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Done playing, Sox go to work

Offseason issues begin with Bay

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / October 13, 2009

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As many times as Jason Bay was asked the question, he never quite answered it.

With the left fielder set to hit free agency this winter, and the Red Sox facing a gaping hole in left field and their lineup without him, Bay was asked whether returning to the Sox would be his first choice.

Although he said that Boston was high on the list, he never said it was first.

He certainly never said it was the only place he could see himself next season.

“I’m not going to say that,’’ Bay said yesterday, after cleaning out his locker at Fenway Park. “I’m not going to state that. But, yeah, I think ultimately it just boils down to I’ve gotten to this point. I’d do myself a disservice if I didn’t look around.

“I’ve said all along, I’m a pretty levelheaded guy. If something comes up that makes sense, tough time saying no.’’

So, yes, Bay will head into free agency.

He will listen to any team that wants to make an offer - including the Yankees. And although familiarity and comfort and proximity to his family are involved, Bay didn’t shy away from delineating the key factor: “At some point, it is about the money,’’ he said.

He will be high on the list of many teams in an offseason with few impact free agents. But he is not the only piece the Sox must work around. While they have a number of players who will certainly be back, there are certain positions in flux. Like shortstop, again. Like backup catcher.

“I think it can go a number of different directions,’’ said general manager Theo Epstein. “We’re always open to change because you need change to improve. It’s part of the natural cycle in baseball and life.

“Sometimes the market doesn’t bear that out. Sometimes there aren’t the right fits. Sometimes it’s not the right free agent market. Sometimes you end up with more status quo than you want.

“If that’s the case, if we look back three or four months from now and say, ‘Wow, there weren’t major changes,’ then I think next year will be perhaps the last year of this main group of players - we have a lot of players going into contract years next year. It might be one more chance with this group to go out and win the whole thing.’’

With Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Victor Martinez, and potentially David Ortiz ($12.5 million club option for 2011) all heading into contract years in 2010, the Sox will have to consider which are worthy of extensions.

But that is the future. For now, the team is focused on next season, which starts with Bay.

Jason Bay
It appears that Bay and the Sox want a deal to get done. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will.

The sides talked multiple times this season, breaking off discussions twice, in spring training and in the middle of the season.

“I still feel the core elements are in place in that we really want Jason Bay to be a member of the Boston Red Sox, and Jason Bay really wants to be a member of the Boston Red Sox,’’ Epstein said. “We’ll just rely on those two strong elements of the deal and talk again and see if we can work something out.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion with his representatives through the course of the last, say, nine months. Most of it has been under the radar screen, unreported even after the fact. We’ll just continue that and try our best to work something out confidentially.

“He’s a pro. We have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done since we acquired him. You couldn’t have asked for more from him since the day he put on a Red Sox uniform.

“We want the relationship to continue, and we’ll see if it does.’’

The Sox have a period of exclusivity in negotiations, but Bay will entertain other offers once that period ends.

When talking about the negotiations, Epstein referred to them as a “really unusual negotiation in the first place.’’

Asked what that meant, the GM said, “The fact that we want to keep him and he wants to be here, yet we’ve been unable to reach a deal. I don’t think either side has been unreasonable. I don’t think either side has been too conservative, or not aggressive enough, or not proactive enough. It just hasn’t happened. It’s disappointing that it hasn’t.’’

Asked whether he would return, Bay said, “Your guess is as good as mine. I’d like to be, no question. We’ll see if we can get something worked out.’’

Defense and road offense
As Epstein acknowledged, the two biggest areas of concern on this season’s club were defense and hitting on the road, both of which came up in the Division Series loss to the Angels.

The Sox hit just .131 in Anaheim, then exploded for six runs in Game 3 once they returned to Fenway. It was a phenomenon that showed up repeatedly during the season, from their stretch in Toronto and Texas after the All-Star Game to their stretch in Tampa Bay and New York in August.

“There’s only so much you can do about it,’’ said Epstein. “Obviously, we’re going to be a better-hitting team at Fenway. The disparity between home and road performance was pretty extreme this year.

“I think there are certain players who don’t have enough power to go out on a regular basis in some of the bigger ballparks on the road that do have the ability to get the ball off or over the Wall at Fenway. That’s one example. We’ll just try to build a team that can perform a little bit better on the road offensively, and that should help.’’

The Sox ranked 17th in the major leagues in batting average on the road, behind the Nationals, with a .257 average. They were 12th in slugging at .414. That is in direct contrast to their offense at home, where they were first in slugging at .498 and fifth in average at .294.

Of the regulars, seven hit at least 30 points higher at home, with the biggest examples being Jason Varitek (55 points higher at Fenway), Ortiz (50), Dustin Pedroia (45), and J.D. Drew (36). Only Martinez, who hit 71 points higher on the road, and Bay (just 11 points better at home) performed palatably away from Boston.

Ortiz, who played dismally in the first couple of months but rebounded to have a good year, is among the team’s most crucial offensive players. He has been the bat in the heart of the order, the one there to strike fear in opponents. He just hasn’t been that for the past two seasons, and might not be again.

