One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. The Red Sox were going to easily eclipse the 100-win mark and make their way through the playoffs. The only question seemed to be whether they would be able to beat the Phillies in the Fall Classic. Yet it didn’t pan out. Instead of the words, “World Series Champions” being uttered in Boston, the phrase “chicken and beer” became the center of attention. So where do they go from here?
Well, despite how poorly the Sox ended their 2011 campaign, they were still the best team in the American League from May through August. They still scored the most runs in the majors for the entire season and also led the league in wOBA, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage.
So even with all the chaos that has ensued, they are still a very talented ball club that is very capable of doing big things next year. Another reason why things will not change too drastically is that Ben Cherington, Theo Epstein’s replacement as general manager, came from within the organization and will more than likely conduct things similarly. The team has the key pieces to succeed, but there are just a few minor things that Cherington has to tweak this offseason to push the Sox over the edge.
First, the team must hire a new manager. The Red Sox have spent the last few weeks interviewing plenty of candidates and they need to come to a decision rather soon. This will allow them to move on more efficiently because everyone will be on board with every move going forward.
As awful as the starting rotation looked down the stretch, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue going forward. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are solid to start with, and they will get a healthy Clay Buchholz back to start the season. The one problem with this picture, and the problem they ran into in September. is depth. After this, they don’t have many options. John Lackey will be on the shelf for the entire season and Daisuke Matsuzaka won’t return to the team until the middle of the season.
One logical move would be to go after Mark Buehrle. The southpaw has logged at least 200 innings in every season since 2001 and has pitched with the White Sox for his entire career, which means there will be no adjustment period in switching leagues. Sure his strikeout numbers are a little low, but as a middle-of-the-rotation guy, he would be a good fit. A three-year deal worth somewhere around $40 million would probably be enough to get it done, but with his strong ties to Chicago, the Red Sox may have to overpay to land him. Re-signing Tim Wakefield is an option also. The knuckleballer has showed signs of wanting to come back and he wouldn’t be bad as a No. 5 starter.
After that, they should try to sign some guys to low-risk deals. Bartolo Colon is one name that comes to mind. He had a very good season for the Yankees in 2011 and although he fell off toward the end of the year, he is worth at least a look. There are many other pitchers on the market who could contribute a little bit on a small deal. The point is to build up some type of depth whether it is in long relief or at the Triple-A level with minor league contracts. When and if the injury bug strikes again—as it has the past two seasons—the Red Sox are better equipped to fight through it. The front end of the rotation is strong enough to support a weaker back half as long as they eat innings and keep the team in games.
The next place to fix is the bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon just signed a nice four-year deal with the Phillies, which leaves the Sox with a giant hole back there. Daniel Bard is good, but he can’t pitch in every game. The two biggest names on the closer market are Heath Bell and Ryan Madson, one of whom will probably be with Boston by the time spring training rolls around. The pen is a mess right now and a good closer isn’t a bad place to start. After that, Bard will be the set up man and then Alfredo Aceves will probably wind up in the middle relief. The team wants him to report to camp prepared to start, but I think that’s mostly to keep options open and keep his value up.
Franklin Morales and Bobby Jenks will also have roles in middle relief. Boston fans can’t expect much worse from Jenks, who was ineffective and also spent a great deal of time on the disabled list. Matt Albers is also arbitration-eligible and although MLB Trade Rumors has him listed as a non-tender candidate, I think Boston will offer him something just to get another somewhat trusted arm back there. We already saw the Red Sox decline Dan Wheeler’s option though, so you never know.
Even though the offense didn’t do much in the last month and a half of the season, it was still very productive and there’s not much the Red Sox can do. They have exercised Marco Scutaro’s option, which will make him the starting shortstop and move the injury-prone Jed Lowrie to the bench. After that, they will probably re-sign David Ortiz to be the designated hitter after another very good year. Kevin Youkilis will be healthy and return to the lineup, which should be a helpful presence in the middle of the order. So basically everything will stay the same for the most part.
With Papelbon and J.D. Drew coming off the books, they should have some money to play with, although after arbitration that extra cash could be diminished. It’s going to be interesting to see what Cherington does in his first winter in charge. Don’t expect anything too big because the Red Sox already have the pieces in place to win. They need just a few more surrounding players and a little more depth.