Trying to figure out what the Red Sox will do this offseason is a fascinating guessing game

Aroldis Chapman would be a dominant force in the Red Sox bullpen, if the Sox can get him. —Getty Images

COMMENTARY

The idea came from my kindly editor, and since another editor immediately nodded in approval at the suggestion, I knew this was an assignment I was taking on:

Let’s try to figure out what the Red Sox will do this offseason, as specifically as possible.

Sweet idea. I’m in. No problem. That’s my kind of mission, and it’s certainly a timely one, what with the general managers meetings taking place beginning Monday in Boca Raton, Fla. You can insert your own hot-stove-keeping-us-cozy cliché here, but the reality is that the Red Sox –who have a talent-rich farm system, a new management team, and the lingering frustration of three last-place finishes in the past four years — are regarded as a major player this offseason. And they should be one, via trades and free agency. The roster could and should look considerably different come Opening Day, April 4 in Toronto, than it does today.

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Of course, noting that they will probably make a lot of moves is a long run into the gap away from figuring out what those specific moves will be. So I devoured all of the free agent lists and rankings from the sources I respect (anyone who had John Lackey coming back the Red Sox was immediately dismissed as an ill-informed guesser), surveyed president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski’s lengthy and mostly impressive trade history, considered the assets and needs of the Red Sox organization, pondered it all, went to Dunkin’s for some fuel, pondered it all again, and came to this staggering conclusion:

I have no idea what the Red Sox are going to do.

No. Idea.

There are so many possibilities and variables and considerations for altering the roster that almost anything seems possible (I still fear Dombrowski might move Mookie Betts in a blockbuster) and very little seems out of the realm of possibility. Theoretically, they can do just about anything this side of a three-way trade that would net Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw and permanently break the internet.

I mean, OK, there’s some semblance of an idea. There is a general idea, a rough idea, at least, of the types and positions of players that they will pursue. There are hints scattered amid the mysteries. We know Dombrowski, who came aboard in August, has acknowledged he covets a front-of-the-rotation starter and power arms in the bullpen. We know the Red Sox have an abundance of talented young outfielders from Lowell to Fenway. We know there are two talented young catchers at the major league level. We know – make that strongly suspect – that they would trade Hanley Ramirez to the Samsung Lions straight-up for Yamaico Navarro if the rules allowed for such transactions.

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But it’s difficult enough in offseasons in which we are familiar with the mindset of the general manager and aware of the team’s needs to accurately project transactions. Before the ’13 season, Mike Napoli was someone who seemed a likely target, and that proved true. But who had them signing Shane Victorino, or Stephen Drew (an especially brilliant idea), or Ryan Dempster? And who among the insiders thought Hanley Ramirez would be a target last November? I mentioned it, but I sure as hell didn’t think it would happen.

All right, we’ve gotten all of the caveats and excuses and how-am-I-supposed-to-knows out of the way. Now we can get down to the specifics – or the specifics of my semi-educated guesses, at least. The priority – and Dombrowski has acknowledged this – has to be pitching. It will be pitching. The Red Sox have roughly eight No. 3-4 starters on their 40-man roster. They need an ace. They also need some trustworthy bullpen arms, including a couple who can impress a radar gun. Filling those needs are pursuits fraught with risk. Relievers’ results are often volatile from season to season. And the going-rate for an elite starting pitcher is so steep that it can be devastating if the wrong player is bestowed with a nine-figure salary.

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It seems that the best way to acquire that ace would be via trade. Michael Brantley’s injury in Cleveland could open the door for a Carlos Carrasco trade, with Jackie Bradley Jr. and a couple of prospects heading to the Indians. Carrasco is excellent and affordable, and I’d be OK with that despite the joy we’d sacrifice in watching Bradley play center field.

Beyond that, there is no easy identification of a trade partner, though deals for A’s ace Sonny Gray and White Sox lefty Chris Sale seem to have germinated from particularly wishful daydreams. The Mets, with their cadre of young fireballers, would be an intriguing co-conspirator if a deal didn’t mean giving up Betts or Xander Bogaerts, both of whom should be untouchable. The Mets would be well within their rights to request an either/or there for Matt Harvey. The Red Sox would obligated to tell them it ain’t happening and besides, Dark Knight is a dumb nickname for anyone older than 12.

