Even when a popular player's departure comes as no surprise, there's often an element of sad finality that whacks you when he's trotted out for the obligatory introductory press conference by his new team. Seeing Jonathan Papelbon, a signature and essential member of the Red Sox for a half-dozen years, decked out in another team's gear looks about as weird as you thought it would. And not just because of the jarring realization that in this photo he looks way too much like a certain combustible Jim Carrey character. An empty Bud Light case would look more familiar atop his head than that Philly hat.
But so it goes. Those tinges of wistfulness will fade soon enough. The Dropkick Murphys will be just fine, and the cop who always gave Papelbon a fist-bump upon departing the bullpen for the mound will find another friend. It's not as if free agency is a new concept -- an excellent if specialized player received an absurd amount of money, and he moved along. Yup, we've all heard that one before, with both arrivals and departures.
Papelbon was already gone before he left, and newbie general manager Ben Cherington and the Red Sox recognized the inevitability of his departure. They've moved on, too, and in the big picture it couldn't happen soon enough. September was ugly, the aftermath was worse, and only now, with the impressive Cherington at the wheel and free agency underway, does it feel like the 2011 season is in the past.
The task Cherington faces is similar to the one facing Theo Epstein in November 2002: fill in quality secondary players around an enviable core of stars. He must solve 40 percent of the starting rotation, find someone to close, and possibly add a righthanded-hitting bat in the outfield . . . oh, and hire the right manager to bring it all together. While Cherington's first acquisition of a name player will should work out better than Theo's did -- when will Ramiro Mendoza be exposed as a double agent? -- here are five items that should be atop his to-do list:
1. Hire Dale Sveum as manager: To put the state of the Red Sox' managerial search in terms "Swaymer'' (copyright Terry Francona, 2007) can understand, it appears as though he's being windmilled around third and is heading for home with the winning run.
The Red Sox have interviewed five candidates for the opportunity to be Tito's successor, and Sveum will be the first to have a second meeting with Ben Cherington and the Red Sox' brain trust when they gather today. It sure looks like he's the leader in the clubhouse to be the leader in the clubhouse.
I've become convinced that is a good thing. While Sveum was an arm-flapping debacle as a third base coach -- I think he was directly responsible for one-third of Rocco Baldelli's career assists, conservatively -- he earned what sounds like genuine and universal respect from players and management alike. He was praised as both a teacher and tactician, and his willingness to pore over statistical breakdowns to find any advantage endeared him to the front office.
He may not be the most charismatic personality, quick with a quip or gifted in seeming candid without revealing too much as Francona was, but those things will only matter to those who put the ancillary stuff ahead of a manager's ability to run a baseball team.
I think Sandy Alomar Jr. is going to be a hell of a manager some day, and he'd be a daring and perhaps rewarding choice for the Red Sox. But I'm buying it -- Sveum is the right manager for the Red Sox right now. Just tie his arms down any time he's near a coach's box.
2. Find a right fielder who can hit from the right side: All right, I'm tapping the brakes on the Michael Cuddyer bandwagon.
While the longtime Twins corner outfielder/infielder would be an ideal fit in a few ways -- he mashes lefthanded pitching (.869 career OPS vs. southpaws), he's regarded as a great teammate, he's defensively versatile though extremely unlikely to be honored with any gloves made of precious metals -- he will be 33 on Opening Day. He's a nice complementary piece, and the Red Sox sure are in need players in his mold . . . but the depth of their interest should be dependent upon length of contract. It's neither good business nor savvy roster-building to give a player who's No. 1 career comp is Troy O'Leary a three-year deal through is mid-30s.
If the Red Sox are going to make more than a mid-level financial commitment to a right fielder, put me down for signing Carlos Beltran. He'll be 35 in April and doesn't run as well as he used to, but the switch hitter remains an excellent offensive player (.910 OPS last year) who has fared slightly better from the right side of the plate than the left over his career, a benefit for the lefty-heavy Red Sox lineup.
I presume the Red Sox' interest in Beltran is tied to David Ortiz's status, since Beltran would be best served by more than an occasional day as the designated hitter, with Ryan Kalish/Josh Reddick getting time against righthanded pitching.
It says here it would be swell if the Red Sox retained Ortiz and signed Beltran, but should Cherington go the redemption/reclamation route, I rather see him take a flier on Andruw Jones (.923 OPS, eight homers in 146 plate appearances against lefties last year) rather than make any kind of commitment to Grady Sizemore, whose knee problems are likely to prevent him from showing anything more than occasional flashes of the player he was in 2008, the last time he hit at least .248 or played more than 106 games.
He's going to get a financial commitment elsewhere, even if it's a one-year deal, that exceeds what an injury-prone 29-year-old whose top career comp is Trot Nixon should receive. Beltran is the best bet. Get him.
Weird how Sizemore (Trot), Cuddyer (O'Leary) and Beltran (Fred Lynn) all have ex-Red Sox as their top comps. Maybe it's a hint that Cherington should sign all of them.
3. Move Daniel Bard to the rotation: Cherington's toughest challenge is to find No. 4 and 5 starters behind Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and --- burrrrrpppp --- Josh Beckett. The longer one stares at the list of free agent pitchers, the clearer it becomes that the answers are probably not going to be found among those names.
