Cardboard boxes, wooden bats, and an unpacked duffel bag with a "33" on the side littered the Red Sox clubhouse floor yesterday. A handful of players ambled through, their final moments in a room that surely will have a different complexion next spring. Some players found it at once easy and difficult to believe their season had ended Sunday night, 173 games and half a planet away from where it began.
"It seems like Japan was yesterday," first baseman Sean Casey said. "And about eight years ago."
Their stinging loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series still casting bitterness over Fenway Park, the Red Sox began their offseason with plans for 2009 forming and the peace of mind that third baseman Mike Lowell should return to full health by the time spring training begins.
Lowell's right hip surgery yesterday morning was "a complete success" and his doctors were "pleasantly surprised" with the condition of Lowell's labrum, according to general manager Theo Epstein.
Doctors removed two bony lesions and some tiny portions of the labrum, and also released an abductor in his hip.
"They'll start his recovery tomorrow," Epstein said. The recovery is expected to be three to four months, but it could be less, Epstein said, meaning Lowell will not be a worry in spring training.
"I think today was a big day for that," Epstein said. "They finally got a look in there. They didn't see anything that they didn't expect. We'll monitor the rehab and the recovery, but we expect Mike to be able to contribute right from the start."
Lowell's health no longer a concern, the most immediate priority might be the catching situation, with 11-year starter Jason Varitek becoming a free agent.
"He's an important part of the organization," Epstein said. "There's no doubt about that. Obviously, he's coming off a year that wasn't his best. But he's important nonetheless.
"He's a free agent, and we'll be talking to him. We have an obligation to explore all of our options. We have to do that. We do that with every position."
The Red Sox must weigh the value of Varitek, who is coming off a dismal offensive season, against the field of available catchers, which is shallow and unimpressive. Varitek hit .220 this season, .088 in the playoffs. But his defensive value still may make him the best option.
"There's not a lot of elite catching out there," Epstein said. "At the same time, that changes the standards from what you're looking for. The state of catching shifts the target a little bit. What's league average? What's above league average?
"If we do our jobs well, we'll be at least league average at every position. It's been well-documented there's not a ton of catching out there. We'll try to figure it out."
Varitek's stature as the captain and the nerve center of the Red Sox pitching staff will make it difficult to part with him. Varitek, 36, arrived in the Red Sox organization in 1997, and only Tim Wakefield has been with the team longer. Picturing him in another uniform is strange, if not unsettling, for some.
"I can't imagine that," Casey said. "He means a lot to this team. The organization knows it. Fans know it. He means a lot to that staff, he means a lot to this clubhouse, he means a lot to this city."
Epstein's confidence in the depth and development of the farm system, which supplied much of this season's core and several key reinforcements, will allow the Red Sox to be "selective shoppers" in free agency again, Epstein said. The biggest splash last offseason was signing Casey, a journeyman first baseman, to a one-year contract.
"That's a way the offseason could go," Epstein said. "I'd be surprised if that was the case. We have the ability to be selective in free agency. That could be the case again this year. We also might do something big. We have the ability to survey the field, play the offseason, and do what we think is right without having to do any one thing.
"We're at a point now as an organization where we're not desperate to improve in any one area. We can bring back the same group in any one area and be solid and have all of our bases covered. We can now pick our spots and look for areas to improve. Last offseason was great, because we didn't have to be desperate. I think that's the same approach we'll take this year."
Epstein did not eliminate the possibility of acquiring a big-name free agent - Angels first baseman Mark Teixeira would be the biggest - or the potential of making a significant trade. But he reiterated, over and over, that the farm system permits them to be sensible.
Epstein also said the way the season ended, with a stirring comeback that was not fully completed, would not affect the offseason. He praised the Red Sox for their resiliency all season, from surviving the Manny Ramírez saga to patching together a lineup because of late-season injuries to erasing a seven-run deficit in Game 5 of the ALCS.
"At this moment, it's bittersweet because we fell a couple runs short at the end," Epstein said. "What happened in Game 5 and to be able to get within a few runs of the World Series and salvage the series, to me, that changed the tone of our season.
"It doesn't change what we are, where we need to improve, and how we stack up against our competition. It does change the tone, and that will maybe help how we sleep at night."
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com.