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One of the early mysteries of the offseason is whether owner John Henry would give his approval on a deal for a true ace. In hindsight, the Red Sox messed up big-time by not making Jon Lester a reasonable offer in spring 2014. They’d probably have him for $105 million-$115 million if they’d played it right. Instead, he’s a Cub, and if those items on Dombrowski’s wish-list are to be checked off, they’re probably going to have to pay someone like David Price three times the initial $70 million offer to Lester just to get him to consider coming here. I would pay Price, a bright, dedicated 30-year-old lefty who has the repertoire to thrive even after his velocity begins to wane.

I would love to see Zack Greinke end up in Boston, though unlike Price, signing him would cost the Red Sox the 12th pick in the draft. He’s my favorite pitcher since the heyday of Pedro, and the notion that “it can’t handle this market’’ does a terrible and insulting disservice to how talented and competitive he is and how he has dealt with his social anxiety disorder. (Molly Knight’s recent book on the Dodgers, “The Best Team Money Can Buy,’’ offers genuine insight on the admirable, brilliant, complicated Greinke.) I can’t imagine he leaves the National League, though. He not only enjoys hitting, he’s really good at it.

I am intrigued by the possibility of signing Johnny Cueto; the Pedro endorsement and El Tiante mannerisms are enough to satisfy my simple requirements. But the Red Sox cannot afford to be so easily convinced. He is the ultimate due diligence case among the free agent pitchers. He was inconsistent with the Royals after seven-and-a-half mostly excellent seasons with the Reds, and there’s speculation that his elbow may have some wear and tear. I’ve always thought John Lackey was damaged goods when he arrived here on an $82.5 million deal before the 2011 season. It ultimately worked out OK, but the Red Sox had better have an X-Ray of Cueto’s elbow from every angle before they make any kind of commitment.

There’s not much else that would qualify as appealing on the starting pitching market. Jeff Samardzija has talent, but he’d make you appreciate the consistency of Clay Buchholz before July rolled around. He’d be more interesting as a relief candidate, but someone will give him a starter’s big bucks.

The most interesting actual relief candidate is Aroldis Chapman, the Reds’ closer who averages a ridiculous 15.4 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s worth sacrificing a premium or near-premium prospect or two, perhaps in a deal built around Manuel Margot. It is apparent, given the already swelling free-agent market for the likes of Darren O’Day, that bullpen help may have to come via trade. I like Tony Sipp, but for the most part there are more appealing current relievers on the Hall of Fame ballot than there are on the free-agent list. (You know Billy Wagner could still bring it.)

I’d love to see the Red Sox take a flier on Tim Lincecum as a reliever, but he no longer fits Dombrowski’s stated desire for hard-throwers. Maybe he can just resurrect Joel Zumaya or something. This much is certain: He needs more good fortune in building a bullpen in Boston than he ever had in Detroit.

As for the offense, well, other than finding someone to take Ramirez (c’mon, do you really think he’s going to play first base?) not much needs to be done. The Red Sox were fourth in the majors in runs last year (748), trailing only the Blue Jays, Yankees and Rockies. Their two best players, Betts and Bogaerts, are 23 years old, and if you’re skeptical of them, why sure, I’ll provide the reminder again:

I don’t see where they need much help, especially if Christian Vazquez returns to health and form and Blake Swihart (.303/.353/.452 in the second half in a season that was supposed to have been spent in Rhode Island) becomes a 550-at-bat super-utility player. Chris Davis is about to become someone’s regrettable long-term albatross. Jason Heyward is someone Ben Cherington would have loved, a WAR darling, but I’m not sure he’s Dombrowski’s type. Alex Gordon is enticing, but he would also cost that first-round pick. Jonny Gomes? That solves nothing but the identity of the commencement speaker at the parade.

Seems to me this entire offseason – or at least the most interesting and possibly harrowing aspects of it – is about the pursuit of pitching, pitching and more pitching. Of course, Dombrowski does love a good blockbuster, and while I can’t figure out what the Red Sox are going to do since I don’t believe the Red Sox know what they are going to do, I can at least part with an old familiar suggestionaround this neighborhood:

Say, you think Giancarlo Stanton might be available?

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