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Five free agent moves Red Sox should make

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  November 1, 2012 12:51 PM

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Thankfully, albeit with some intervention, the Red Sox finally admitted they had a problem during the last weeks of the 2012 season. Now they need to be rehabilitated.

And so, with free agency about to begin, the Red Sox now have a relatively clear conscience and a fistful of dollars, the latter of which they are not likely to spend in bulk. Wouldn't that defeat the purpose? General manager Ben Cherington has a lot of work to do, and what the Red Sox need to do now is build a baseball team for the long haul, not amass high-end talent for the purpose of jolting a wounded fan base.

So, for the moment, here is a realistic proposal to begin rebuilding the Boston baseball outfit. No wild free agent signings. No preposterous trade proposals. Turning the Red Sox into a superpower overnight is not the goal. At the moment, the object is to make the Red Sox competitive playoff contenders again, which means 85-90 wins in this age of wild card expansion.

1. Re-sign David Ortiz and Cody Ross, but only if the price is right.
The Red Sox may ultimately cave in and give Ortiz a two-year contract, but they should push for no more than one with a vesting option. Ortiz will be 37 next month and played one game after July 16. He has less leverage than he did a year ago, when the Sox went to arbitration with him. Excluding marketing reasons - which are undoubtedly a factor - the only reason to keep Ortiz at all is because the Red Sox have a glaring need for lefthanded power in the middle of the lineup.

If there's a team out there willing to give Ortiz more than the qualifying offer of roughly $13.3 million that the Sox are required to make, the Sox should seriously consider letting him go. They might then be able to sign someone like free agent Travis Hafner for a lot less money and roll the dice there instead.

As for Ross, the contract is key. At two years and, say, $14-16 million, Ross is worth keeping. If the deal extends to three years and an average value of $9-$10 million or more, the Sox would be better served to let him go, too. The free agent field is very thin and Ross would add value on the field and in the clubhouse, but he's not the kind of player you extend for.

If the Sox choose to extend themselves for only one of these two guys, Ortiz is the one.

2. Make a hard run at Nick Swisher.
Is he a great player? No. But what Swisher does give the Red Sox is versatility in the market, something of great value given the preponderance of needs. At the moment, the Sox do not have a first baseman or a left fielder. Swisher can play both and is a switch-hitter - he has more power from the left side - who works counts and draws walks. He also has the reputation of a good clubhouse guy, which is a bonus.

Last season, in the final year of his contract, Swisher had a base salary of $10.25 million with the New York Yankees. For three years and $30 million, would you rather have him or Ross? In a perfect world, the Red Sox would keep both and play Ross in left field with Swisher at first base, giving them all types of mix-and-match possibilities against lefthanded and righthanded pitching.

But if you can only go to three years on one of those two players, Swisher is the guy.

3. Make a run at Mike Napoli.
Granted, if Napoli ends up in Boston, he won't be hitting against the Red Sox pitching staff. But, like Ross, Napoli has pull power and fly-ball tendencies, which makes him a perfect fit for Fenway Park, where he has a career slugging percentage of .710. Napoli's average (.212) dropped precipitously this year, but he takes walks and still posted an OPS of .812.

Again, versatility here is key. Napoli is hardly considered a great defensive player behind the plate or at first base, but he can play some at both spots. Given the Red Sox' needs, they are hardly in a position to be especially picky. Ultimately, the Sox would do well to end up with two players among the group of Ross, Swisher and Napoli, particularly the last two. Again, lots of mix-and-match possibilities there.

One other thing: if Napoli can be signed, the Sox would have the flexibility to deal Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavarnway. Lavarnway would make more sense as trade bait because he, like Napoli, is righthanded, and the return on him would likely be higher. Red Sox catching has been an underrated problem in recent years, and there is legitimate question as to whether Saltalamacchia or Lavarnway is really the answer.

4. Go back to the drawing board for a starting pitcher.
We said it last year and we'll say it again: the Red Sox need innings. reliable ones. Paying out the nose for a frontline starter is not going to happen, nor should it, with all due respect to Zack Greinke. The Sox need to find a solid, viable alternative to put behind Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Felix Doubront, all of whom deserve spots in the rotation. They should also consider Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves as starters.

Last year, a host of pitchers were available on one-year contracts, including Hiroki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson and Joe Saunders, among others. All of them are out there again. Assuming a one- or two-year deal at a maximum, the Red Sox should inquire about the same group and, this time, sign one. Anibal Sanchez might be another pitcher to look at, though he has some injury history.

The Red Sox are not going to get an ace in this market and, unless we're talking about Felix Hernandez, they should not give up elite prospects for one. Their best chance at success is to tap back into Lester, for starters, and fill out the group with depth.

5. Don't forget about the bullpen.
Manager John Farrell noted the bullpen as a strength of the Red Sox in 2012, but let's pump the brakes there. Red Sox relievers finished 11th in the league in ERA and tied for fourth in losses. Not good. Andrew Bailey is hardly a given at closer. Daniel Bard is still a mess. Farrell certainly has some options in the 'pen, but for the moment that's all they are. Options.

As always, there are some serviceable relievers available on the market, from fliers like Joakim Soria (out until June) to more established performers like Mike Adams. The Red Sox might even be wise to inquire about someone like Ryan Madson, whose versatility could again be key as the Sox essentially rebuild their entire operation.

Remember: the Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs and nearly won the American League almost exclusively with a dominating bullpen. As much as a bullpen can undermine a team, it can also mask multiple weakness. If the Red Sox have mediocre starting pitching and a mediocre lineup, they can still contend if their bullpen performs at a very high level.

That said, stocking arms in the bullpen is not a bad way to go, particularly with the potential for younger people like Junichi Tazawa and Alex Wilson in position to become bigger factors as the year goes on.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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