncertainty in attendance at City of Palms Stadium, where the Red Sox play their home exhibition schedule, there also is plenty of room for optimism. The Red Sox won 78 games last year without a true pitching ace, thanks largely to a productive offensive lineup that ranked first in the American League with a .291 combined batting average.

The dramatic emergence of shortstop Nomar Garciaparra as one of the top all-around hitters in the game had a huge impact on the chemistry of the offensive attack. First baseman Mo Vaughn had another strong season. And the Red Sox got solid production from almost every spot in the lineup.

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