I feel silly writing this now. It’s the first week of November, qualifying offers just went out, and the “hot stove” has barely started to heat up. Not only that but our beloved Red Sox are fresh off of a World Series win. Shouldn’t we have time to bask in our glory, to not fret for a couple of months, to know that everything is going to be all right?
Ideally, yes. But this offseason is a complicated one for the Red Sox, one that not only has implications for next season, but for the future of the franchise. Ben Cherington, while proving to be more than capable, will have his hands full this winter.
There are four Boston free agents of note, and therefore four positions to be looked at closely. Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Stephen Drew were not only impact players on last year’s champion squad, but are four of the most prized players in a thin-thin-thin free agent market. Ellsbury, Napoli, and Drew have all been extended qualifying offers, though it would seem that none would really consider accepting them (more on that below).
Again, it’s too early to make any definite decisions, at least not before teams really start contacting players, and we get a better idea of the contract sizes being offered. But here are my gut reactions to the Red Sox free agency situations at the four positions in question.
This is the easiest call.
In a vacuum, Mike Napoli had an excellent year for the Boston Red Sox. His stats were strong (.259/.360/.482 splits), he hit for power (23 HR), and he produced at the middle of the lineup (92 RBI). He was second amongst AL 1st basemen in WAR (only behind Chris Davis, who had an absolutely ridiculous season), and played excellent defense (an unexpected but wonderful surprise). Most importantly, he was healthy, playing in 139 games. Yes he struck out a lot, even for him (a whopping 187 times), but he was still one of the most dangerous bats in a lineup stuffed to the brim with them.
Luckily, baseball is not a vacuum, and it’s in that regard that Napoli truly shined. Napoli is one of the best clubhouse players in the major leagues, crucial after we saw how a poisonous clubhouse can decimate a team’s on the field performance.
His beard was the beard that launched a thousand beards. After every big Red Sox hit he was usually hopping out of the dugout crowing joyously. He hit several clutch hits, and seemed to save his best against the Yankees, permanently winning our hearts in the process. Plus, he’s reportedly loving his time in Boston, making it very clear that he’d like to remain in a Red Sox uniform.
And any player that spends the nights after winning a ring hitting up Boston sports bars, getting hammered with the locals, and then wandering the streets with no shirt on (c/o Deadspin) is someone I want playing for my team, no question about it.
The clincher? Uh, have you seen the current 1st base market? Kendrys Morales and Corey Hart can’t stay healthy. Justin Morneau is a shell of his former self. I don’t see Ben Cherington admitting mea culpa and bringing back James Loney or Kevin Youkilis. On the one hand, that means that the demand for Napoli is a lot higher. But it also makes this an easy decision.
If Justin Morneau is the best Plan B, as good a player as he is, the Red Sox should be trying to lock up Napoli, at least offering him the original contract from last offseason. The Red Sox don’t have any 1st base prospects with power coming up any time soon, and while there have been rumors of moving Middlebrooks across the diamond or putting Carp there as the everyday, neither have Napoli’s potential. Napoli is a known commodity, a beloved team member, and he actually wants to play in Boston, a quality that’s been lacking in quite a few big-name Red Sox acquisitions of late.
VERDICT: Bring back Napoli, 3yr/42mil.
The other easier call of the four. Stephen Drew actually had a very good season at shortstop. A .253/.333/.443 line with sparkling defense is absolutely nothing to sneeze at. But Drew’s postseason performance left a bitter taste in Sox fans’ mouths. Even with his heartwarming Game 6 home run, .111/.140/.204 is not going to cut it on the biggest stage in baseball, and his 19/2 K/BB was tough to watch (also, if we take away the bloop hit in Game 1 that landed between Wainwright and Molina, that batting average dips to .092).
While Drew struggled in the postseason, prize prospect Xander Bogaerts absolutely blossomed and seems ready to take the next step into the majors. Bogaerts hit .250/.320/.364 in an early fall stint with the team, and actually got better in the postseason, hitting .296/.412/.481, showing tremendous patience at the plate (especially since he’s freakin’ 21 years old) and is more than competent defensively. When it mattered most, Bogaerts stepped up and outshone some of his veteran counterparts.
The Red Sox have offered the one-year qualifying offer to Drew, and there has been speculation that he may very well take it. If so, the Red Sox are in great shape with a hotshot rookie ready to step up while a veteran keeps his seat warm, and could possibly be used as a much-coveted trade piece for a World Series contender (boy don’t you think St. Louis would have liked Drew this past season?). That being said, I see Drew wanting to taste the open market. This season, it’s really between Drew and Jhonny Peralta for best available shortstop, and Peralta should really be moved to 3rd base. Next winter, if he waited a year, he’d be going up against Mike Aviles, Asdrubal Cabrera, JJ Hardy, and Jed Lowrie. More demand means a bigger payday, and if Drew ever wanted to cash in, now is the time.
Should Drew leave, the next step for the Red Sox is to find a do-it-all backup infielder. If we take anything from the Red Sox’s success, it’s that a deep bench means everything, and possible options here include Kelly Johnson or Donnie Murphy (though a trade may yield a more intriguing player). I don’t really see the Red Sox pursuing Drew with a multi-year contract, though that obviously hinges on not only how they feel about Bogaerts, but about Will Middlebrooks and third-base prospect Garin Cecchini.
