Here's a fun winter exercise that will hopefully spark some debate: Who are the 20 most important members of the Red Sox organization?
Globe colleague Chad Finn ranked the major league players the other day on Boston.com. But this Top 20 takes a wider look. The criteria is simple: To be eligible for the list, the person must be employed by the team. Any person in the organization, at any level, is fair game.
Here's my list:
1. John Henry: The principal owner since 2002, Henry has rebuilt the organization into a consistent winner while at the same time renovating Fenway Park. His strength as an owner has been the ability to hire smart people and give them the resources to do their jobs. As long as Henry is owner, Red Sox fans know their team will contend.
2. Jon Lester: He's 26, lefthanded, under contract and one of the best starters in baseball. There is no more valuable commodity in baseball than a young, talented starting pitcher. Lester is the kind of player you build a team around for a decade.
3. Kevin Youkilis: A two-time All-Star who has finished in the top six of the MVP voting the last two seasons, Youkilis has become the team's most reliable offensive player. A low-maintenance star who can play two positions well, Youkilis is a cornerstone player and figures to be for another 5-7 years.
4. Dustin Pedroia: Only 26, Pedroia has an MVP and Rookie of the Year under his belt and is one of basball's more likable stars. As team captain Jason Varitek enters what is likely to be his last season, Pedroia could take on a greater leadership role.
5. Theo Epstein: He is entering his eighth season as general manager and at 36, the "Boy Wonder" moniker no longer applies. Epstein has given the Red Sox direction and built a player development machine that reaches across the globe. The question now is how long baseball will retain his interest.
6. Josh Beckett: The 29-year-old righthander is no longer the ace but remains one of the best starters in the game. Beckett is 31 games over .500 in four seasons with the club as he enters the final year of his contract. His contract status has become a hot topic.
7. Terry Francona: The Red Sox have averaged 94 victories during his six seasons and are 34-24 in the postseason with two World Series titles. He is clearly the best manager in team history and nobody's puppet. Now when will he get more respect from fans?
8. Larry Lucchino: The team president and CEO, Lucchino is Henry's point
man and handles the day-to-day responsibilities of running the team.
The Red Sox have become more popular (and profitable) than ever under his stewardship. No team president in the game is more influential.
9. Victor Martinez: With Manny Ramirez long gone and David Ortiz perhaps fading away, the defensively challenged catcher is Boston's best power threat. Martinez has averaged 24 home runs and 111 RBI in the last two seasons he was healthy. The Sox will lean heavily on him this season.
10. John Lackey: The highest-paid player on the team, Lackey accepted an $82.5 million deal in December. The Sox are counting on his presence in the rotation to make up for the loss of productive left fielder Jason Bay.
11. Clay Buchholz: He's 25 now and no longer a prospect in waiting. The talented righthander could elevate the rotation from "really good" to "unstoppable" if he cashes in on the promise everybody thinks he has. He is good enough to quickly become the No. 2 starter behind Lester.
12. Casey Kelly: The Red Sox paid the high school shortstop and SEC-level quarterback $3 million to play baseball then convinced him to become a full-time pitcher. He now weighs 220 pounds and at 6-foot-4, looks like the proverbial "big horse" every rotation needs. Kelly is a gifted pitcher and comes from a baseball background. He could well be the team's next big star. For now, he will start the season with Class AA Portland.
13. Jacoby Ellsbury: Chicks dig him and guys across New England were befuddled when he was moved to left field to make room for Mike Cameron. He also stole a team-record 70 bases last season. Be advised that the entire team stole 51 bases in 2006 before he showed up. The Red Sox haven't had a player like Ellsbury since, well, maybe ever.
14. J.D. Drew: The subject of much debate 'round here. Epstein and Francona believe (and the statistics back them up) that Drew is one of the best outfielders in the business. Many fans, however, believe him to be a fragile, unclutch bum. Regardless of your view, he is signed through the end if the 2011 season and likely is not going anywhere.
15. John Farrell: The pitching coach since 2007, Farrell is a valued decision-maker within the organizational framework and many think he will become manager when Francona's tenure is finished. Farrell's influence is felt throughout the organization given his knowledge of pitching and player development.
16. David Ortiz: How the mighty have fallen. "Big Papi" once held the organization in the palm of his hand and was the player most universally associated with the team after hitting .332 with 35 homers and 111 RBI in 2007 and driving the team to another World Series title. Ortiz has hit .250 since with 51 homers and 188 RBI and last June was tied to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. He emerged from a horrific slump in time to drive in 99 runs last season but he has lost the benefit of the doubt entering the final season of his contract.
17. Jonathan Papelbon: Outside of Mariano Rivera, Papelbon is the best closer in the game despite stumbles last year that included a season-ending playoff meltdown against the Angels. He believes it is his mission to lift up the salaries of fellow closers by landing record-setting deals. That insistence could lead to his departure given the stated unwillingness of Epstein to invest heavily in relief pitchers.
18. Daniel Bard: He's young, cheap and throws 100 mph. Bard has taken well to the bullpen after essentially failing to develop as a starter. If he continues on that path, he's the closer of the future once Papelbon either leaves as a free agent or is traded.
19. Ben Cherington: Epstein has had several of his lieutenants leave the organization to run their own teams. But Cherington has been loyal to the team since 1999 and is one of baseball's most respected administrators. He has a background in player development and scouting and could one day be the GM.
20. Jose Iglesias: The Red Sox have been looking for a shortstop since trading Nomar Garciaparra in 2004. They signed Iglesias to a $8.2 million deal last year hoping to change that. The Cuban is a defensive whiz. But will he hit?
Notes: Obviously this is one view and you can make a case for many others, primarily Adrian Beltre or Mike Cameron. What is your take?