“I think the last four months of the season were certainly better than the first two months,’’ said Epstein. “If he can find a way to prepare himself for the season where he can build off what he did from June 1 on and go from there . . .

“If he’s going to be the DH on this team, we need him to be a force. We’re a different team when he is that force.’’

Shortstop
Yes, again.

The Sox still haven’t found a shortstop who can stick, designating Julio Lugo for assignment and watching Jed Lowrie struggle with injuries this year.

Epstein had some strong words for Lowrie yesterday, saying, “At some point, the player has to get healthy to be able to show what he can do and be able to help the organization. I don’t think we can hand a job to him, because he hasn’t proved his health yet at this point.’’

So, he said, the team will have to have other options.

The Sox are interested in bringing back Alex Gonzalez, who has a club option for $6 million. That number, though, might be a little rich for the Sox. So they are likely to sit down with Gonzalez and try to work out a more palatable number, though Gonzalez would likely ask for some assurances that he would be the starter.

“We’ll see what happens,’’ Gonzalez said. “I came to the team in the right moment. We’ll see after what’s going on. But I’d like to be back next year.’’

The organization appreciates Gonzalez’s defense on a team that performed below expectations defensively, particularly at shortstop early in the season.

“Alex really stabilized things the last couple months of the season,’’ Epstein said. “We’ll sit down. We’ve already done some of this analysis. We’ll do more in-depth analysis of supply and demand to figure out what the market looks like before we decide on Alex’s option for next year.

“Certainly one way we could go is bringing him back. I think we’d all be comfortable having him back here under the right circumstances.’’

They could also bring back Nick Green, and would like to, though that would be a depth signing.

Catching
Although the catching position was one of the most talked-about last offseason, it won’t be this year. With the Sox assured of picking up Martinez’s $7.5 million option for 2010, he will be the starting catcher.

There is also potential for both sides to begin discussing a long-term deal.

“Victor is about as good as you’re going to get,’’ Epstein said. “We’re really happy with him, on and off the field, his leadership, his ability, his desire to work with the pitching staff. Ultimately it’s [Terry Francona’s] call, but we’ve discussed it enough to know that he’s going to catch a lot next year, and then we’ll see what happens from there.’’

Varitek has a club option and a player option for next season. Although the $5 million club option is almost certain not to be picked up, Varitek could accept the $3 million player option, and return as the backup. Epstein said he has not yet talked with Varitek, and declined to comment on the situation because of that.

“He’s definitely one of those guys I’d love to see back,’’ Beckett said. “I think even if the transition starts, like it started at the end of the year, I think that there’s a lot of things that a lot of people can learn from him.

“Him being around, it’s never a bad thing. He’s so great with young guys. He knows how to run a clubhouse. That’s why he wears that ‘C’ on his chest.’’

Pitching
Barring a major trade, potentially for a front-line starter like Felix Hernandez, whom the Sox discussed with the Mariners around the trade deadline, the rotation looks fairly settled.

The Sox will return Jon Lester, Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and likely Tim Wakefield.

Though Wakefield will undergo back surgery, probably this week, he has been clear about his desire to return. Epstein, too, expressed hope that Wakefield can come back to the Sox, even at 43.

In fact, it’s Matsuzaka who will be under the most scrutiny. Although he should be back in 2010, the Sox hope it will be a very different version than the pitcher who spent far too much of the season on the disabled list, and contributed only in September.

“We can notice right away that he’s had a strong offseason of workouts,’’ Epstein said. “Then also with his shoulder. That he does the shoulder program to an extent that he’s ready to go out and throw 200-plus innings. Those are things he didn’t accomplish last year. He did accomplish them in a condensed offseason that we had, late summer. But that’s not the time to do it. The time to do it is throughout the winter.

“That’s been clearly communicated. There will be follow-up. There are strong expectations that he shows up in February in fantastic shape on Day 1 of spring training next year. I see it as a necessity, not really an option.’’

So although there may not be a lot of change as the Sox head into next season, as there wasn’t last offseason, there is the potential to spring a major deal.

There could be an elite starter available on the trade market, like Hernandez. Or there could be a big bat, like Adrian Gonzalez.

Either way, Epstein said, the Sox are in position to make some moves without a lot of financial commitments extending into the future.

For the first time in a few years, there won’t be significant help coming from the farm system, which is mostly barren in the upper levels at this point. More likely, the Sox are faced with re-signing their players, checking out a less-than-stellar free agent market, or going the trade route.

“We have financial flexibility,’’ Epstein said. “We have a lot of opportunities out there. It’s not the world’s greatest free agent market. There’s not a tremendous amount of impact talent out there. But there are opportunities out there.

“I think the foundation of the organization is strong. We have a pretty good core of pre-prime and prime players. There’s probably 10 guys who are either mid-20s or right around 30 who we can really build around, and then a strong farm system and tremendous payroll flexibility going forward.

“It might not happen in this offseason. It might happen in the next offseason. But in the years ahead, I think we have the ability to make a transition. I hope it’s the type of transition that no one notices, because we keep winning games.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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