'Marco Scutaro' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/The Red Sox made a baffling move over the weekend by trading starting shortstop Marco Scutaro to the Rockies, then compounded the issue by inking Cody Ross to join the outfield.

In an offseason where the Miami Marlins have channeled the ghost of George Steinbrenner, the Red Sox have become the new misers of the league, hamstrung by several aggressive moves by ex-GM Theo Epstein that has severely limited the team’s flexibility. As a result, Boston has been bargain-bin shopping during an offseason where fans have felt cheated by the players’ devotion to fried chicken and beer instead of making the playoffs. New GM Ben Cherington was off to a great start using a shoestring budget to address the roster’s glaring deficiencies, but his dumping of Marco Scutaro on the Rockies was ill-advised and looks worse with the move to add Ross to the roster.

The Red Sox’s main motivation in dealing Scutaro was to clear his salary from the team so additional moves could be made while ensuring Boston stayed under $178 million in total payroll, with the luxury tax kicking in at that price.* By moving Scutaro, Boston cleared $7.67 million of such space, which is more than the $6 million Scutaro will actually earn. As Alex Speier of WEEI reports, Scutaro’s original deal with the Red Sox held a $3 million player option for 2012 along with the $6 million club option. MLB counted that player option as guaranteed money, so for luxury tax purposes, Scutaro’s deal was viewed as three years and $14 million.

*Of course, why the Red Sox are so desperate to stay under $178 million, even for one year, is another matter entirely. Owner John Henry made a massive outlay for the Liverpool FC soccer club this past year, and the Sox are a cash cow along with Fenway Park. Boston has always sought to stay under the luxury tax, but it’s never been at the expense of fielding a talented team. Until now.

As a result, Scutaro’s salary on the payroll counted for $4.67 million for the previous two seasons on the payroll instead of the $6 million he was actually receiving. When Boston picked up the club option, that changed the terms of the overall deal to three years and $18.5 million. The pied piper came calling to Boston to make up for the lower luxury-tax figures in 2010 and 2011, putting Scutaro’s 2012 payroll figure at $7.67 million. It’s not surprising that Scutaro was earmarked for departure at that amount, but where Cherington blew it was the return for Scutaro and where he chose to reinvest part of the savings.

In exchange for Scutaro, the Sox received Clayton Mortensen, a former first-round pick of the Cardinals who is now with his fourth team since debuting in 2009. Now 27, Mortensen has so far proved that he doesn’t belong in the majors. Mortensen simply doesn’t strike out enough batters and issues too many free passes, all with a fastball that struggles to break 90 mph and a sinker that ends up flying over the fence. Mortensen’s xFIP, which more accurately reflects and projects a player’s true value over that of ERA, checks in at an underwhelming 4.67 — and he’s moving to the AL East. Simply put, Mortensen is a warm body whose only value to the Red Sox is his ability to head to Triple-A and soak up innings as an emergency backup. That’s actually something Boston needs, but not at the expense of Scutaro, who was the eighth-best shortstop over the last three seasons according to Wins Above Replacement (WAR).

The Red Sox handed away someone who has passed the 2 WAR barrier comfortably in each of his seasons with the Red Sox at one of the toughest positions to fill on the diamond. Regardless of age (age 36) or injury (113 games in 2011, plus shoulder problems in 2010) concerns, finding a competent and consistent shortstop in this day and age is extremely difficult, and Scutaro is one of these players. He has solid plate discipline, keeps strikeouts to a minimum and can put the barrel on the ball. His ability to play third and second base (the latter position being his new home in Colorado) only enhances his value. Boston contends that the Rockies were the first team all winter to agree to take on Scutaro’s salary in full, but Cherington should have continued to hold out if that was truly the case even if it meant going into the season with Scutaro at shortstop, because he would have been worth the investment.

Instead, Cherington gutted an important position and turned it into a weakness, all for several million and a pitcher who may not even be able to handle Triple-A, given his 9.42 ERA in 15 starts at that level for Colorado in 2011. Cherington couldn’t have done better? Hard to believe.

The Scutaro deal can’t be judged on its own, though. This is very much a deal that can only be judged properly by the resulting moves, as the entire point of the deal was to free up salary. If the money had been reinvested back into a starting pitcher — say, Roy Oswalt or Gavin Floyd — then the Scutaro deal starts looking a lot rosier. The problem? Oswalt and Floyd look like a pipe dream following the signing of outfielder Cody Ross. He will serve as insurance in left field should Carl Crawford not make it back in time for Opening Day following left wrist surgery and also play right field against left-handed pitchers. On its own, the signing of Ross at $3 million is actually a pretty good move. But it’s the type of a move that’s a luxury, not a necessity — like a competent shortstop and No. 4 starter are.

Despite being fourth in line, the No. 4 starter in a team’s rotation is an important man. He is the last line of defense before the soft underbelly of the fifth starter, and the No. 4 starter is tasked with a full season’s worth of starts and is relied upon to stay healthy and effective. Many No. 5 starters tend to pop in and out of the rotation as teams look for lightning in a bottle, but that’s not the case with a No. 4 starter, who has a fairly stable job. And no wonder, because that No. 4 starter will also be tasked with helping the club win the World Series in October, as postseason three-man rotations are largely a thing of the past.

Sure, Boston might be able to find that No. 4 starter by July 31, but the club is doing battle in a division with two other heavyweights in the Yankees and Rays. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays are a fast-rising club, able to compete at the major-league level with one of the best farm systems in the game. Every win, whether April or September, counts — as the Red Sox could tell you from experience. Can Boston really afford to wait until July 31 as they sift through names such as Alfredo Aceves, Aaron Cook and Andrew Miller?

Oswalt, Floyd, or a similarly priced starter would have fit well as the No. 4 starter, and it’s still possible Boston comes up with the funds needed to do just that. Regardless, inking Ross is a setback to finding that No. 4 starter and it will only get harder if Boston acquires another shortstop to fill the gaping hole left by Scutaro. If that happens, the Sox will have traded a valued commodity at shortstop for a platoon outfielder and a shortstop worse, by default, than Scutaro (unless Boston somehow gets a young, cheap and good shortstop in trade — good luck with that). That’s a step back, not a step forward.

Trading Scutaro on its own wasn’t a bad idea, even if the miserly logic behind it was confounding. But it quickly turned into one when the return was far less than what it should have been, and when part of the savings was diverted into a replaceable platoon outfielder. The Red Sox aren’t yet done making moves, so it’s tough to judge the Scutaro deal just yet, but Cherington is not off to a good start.

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