From Larry Lucchino to Ben Cherington, the Red Sox already are offering us a glimpse into their plan. They need to reassess how they attack free agency, Lucchino said. They need more signings like Alfredo Aceves, said Cherington. And all of it suggests the Red Sox will not be in the market for a blockbuster free agent this winter.
Which is good.
Because they don’t need to be.
Talent was never the issue with the 2011 Red Sox, whose historic collapse in September had far more to do with commitment, heart and focus. Starting pitching was obviously a factor, too. Between now and spring training, it is incumbent upon Cherington to oversee the roster changes that will mean far more than the identity of a new manager, unless the Sox stun us all and hire a high-profile manager.
Do not misunderstand. A managerial change will likely help this team because it will put everyone on their toes again, at least to some degree. But the Red Sox also have roster issues worth greater consideration.
By picking up the option on shortstop Marco Scutaro ($6 million), the Red Sox effectively locked up their entire infield. Barring trade, Scutaro, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis all will return in 2012, though the retention of Scutaro does raise some longer-term questions.
This is a big year for shortstop Jose Iglesias, who batted .235 with a .554 OPS in 101 games at Triple-A Pawtucket this year. Remember that the Sox signed Iglesias in 2009, just weeks before they nailed down Scutaro. Part of the reason the Sox gave Scutaro a two-year deal with an option for a third year was because they thought Iglesias might be ready by now. Had the Sox declined that $6 million option, Scutaro still could have returned for $3.5 million, a pay decrease built into the contract because he would have returned as a utility man.
If Iglesias continues to struggle offensively in 2012, the Red Sox could be faced with a long-term dilemma at the position. The 2012 free agent market looks thin at shortstop, meaning a trade (Hanley Ramirez, anyone?) might be the only solution.
Beyond shortstop, Kevin Youkilis gives Cherington some flexibility this offseason because of his versatility. So let’s speculate for a moment. Because Youkilis (33 in March) has missed 128 games over the last three years, might it not make some sense to employ him as the designated hitter and backup corner infielder? This would require cutting ties with David Ortiz and pursuing someone like, say, Aramis Ramirez, who is a Type B free agent and would not require the forfeiture of a draft pick.
As Globe reporter Peter Abraham has pointed out, the Sox have third base prospect Will Middlebrooks climbing the ladder in their system, which could also make Youkilis a trade candidate at some point. Still, Middlebrooks played only 16 games at Triple A this year (batting .161) and could use more time. A stopgap signing at third could make all the sense in the world depending on the length of the contract, and it might also help address the left-right imbalance that exists in the Boston lineup.
What we know for sure is that J.D. Drew is out, leaving an obvious hole in right filled most likely to be filled by Ryan Kalish. Thus far, Cherington has said only that Kalish is in the right field mix along with, among others, Josh Reddick, who also bats lefthanded. Whoever emerges from those two, the outfield composition is the same given the return of Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury: all three players hit lefthanded.
As such, the Red Sox are in the market for a righthanded-hitting outfielder -- other than Darnell McDonald – and preferably one who can handle right field at Fenway Park (while spotting in center during an emergency).
If Carlos Beltran is indeed among the Sox’ targets, as has been reported, he makes sense for a number of reasons. Though he will be 35 in April, Beltran is a former center fielder and three-time Gold Glove Award-winner who can handle the outfield. Though a switch hitter, his career numbers are slightly better from the right side. And while he is a Type-A free agent, he would not require compensation because, per his current contract, his existing team (the Giants) cannot offer him arbitration to qualify for compensation.
The problem? Though injury-prone, Beltran might not be ready to label himself as a part-time player just yet. In full-time duty last season with the Giants and New York Mets – he played 142 games - Beltran batted .300 with a .910 OPS.
In terms of offense, the right-anded-hitting Cody Ross (a career .912 OPS against lefties) would be a good fit, though there would be obvious defensive questions about his ability to handle right field at Fenway. The combination of offensive and defensive needs at the position makes it tricky to address, which is why the Red Sox will have relatively few good options here unless they make a change in left or center, which seems unlikely.
That said, the Sox would be prudent to explore Jacoby Ellsbury’s value on the trade market, if for no other reason than the fact that Ellsbury’s value is stratospherically high at the moment. Ellsbury is eligible for free agency at the end of the 2013 season and seems likely to depart given the history of agent Scott Boras, so it might be worth moving him now if the Sox can get something significant (read: an ace) back.
