As winter meetings rolled around, the Boston Red Sox were busy making good on GM Ben Cherington’s pledge to spend money this offseason. The club, fresh off a last-place finish and a 69-93 record, is in desperate need of an overhaul. Or to put it more accurately, it needs to complete the overhaul that began during the failed 2012 season.
Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett are gone. Three high-profile, high-priced players shipped west to make room for, well, what exactly? The word at the time was that Boston wanted to get back to doing the things that brought a pair of championships to Beantown in 2004 and 2007, building from within, making financially sound acquisitions and creating team chemistry. It sounded good, but now the execution of that plan has to begin in earnest.
OffSeason Deals to Date
The first steps, signing Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino to a pair of deals each worth three years and $39 million, is already in jeopardy. Napoli, whose signing was contingent upon a successful physical, may have some lingering health issues according to Fox Sports. The team was set to announce Napoli as a new member on Tuesday, but that presser was cancelled. The former Ranger’s physical, originally scheduled for last week, was moved to Monday and results are not yet known. But for the moment, nothing is final.
Assuming Napoli is healthy enough to be inked, what then? Boston get’s a proven power guy who can play bother first base and catcher. That’s the upside. But excluding his wildly aberrant 2011 season that saw him post a whopping 1.046 OPS (out of nowhere), Napoli brings his share of risk as well. Health is going to be a constant concern given his body type, and he doesn’t bring a diverse skill set. It’s not a bad acquisition, but it’s hard to see it as a game-changer either.
Victorino’s signing maybe be finished first, but what exactly are the Red Sox hoping for? Victorino was a Gold Glove-winning outfielder back in his prime; his age 27 through 30 seasons were solid but also represented his physical peak. The Sox aren’t getting that guy, they’re getting the 32 year old Victorino who is coming off of the worst campaign of his career. The 39 steals are nice, but speed declines with age, and the .704 OPS is more telling and worrisome. Even at his best, Victorino wasn’t an outstanding on-base guy. It feels as though this was a character signing, as though the Sox wanted a guy with good leadership who contributes in the clubhouse. Victorino will do that, and he’ll be a team guy without killing them on the field. But expecting him to be anything more than average at the plate is probably too optimistic.
$13 million per year isn’t a king’s ransom in the this day and age, but neither is it chump change. And these two deals, both of which carry substantial downside, are unlikely to effect the turnaround Sox fans are looking for. Why? In a word, pitching.
The Boston faithful can only hope that Napoli and Victorino are merely the undercard, because pitching, particular starting pitching, remains the team’s biggest area of need. Grabbing up a couple of role-player types to handle things on the right side is all well and good, but we’re almost $80 million in and John Lackey is still the team’s number four at the moment. If that doesn’t send shivers down your spine then you’re not paying attention.
After Jon Lester, this rotation is mighty iffy. Clay Buchholz can be great, but his inconsistency and tendency to put too many runners on base are serious flaws. And he’s 28 years old now, we’re not talking about an up-and-coming young prospect anymore. Felix Doubront, though still just 25, brings similar concerns. An ERA near five and a whip over 1.44 isn’t all that helpful. He needs to improve on last year’s effort if he’s going to be a reliable back-of-the-rotation type.
That brings us to Lackey. Coming off of Tommy John surgery, what will this guy do? If only the team could have sneaked him into the blockbuster swap with the Dodgers somehow and unburdened itself of Theo Epstein’s worst decision…but no. We’re stuck with him for better or worse, and the worse is far easier to envision.
After Lackey is Franklin Morales and several no-names. Collectively, this starting rotation needs a lot of help. Whispers are already circulating that the team will shop Jacoby Ellsbury for an arm. The writing for that move has been on the wall for some time given Ellsbury’s status as a Scott Boras client. Boras prefers to let his players hit the free agency market as opposed to signing extensions, and 2013 is Ellsbury’s final contract year. The Red Sox won’t want to let him walk at year’s end for nothing, and Ellsbury’s relationship with the club doesn’t have the feel of a long-term commitment in either direction.
It’s a crying shame to see the most talented offensive player we’ve got go on the trade block, but prepare yourselves for that eventuality.
Independent of whatever happens with Ellsbury, expect the Sox to do more work before Spring Training. The team has expressed interest in Anibal Sanchez, who posted decent numbers in Detroit last year after a steady career with the Marlins. The Mets’ R.A. Dickey and the Cardinals’ Kyle Lohse have also been mentioned as possible targets, particularly after N.L. journeyman Ryan Dempster turned down Boston’s two-year, $25 million offer.
Imagine that, turned down by Ryan Dempster. A guy who would be, at best, a number five in the A.L. East. That’s what Boston’s world has come to. Of course, when your rotation is chock full of number fives (and worse) you can’t be too choosy.
Next Steps and Rumors
The reality is that the Red Sox probably won’t repair themselves in 2013, but at least they’re making some changes in an effort to move in the right direction. Other than Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, and David Ortiz, no one’s roster spot should be considered secure. If you’re scoring at home, that means that the Sox are set at second, third, DH (eventually), and SP1.
Ryan Sweeney, Scott Atchison, and Rich Hill are among the players who won’t be returning. Since signing Victorino, the team has shown zero interest in Cody Ross, who will almost certainly walk as a free agent.
Mark Melancon will try to rebound from an unexpectedly diastrous 2012, and if he can, the late-innings bullpen options won’t be awful Andrew Bailey, if healthy, is a good closing option. The rest of the bullpen is very much a work in progress.
With Ortiz still recovering from an Achilles inury, Jonny Gomes and Ryan Lavarnway may get some time at DH this spring, though it’s possible that Lavarnway, a solid catching prospect, could end up as trade bait. Alternatively, the Sox might try to shop Jarrod Saltalamacchia and allow Lavarnway to assume Salty’s spot behind the dish.
Whether via trade or free agency, starting pitching has to be the next target. And unless the team is confident in Ryan Kalish’s return, Boston will almost certainly add an outfielder as well. if the Napoli deal does fall through somehow, a hole will open up at first base, and the list of potential targets is rapidly diminishing. The Sox may be sorry that they let Kevin Youkilis go, particularly when they see him come to Fenway in a Yankees uniform.
One can only hope that the Red Sox are willing to tough it out in 2013 if acquiring quality players becomes a problem due to money or scarcity. There’s no sense in assembling another patchwork group of temporary solutions. Better to lose in the short-term and build for the long-term, even though most baseball executives don’t (and can rarely afford to) think that way. More moves are likely coming before pitchers and catchers report, and Sox fans are waiting anxiously to see how next year’s squad will look.
UPDATE 12/12: Evidently, the team is back in negotiations with Ryan Dempster. The 35 year old is unlikely to be particularly effective in the A.L. East.