The last time I was given the imaginary keys to the Red Sox franchise, I said the following:
Of the teams ahead of Boston in the wild-card hunt, none are unstoppable, and Boston's actually got a better run differential than all but the Angels. (Boston's at +44, Baltimore's at -36. And the Orioles are 2.5 up. See that lasting?
So there's that. Hopefully I'll do a bit better this time around. The Red Sox are certainly in a better spot financially than they were in July, when they were right up against the luxury tax threshold and desperate to make sure that trades involving Scott Podsednik lined up financially. And even better, the free agent market beckons, and it's lousy. Really, impressively underwhelming. But there's still talent out there, and if Boston can make the right choices, they'll be able to assemble a solid team for 2013.
"Solid for 2013," by the way, will be the animating principle behind every move here. I'm not looking to build a team that'll be hoisting a trophy in October. Not this October, anyway. And with the farm system suddenly looking like a real strength of the franchise, there's no need to overplay our hand on long-term contracts. For what shall a man have profited, if he trade Carl Crawford but immediately sign Josh Hamilton? What I'm looking to build in 2013 is a team that's fun to watch and could find itself playing meaningful games in late September if all breaks right. More than that, though, I want to build a team that can begin to tell us what we'll have in 2014 and beyond. So, let's get started.
Re-sign David Ortiz and Cody Ross
Easy first move. Both guys have expressed a desire to stay here, both are (apparently) currently negotiating new contracts with the team. In addition, both are well-liked, charismatic players, which goes a long way toward making the team watchable and keeping the turnstiles moving. Most importantly of all, of course, they're both good ballplayers. Ortiz has had injury issues as he continues into his late 30's, but when he's healthy, he's still an elite hitter and a huge boost to the lineup. Ross is solid defensively, and can hit pretty well, with a swing obviously friendly to Fenway Park. His numbers against righties aren't nearly as pretty as his .295/.373/.636 line against lefties, but neither are they bad enough to require a straight-up platoon. And if a bit of platooning is needed, that's why you keep Daniel Nava around. Pencil in Ortiz at 2 years/$25 million and Ross at 3/$21.
Sign Mike Napoli
Yep, I know the Rangers will almost certainly make Napoli a qualifying offer, since they wouldn't mind keeping him at $13.5 and they certainly want that tasty draft pick. And yes, I know he had a rather injury-riddled season this year. Still, I look at Napoli and only one number ever registers: .710. That's Mike Napoli's slugging percentage at Fenway Park. It wouldn't be that high over a full season, obviously, but I want to see how close he can get. Give him a nice two-year deal, even a slight overpay, stick him at first base, and see what he can do. Call it 2/$20 on the new first baseman/third catcher. Speaking of catchers...
Sign Jose Molina (if available)
If he's not (Tampa's got a pretty decent club option), someone along the lines of David Ross ought to do fine. Basically I want a defensive-minded catcher on the team. Not as the starter, since I'll soon be sacrificing offense elsewhere, but as the backup for Ryan Lavarnway. Lavarnway's raked in two seasons down Pawtucket, and been middling in inconsistent playing time in the majors. It's time to see what he actually is. Maybe he turns out to be Victor Martinez or Mike Napoli, and we can live with the not-great defense. Maybe he never figures out catching, and he becomes David Ortiz's caddy and eventual replacement (not that he'll hit overall like Papi, but if he manages 25 HR a year, that's a pretty fair DH). Maybe he completely washes out and we need to find a stopgap free agent or trade option while Blake Swihart finishes cooking. But dammit, I want to know, and what better time than a year without expectations? This brings us to...
Yep, I'm saying farewell to the only 30-30 player in Red Sox history. Not even necessarily because I think 2011 was a fluke, although I don't think he'll ever have a season like that again. There are three ways that Ellsbury's 2013 will likely play out. He could replicate his 2011, in which case he'll have teams lining up to throw nine-figure deals at him. He could replicate his 2008 or 2009 seasons, in which case he'll have teams lining up to throw very large eight-figure deals at him. Or he could replicate his 2010 or 2012 seasons, in which case he is clearly just cursed. Regardless, I don't see a scenario that includes Jacoby Ellsbury on the team in 2014. So get some value for him now, while you still can. Texas needs a center fielder, and a bit of speed at the top of their lineup. Salty's young, cost-controlled, and hits better than any catcher Texas has right now. Combine that with Dave Magadan's new gig down that way, and Texas should see some nice gains there. Holland's a perfect upside play. His production hasn't lived up to his stuff, and the Rangers have a surplus of arms. The only remaining issue is shaving that sad little "mustache" he thinks he's growing.