If not, Ellsbury obviously stays. As a big market team, the Sox have the luxury of playing for a championship every year. That alone means they can afford to let Ellsbury leave for nothing more than draft pick compensation in two years. But they at least owe it to themselves to sniff around, especially if they cannot get quality starting pitching through other means.
CATCHER AND DESIGNATED HITTER
Jarrod Saltalamacchia wilted down the stretch – he batted .182 in his final 35 games – but some of that is to be expected from a 26-year-old catcher essentially playing his first full season. Even then Saltalamacchia was still one of the most productive catchers in the American League. The starting job looks like it’s his, which means the questions at these positions (including DH) really come down to two people.
Jason Varitek and David Ortiz.
With Varitek, the Red Sox have some questions they need to answer. Do they really want him there as a binky for Josh Beckett anymore? Is he obstructing the development of Ryan Lavarnway? If the answers are what we think they are, it might be time to cut ties with Varitek and stash a different veteran backup at Triple A. Tough call there. But keeping Varitek and Beckett on the same roster doesn’t seem conducive anymore to team objectives.
As for Ortiz, he, too, may be affected by Lavarnway, who hit .294 with a .980 OPS against lefties in his limited time in the big leagues. Depending on what the Sox choose at other positions, they could carry Lavarnway as a catcher and DH against lefthanded pitching. Ortiz was a major force in the lineup this year and cutting ties with him might require the addition of another lefthanded bat – is that the way to get someone like Beltran full-time status? – but the Red Sox basically face same the issue with Ortiz as they do with Varitek.
Is it time to cut ties with the old era and fully delve into the new? After all, would players like Ortiz and Varitek hinder the freedoms a new manager might otherwise feel?
At the moment, the only starters the Red Sox can count on for the start of the season are Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Everyone else is dealing with either injuries or age. Beckett’s shenanigans at the end of the season has introduced the possibility of trading him, but the Sox can only do so if they can get pitching back in the same trade or any other.
Even then, if Beckett stays, the Red Sox need innings. And given the history of Beckett and Buchholz – they both look like 175-inning pitchers in a best-case scenario – the Red Sox may need to add two or three starters, even if they are serious about moving Daniel Bard into the rotation.
Again, let’s focus on Type-B free agents or non-compensation players. Barring trade, the Red Sox are likely to be in on people like Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez and Aaron Harang by assembling a collection of arms that are either low-risk (and high reward) or have a proven track record of durability. (This is the only reason to pursue Vazquez, who has a wretched history in the American League and has suggested he may retire.) Barring a trade, the Red Sox aren’t likely to be in the market for a big-name starter, particularly in the wake of the Lackey debacle.
Beckett really is the key guy here. Even if he has his head screwed on, he has pitched more than 175 innings in consecutive seasons only once in his career. Beckett will be 32 next spring and still has trade value, even if the Sox have to eat a portion of the annual $17 million salary he possesses through 2014.
Again, the Sox can only trade Beckett if they know they’re getting starting pitching back in some way, shape or form. But it’s something they might have to consider.
Of all the tasks facing Cherington, this may be the biggest. As much as people have gushed about the tandem of Bard and Jonathan Papelbon at the end of games over the last three years, there is the possibility that neither will be in the bullpen in 2012. Bard could be in the starting rotation. Papelbon is a free agent.
Just the same, rarely have the two fired on all cylinders at the same time. Papelbon had a very good year this season, but Bard crumbled down the stretch. In 2010, the opposite was basically true. The Sox obviously have someone like Alfredo Aceves to help the cause, though they may also consider him a candidate for the starting rotation.
On the free agent market, there is no deeper collection than in the bullpen, specifically at closer. It may be the one area in which the Sox pursue Type-A (or compensation players), if only because the departure of Papelbon will net the Sox compensation in return. One note: the Sox typically like relievers who can retire both left- and right-handed batters, eschewing some of the specialists that might command relatively high salaries while handling reduced roles. The Sox have rarely spent anything on a lefty specialist, for example, and they aren’t likely to start now.
Nonetheless, the list of free agent relievers includes Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, Joe Nathan, Fernando Rodney, Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Valverde, Michael Wuertz and others who have closing experience. (Don’t forget that Bobby Jenks is still under contract.) The list is so long that Cherington should be able to build an entirely new bullpen from scratch, which is a good thing.
After all, he just may have to.
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