VERDICT: Let Drew walk, promote Bogaerts, find a solid backup
Here’s where things get trickier. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was the only player of the four in question not given a qualifying offer, and will hit the free-agent market as one of the top three available catchers. After being the primary catcher for the Red Sox at the start of the season, and putting together a good year statistically, Saltalamacchia had a great September (hitting .314, with three homers, and 13 RBI). Unfortunately, much like Drew, Salty fell apart a bit in the playoffs, hitting only .188/.257/.219 with 19 strikeouts in 32 AB, losing a lot of playing time to David Ross, and having some crucial defensive miscues.
That being said, Jarrod Saltalamacchia is still talented, young (28), and as a switch-hitter can be a tougher out than most. The 6-4 Floridian also fit well in the Boston clubhouse, and developed strong relationships with his pitchers. Not only that, but the Red Sox have two great catching prospects in the minors in Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez, who are a few seasons from contributing. Why not have Salty there to bridge the gap?
Because as good as Jarrod Saltalamacchia is, Brian McCann is better. The 29-year old Georgian is one of the few elite catchers in the MLB, and even after a disappointing season by his standards (.256/.336/.461, 20 HR) he’s looking at a big payday, and Boston looks like a prime target. He’s an elite defender (something the Red Sox desperately need behind the plate) and a great clubhouse presence (he’s also got a great friend in fellow catcher David Ross, who will almost certainly be head of the wooing committee). When Boston’s young catchers are ready, or should McCann start to wear down a bit, he could slide easily into the DH position once David Ortiz (sigh) retires (also his lefty bat adds variety to the lineup, something John Farrell loves). Reports have the Rangers and Yankees as Boston’s main competition for McCann, but the Yankees will be focusing a lot of attention (and money) on keeping Robison Cano in pinstripes, and the Rangers seem fine moving forward with Geovany Soto.
Should the Red Sox lose out on McCann, there’s nothing stopping them from going after Salty again. And if they lose both of them, a Ross/Ryan Lavarnway platoon isn’t the worst thing in the world until the trade deadline. That being said, I don’t see the Red Sox leaving this winter without one of the two catchers.
VERDICT: Spend big on McCann
And now for the hardest question: What to do about Ells?
I’ve intimated pretty often in this article, and others, that I truly believe that emotional connections and your ability to mesh well in a clubhouse is just as important as cold hard numbers. And truthfully, I don’t want to see Jacoby go. He’s been a crucial member of two World Series team, and is one of the signature 2nd-gen players on the team along with Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia. Through disappointments and injuries, he’s been a professional, and his defense and speed have not only aided the team’s success, but are fun to watch. When Ells got on first, you didn’t change the channel, because you knew he might tear off towards second.
But in this case, Benny C and the Red Sox brass have to be cold and purely analytical. Here’s the cold, hard truth: center-fielders who are known for their speed and defense decline as soon as they enter their 30s. Ellsbury, who has already missed a lot of his young career to injury, even this season, is and always be a health concern. If his speed declines even a little, his value plummets. Ellsbury is almost certainly looking for a huge contract in the 5-7 year range, for well north of $100 million (Scott Boras is his agent, by the way. Which is fun.) Yes, Ellsbury right now is a known commodity who can produce in Boston. But the Red Sox would be forced to bet that he’d be the same known commodity as he passes the 35-year mark.
So if not Ellsbury, who then? Step up, Jackie Bradley Jr. The rookie outfielder struggled in his first call up to the major leagues, but greatly impressed John Farrell, and should be a defensive stud with great patience at the plate. He may never have the same speed as Ellsbury, and may not exceed his power either, but he should turn out to be a top-10 centerfielder when all is said and done. An outfield of Nava/Gomes, JBJ, and Victorino is still very promising, especially if the loss of Ellsbury is cushioned by the arrival of McCann. If JBJ trips out of the gate, Victorino can slide to center, Nava to right (where he was fine defensively), and have Gomes/Carp split time in left, until the trade deadline when the Sox can send one of their pitching prospects for a vet outfielder.
It hurts to say, but it’s time for Ellsbury to go. There are way too many teams hungry for any kind of help in their outfield who are dumb enough to give him 7 yrs/150 mil, a price the Red Sox shouldn’t even consider. The Red Sox have tried to resign Ellsbury in the past, and been denied each time. This is his moment, and he deserves it, but the Red Sox can’t afford to take the risk. Best to go with the prospect they’ve been grooming for this day, and trust the system Cherington has put in place.
VERDICT: Let Ellsbury go, and trust in JBJ.
So if it all goes as described here, the 2014 lineup would be:
RF Victorino, 2B Pedroia, DH Ortiz, 1B Napoli, C McCann, 3B Middlebrooks, LF Nava/Gomes, SS Bogaerts, CF Bradley Jr.
It’ll be sad to see last season’s championship team look any different. And even outside these positions, there’s still more pieces to be moved (there’ll be a Part 2 to this article in the coming weeks when the market gets a little more defined). We’re looking at a new look in 2014, but a certainly bright future.
Agree? Disagree? Want to see the Red Sox go in a different direction? Got any different buzz that you’ve heard and want to share? Are you Ben Cherington? Leave it in the comments!