Don't bother with the free agent shortstops
Go check out a list of this year's free agents at shortstop. Bring a stiff drink. It's a motley assortment of injury risks, aging vets, and guys who just aren't very good. With no good options out there, it's time to hand the spot to Jose Iglesias and see what he's got. Doesn't have to be much at the plate. Really, it doesn't. He can be well below-average, even barely replacement-level, and still be worthwhile if his defense is as good as it appears. And if he's not working out, that tells us to try harder to get Xander Bogaerts to stick at short, and to see how aggressively we can promote Deven Marrero.
Sign Michael Bourn to a generous short-term deal
It's possible that teams will come in and throw five or six years at Bourn, but given the last high-profile contract given to a primarily speed-and-defense outfielder, I'm willing to bet teams will be gunshy about going long-term with Bourn. So it's soft, downy pillow time. Say one year, $14 million, or 2/$28 if we're feeling frisky. Big number, but his defense should help the starters quite a bit, and his baserunning skills will be a big help in scoring runs at the back end of the lineup. Fenway should help goose his power and average skills a bit, so that he can move on to bigger and better things on someone else's dime and clear the way for Jackie Bradley, Jr. to start tearing things up. If that offer doesn't work (and admittedly there's probably someone who'll dole out the obligatory five-year deal), then an offer to Shane Victorino or an attempt to trade for Peter Bourjos would make sense.
The bullpen's in decent shape, as is the bench, not much needs to change there, and so we wind up (ideally) with the following roster:
|C||Ryan Lavarnway||SP||Jon Lester|
|1B||Mike Napoli||SP||Clay Buchholz|
|2B||Dustin Pedroia||SP||Felix Doubront|
|3B||Will Middlebrooks||SP||Derek Holland|
|SS||Jose Iglesias||SP||John Lackey|
|CF||Michael Bourn||RP||Andrew Bailey|
|RF||Cody Ross||RP||Andrew Miller|
|DH||David Ortiz||RP||Junichi Tazawa|
|OF||Daniel Nava||RP||Craig Breslow|
|OF||Ryan Sweeney||RP||Clayton Mortensen|
|C||Jose Molina||LR/SP||Franklin Morales|
Hardly ambitious, but likely very good defensively, and not totally hapless offensively. The team's not going anywhere if Lester, Buchholz, and Lackey flop again, but that was going to be true whether we signed Dan Haren or not. In addition, it maintains Boston's financial flexibility almost completely. The Sox guaranteed payroll was $46 million heading into the offseason, and probably more like $75 factoring in arb raises and other contracts. Including the new deals to Ortiz, Ross, Bourn, Molina, and Napoli, and trading away Ells and Salty for Holland, we're taking on about $35 million more, bringing us to an Opening Day payroll of $110 million, the lowest in a decade. The team would still have $65 million in luxury tax space to make midseason trades or to extend their younger players as they come up.
Most importantly, they'd know better where they stood for 2014. Will Iglesias hit enough to justify a starting spot? Can Lavarnway figure out catching in the bigs? Will Ryan Kalish ever be healthy? Are Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz actually staff anchors, or just the middling, inconsistent pitchers we saw last year? Concrete answers to these questions make the future direction of the team that much easier to figure out. This brings us to my final big move of the offseason:
Level with the fans about what's up
The hardcore fans know how good the farm system is, and are probably going to be on board with committing to a (short) regrowth period. But baseball's a business, and the more customers you've got, the more money you make. Casual fans aren't going to be thrilled with a year that's considered lost from the beginning, but lying about it is just silly. Don't hide from the press because Theo got whacked around for saying "bridge year." Lay it out for people. Be proud of the players you've got, and emphasize how fun it is to watch Iglesias flash the leather, or Ross flip a bat, or Pedroia run up his dry-cleaning bill. Talk up the kids, make it clear how excited everyone in the organization is to have the next generation of Red Sox stars about to burst onto the scene. The Fenway centennial marketing in 2012 was entirely focused on the past. It's time to start focusing on the future.