Imagine, for a moment -- because imagination is all we have right now on this mid-January Monday -- that Mike Napoli and the Red Sox finish working out their differences, and his signing becomes official. In order for it be truly official, and not just agreed-upon for the second time, room needs to be made on the roster. Since the 40-man is at capacity, that spot will need to be cleared through either designating a player for assignment, or as part of something larger, such as a trade.
In late-December, the Red Sox cleared room for Joel Hanrahan -- and subsequently, free agent signing Stephen Drew -- by trading Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, and Jerry Sands to the Pirates. (Ivan De Jesus was also included, but he was no longer on the 40-man, so this is inconsequential to the roster-building for either club.) Boston also received infielder Brock Holt back, though, taking up the last of the three spots cleared, and putting them right back at 40 on the 40.
Theoretically, the Sox could make another trade of quantity-for-quality to clear a space for Napoli, but let's stick with the most-likely outcomes at present: someone is going to lose their spot when -- or if, should you be feeling pessimistic -- Napoli becomes Boston's first baseman. Who is it that would lose out? The simplest answers of the early off-season are no longer on the 40-man, making the question of the present a little more difficult.
The only possibility to be designated among the outfielders on the 40-man is Alex Hassan, but he's something of a long shot to be cut. Boston would likely only do this if they felt he was unlikely to be claimed by other teams, and since they bothered to protect him in the Rule 5 draft, you get the sense they aren't comfortable leaving him out there. Especially since, via waivers, a team would only need to keep him on the 40, not their big-league roster. So, let's scratch that idea, along with minor-league catcher Dan Butler, whom Boston also sought to protect from the prying hands of the Rule 5.
Among the infielders, there is Mauro Gomez, but Boston seems to think he can hit. While they don't want him as their starting first baseman, if they have concerns about Napoli's health going forward, then Gomez represents the best in-house option to replace him during a stint on the disabled list. Gomez has two of his three options remaining, and, as you could surmise given what you're reading, is already on the 40-man. Again, let's shelve that idea.
That doesn't leave many positions to work with: in fact, it's basically down to which reliever is next on the chopping block. The trade for Hanrahan, combined with what we already knew about Boston's relief options and the presence of Franklin Morales as the likely first line of defense for the rotation, means that the pen is basically set at this stage. Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, Craig Breslow, and Morales are the six who are all but guaranteed to have big-league jobs on Opening Day 2013. The last spot, in a lot of ways, is Daniel Bard's to lose. Should he pitch well in spring training, or show the progress Boston waited for in the entire second half of 2012, then he will start the season in the majors. If he doesn't, then there are still plenty of internal options to work with, in the form of Alfredo Aceves, Clayton Mortensen, and Andrew Miller, while Bard could begin the season at Pawtucket. Unless a trade happens where Boston can move one of these three, you have to think that all will be around until the Red Sox have a sense of just who Daniel Bard is going to be in 2013.
That's not the end of the potential bullpen, though, as Chris Carpenter and Alex Wilson are also both on the 40-man roster. Wilson was just added to avoid the Rule 5, and therefore has all three of his options remaining -- he's not going anywhere unless the Red Sox have suddenly lost faith in him, and there's no known reason why they would have. That leaves Carpenter, who is down to his final option year, hasn't pitched very well in the high minors, and has been even worse in his brief time in the majors.
Designating Carpenter is not the same as giving up on him, but as a 27-year-old yet to pitch well for an extended period of time in a relief role, is now the time to try to sneak him through waivers? Rosters are mostly set around the league, with teams now entering the phase of the off-season where non-guaranteed contracts and spring training invites are sent out. Carpenter would require a legitimate roster spot, which could be problematic for many clubs. Should someone be willing to give him one, though, Boston has the relief depth to compensate for the loss of Carpenter. The only part that might be hard to swallow is that Carpenter is one of the few relievers already on the 40-man with options remaining -- then again, if he can't pitch well, it doesn't matter if he has infinite options, and his ability to succeed in the upper levels remains an open question.
It's not optimal, but there might not be an optimal solution, anyway. Mortensen might be the only other pitcher worth cutting, as, despite his successes in 2013, there are regression-shaped warning flags in his future. He's also less appealing given the adds to the Boston pen combined with the fact he's now devoid of the option that made him so useful as he was continually shuttled back-and-forth between Pawtucket and Boston. However, the fact Mortensen has any kind of success means he's more likely to be claimed by a team with bullpen needs. That, and, as said above, he could be moved if it turns out the Sox have the Bard they're looking for in mid-March, anyway -- unless Carpenter's trade value is loftier thanks to his remaining option, it seems he's odd man out contextually.
Plus, it's not as if the Red Sox lack pitching depth at Triple-A Pawtucket, so if things get to the point where more arms than are on hand are required, they could add Chris Hernandez, or Jose De La Torre, or just call up either Wilson or Steven Wright for a temporary bullpen band-aid. Carpenter is a luxury in a lot of ways, but with the roster crunch such as it is, he might be one the Red Sox can't afford to carry on the 40-man.