C.J. Wilson's accomplishments look small compared to his expected price tag. Yu Darvish is intriguing, but there's a perception, hopefully a wrong one, that the Daisuke Matsuzaka experience may lead to the Sox sitting out a dance or two when it comes to high-priced pitching from the Far East. Edwin Jackson looks like a gem only in comparison to the junk in this free agent class of pitchers. Mark Buehrle is as dependable as the sunrise, which is why he's drawing a ton of early interest. Bruce Chen? Chris Capuano? Obviously, you only break the glass on those guys in one-game playoff situations. Der.
Chances are Cherington will have to fill those slots either through a trade -- and any affordable, target-worthy names beyond Chicago's John Danks are well off the radar here -- or more likely, internally. Alfredo Aceves wants to start, and anointing him the No. 4 guy does solve one problem, though it must be noted that he's better in relief (2.62 ERA) than in his relatively small sample as a starter (4.18 ERA) during his career. Is it worth creating another void in the bullpen to appease him while hoping his stuff fully translates to starting? Well ... maybe.
But if someone is going to move from the bullpen to the rotation, I'd rather see Daniel Bard get the chance. Forget that he faltered as a starter when he first entered pro ball -- he had severe command and mechanical issues (75 walks in 78 innings), and he's a far more polished product now, four years later.
I'm sure there's no need to rehash why a quality pitcher who throws 180 innings is intrinsically more valuable than one who throws 70. And purely from a whimsical standpoint, Bard's current career numbers in relief -- 197 innings, 132 hits, 213 strikeouts, 1.06 WHIP, 2.88 ERA -- look like one hell of an exceptional season for a starting pitcher ... you know, if you squint a little and take context in how those numbers were accumulated out of the equation.
They need to try this at the very least when they get to Ft. Myers. Bard is 26 years old. He has an electric arm. Sign Francisco Cordero, Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and another half-dozen relief types, and find out whether he can be something considerably more than a No. 4 starter. He could be excellent. I say he would. And if he is not, just do what you do with everyone else who can't cut it in the rotation. Stick him back in the bullpen.
4. Sign enough middle-relief types and minor-league free agent pitchers that not even Dusty Baker could burn through all of their arms in one season: The conventional wisdom, especially after the miserable September, was that Theo Epstein didn't provide Francona with enough pitching depth. In the vacuum of that single month, when Kyle Weiland, Tim Wakefield, and Andrew Miller wouldn't have thrown a meaningful inning in an ideal world, well, yeah, it was true. Theo should have picked up a Chen or a Capuano early in September. And their timing on letting Kevin Millwood go to Colorado couldn't have been worse.
But also remember that the Red Sox did have what seemed to be extraordinary depth to begin the season. Buchholz was healthy and coming off a 17-win season. Lackey hadn't proved completely useless. Aceves wasn't even on the Opening Day roster. Wakefield was deep in the bullpen, hoping he could give Red Sox fans all the milestones
they desire he desires.
Rich Hill, Scott Atchison, Brandon Duckworth and a handful of other pitchers with big-league experience were at Pawtucket. And yet . . . in the end, the staff was battered, tired and depleted. The lesson, known as the Bronson/Wily Mo Corollary, is that when you're starting to believe you have enough pitching, bring three more arms just in case.
Baseball America has a comprehensive, sortable list of minor league free agents. It's imperative that Cherington and his player personnel underlings sift through the likes of Mark Prior, Manny Corpas, and Billy Buckner to find a spare arm or three to help the 2012 Red Sox along the way.
5. Re-sign Papi: There are few players in Red Sox history who deserve to go out on their own terms, and fewer still who actually have. (Yaz, Ted Williams, Hipolito Pichardo ...) Whatever frustrations you may have with Ortiz -- the disappointment that came when his name was reported to be on that list of players who failed a performance-enhancing drug test, his hypersensitivity about how much respect (read: $) management shows him, his casual undermining of Francona in September -- all it takes is a few minutes of watching "Faith Rewarded" to jostle those memories of how much he has meant to the Red Sox organization. He may not have come up with the Red Sox, but his special legacy belongs to Boston forever.
I recognize that nostalgia and public sentiment belong a long way down a list of reasons a franchise should retain or pursue a player, presuming they belong on the list at all. But emotion is as relevant in Ortiz's case as it can be with any modern Red Sox player; I want it to end well for him here even if I know it's probably not likely given that his ability to get worked up about slights real and imagined is about equal to his ability to hammer a hanging slider. But that's also the catch -- he still can crush the baseball better than all but a dozen or so hitters in the American League, and there's no need for it to end for him here now.
One fan favorite is already gone, and the roster is weaker for it. But Jonathan Papelbon got ridiculous money to put on that Phillies hat, and Ortiz won't get his own Godfather offer elsewhere (though I'm beginning to wonder what Dan Duquette is up to in Baltimore).
Here's hoping he's presented with a contract offer of suitable length and salary to both his ego and the Red Sox, and he's back in the middle of the lineup next season and maybe another beyond. In an offseason of enormous change, it would be a nice bonus to keep the player most responsible for bringing Boston the best of times. Especially when his still capable of making good times seem so good again.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.