Coming off of their worst season in nearly two decades and having traded away some of their biggest stars, the Boston Red Sox are in a state of limbo, balancing their current needs with their future plans. It’s become a delicate game of trying to put together a team that Boston fans can still be excited about without sacrificing their priorities. As a result, they have been one of the busiest teams in the Majors this offseason, adding several starters and role players in the hopes of being able to do both.
The signings began in early November, when designated hitter David Ortiz signed a new deal to remain in Boston. Since then, General Manager Ben Cherington has looked outside the organization for new talent. Those players include catcher David Ross, first baseman/catcher Mike Napoli (though his deal has not yet officially been signed), outfielder Jonny Gomes, outfielder Shane Victorino, reliever Koji Uehara, starter Ryan Dempster, and, now, shortstop Stephen Drew. The younger brother to former Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew has signed a one-year deal worth about $9.5-million. He spent last year with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics and combined to hit just .223/.309/.348.
Drew’s signing indicates a couple of things. Firstly, Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts are the team’s future options at short (though some believe Bogaerts may be in line for a position change down the road), but the organization does not feel the need to rush either of them into the Majors. Even with the vacancy at the position before the signing, Cherington said that Iglesias was not going to be handed the starting job, but that he may be able to compete for it. The slick-fielder is still a very impatient hitter and has hit just .135 with the Red Sox in limited time over the last few seasons.
Additionally, bringing in Drew on a one-year deal continues to show the Red Sox are treating the next season or two as a bridge year(s). After clearing $270-million dollars in payroll with last year’s trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team had money to spend and Cherington had committed to doing that. Rather than making more expensive and long-term investments to free agents like Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke, he has focused on bringing in middle-of-the-road options for shorter-terms, even if it meant overpaying a bit to get that done. With no contractual commitments beyond 2015, the goal here appears to be resetting the organization so its home-grown talent will develop and form the nucleus of the club by 2014 or 2015.
So with all of these deals, most of the 2013 Red Sox roster has taken shape. The infield looks like it will be primarily Napoli at first, Dustin Pedroia at second, Drew at short, and Will Middlebrooks at third. Napoli will probably get some starts behind the plate and fill in as DH for Ortiz on occasion and it’s unclear whether Drew will definitely be the starting shortstop or if Iglesias, Bogaerts, or anyone else will challenge him for the job. However, with a $9.5-million salary, it’s hard to believe he won’t be called upon to earn it.
The outfield situation has also become clearer. With the signings of Gomes and Victorino, the outfield will likely look like Gomes-Jacoby Ellsbury-Victorino from left to right, with Ryan Kalish and Daniel Nava getting some reps, as well. The big question mark here remains the future of the center fielder. Ellsbury is a free agent after the season and many believe this will be his last year in Boston. There have already been several reports that Cherington has shopped him around, but his injury problems have driven his value down. Trade talks, though, may reignite as the remaining free agent crop dwindles.
It appears is the position with the most question marks is catcher. There are currently four players on the roster who warrant playing time there—Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Ryan Lavarnway, Ross, and Napoli. Even if Napoli sticks to first base and DH, that still leaves three catchers on the roster—a scenario unlikely to remain for opening day. With Ross just signing a deal to come to Boston, either Saltalamacchia or Lavarnway would be the odd man out. Time will tell which way the Red Sox decide to go.
Despite the troubles that plagued the 2012 Red Sox, they still fished fifth in the American League in runs scored and still shouldn’t be bad offensively next year. A lineup that looks like Ellsbury-Victorino-Pedroia-Ortiz-Napoli-Middlebrooks-Gomes-Saltalamacchia/Lavarnway-Drew doesn’t look bad on paper, provided the ages of Victorino, Ortiz, and Napoli don’t catch up with them. For an offense that lost a couple of big names in Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the Sox could do a lot worse.
The thing that may ultimately determine the success of the 2013 Red Sox, however, is their pitching. Last year, the team’s 4.70 ERA was the fourth-worst in baseball and played a significant role in their 69-93 record. Rather than primarily looking outside the organization for help, though, Cherington is banking on the team’s current pitchers returning to form. Two-time all-star Jon Lester will lead the rotation, followed by Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, John Lackey, and Dempster. Franklin Morales and maybe Alfredo Aceves will also vie for starts if no one else is added to the staff.
Lester is coming off the worst season of his career. After four straight 15+ win seasons, he struggled to a 9-14 record and 4.82 ERA. Buchholz and Doubront were the only two starters with winning records last year and were quite impressive at times. Lackey is coming off Tommy John surgery and is badly in need of finding success in Boston. Dempster is an innings-eater who should give the Sox some stability in the rotation. Many observers think the departure of Josh Beckett, who was viewed as a poor influence on other pitchers, and the return of John Farrell could help the starters get back on track.
Not all of the Red Sox’s pitchers struggled last year, though. If there was strength of the 2012 team, it was the bullpen. Junichi Tazawa showed his emergence as a dominant late-game option. Mark Melancon seemed to regain his form in September. Craig Breslow, Andrew Miller, and Clayton Mortensen showed they were all more than-capable options. With Uehara becoming another piece of the bullpen’s puzzle, the Sox appear to be heading into 2013 with a deep bullpen. They may even have too many options to keep them all on the 40-man roster.
Two guys who need to better than last year, and may be more important than anyone in the bullpen, are Andrew Bailey and Daniel Bard. Bailey will enter the year as the team’s closer, but it’s hard to feel confident about him after his 2012 campaign. He missed much of the year due to injury and only appeared in 19 games, picking up just 6 saves and ending up with an ugly 7.04 ERA. Bard didn’t fare much better. After suffering through 10 starts and posting a 4-6 record with a 5.30 ERA, he was shipped back down to Triple-A to transition back into a reliever. Even when he returned to Boston, he still struggled, putting up a 16.20 ERA with 7 walks and only 4 strikeouts. Both he and Bailey have been so good in the past, it’s unfair to write them off and, if they do bounce back, the Red Sox will have several great late-game options.
It’s hard to predict what’s in store for the 2013 Red Sox. They will have a roster of established players who have been very good, but whose performances may not live up to their pasts as the twilights of their careers set in. It’s also possible, though, that they rebound and help the team contend for a playoff spot, or even more. Regardless of how next season turns out, it’s clear that the organization’s priority is building a team that will be consistently in the championship conversation beginning in a couple of years. Whatever happens between now and then is just a bonus.