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Source: Red Sox unlikely to offer any reliever three years

12.14.10 at 4:37 pm ET

It would not be unprecedented. The Red Sox have done it before — once. But while there is no formal club policy against offering three-year contracts to relievers, according to a source familiar with the club’s thinking, the Sox would only go to such lengths to sign a pitcher whom the club deemed to be one of the best in the game.

While there are several strong options on the relief market right now, only one — Rafael Soriano — could be considered one of the top relievers in the game, and since he is virtually certain to seek a job as a closer (a job that the Sox have filled both for 2011 by Jonathan Papelbon and likely beyond by Daniel Bard), the Sox are unlikely to make a play for him. And so, even though a pair of relievers (Joaquin Benoit and Scott Downs) have set the upper end of the market for middle relievers this winter by signing three-year deals, the likelihood is extremely small that the Sox would offer a three-year deal to a bullpen arm this winter.

The Sox gave out their only three-year relief deal under GM Theo Epstein to closer Keith Foulke following the 2003 season. That paid off in 2004, when Foulke proved a crucial contributor to the Sox’ World Series, but offered a case study in the perils of long-term relief deals in 2005 and 2006, when Foulke missed substantial time with injuries and performed poorly, ultimately losing his job to Papelbon.

The Sox have signed relievers to two-year deals that included vesting options. Both Alan Embree and Julian Tavarez were signed to such deals. Embree made enough appearances for his option to vest, while Tavarez did not, but had his option picked up after emerging as a valuable swingman in 2006 and 2007. Both pitchers ended up being designated for assignment in the third year of their deals.

That history may have informed the Sox’ approach with Downs, the free-agent left-hander whom they aggressively tried to acquire both at the trade deadline and again in free agency.

Downs represented a potentially good fit for the Sox as a southpaw with an outstanding track record (he had a 2.36 ERA over the last four years) and a proven ability to succeed in the AL East. According to multiple major league sources, the Sox had significant interest in Downs, especially after signing Crawford.

In part, that represented the fact that the cost of Downs ‘€“ a Type A free agent for whom the Sox would have to give up a draft pick ‘€“ would not be quite as steep. The Sox had already signed Crawford as a Type A who would cost them their first-round draft pick; Downs, ranked lower among Type A free agents by the Elias rankings system, would have thus cost a second-round pick.

Even so, while the team would have been interested in him for two years, the Sox made the decision to back off of Downs. The team decided that a three-year deal was more than it wanted to invest in a reliever, particularly given Downs’€™ age (34) and the fact that he would cost a pick.

A case can be made that Downs was the best setup man on the market this offseason. That being the case, even while the Sox have interest in other available relievers such as (according to multiple industry sources) Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain as well as (according to ESPN.com) Kevin Gregg, among others, none is likely to receive a deal with three guaranteed seasons.

Read More: bullpen, Hot Stove, jesse crain, kevin gregg
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