Red Sox offseason primer: What do the World Series champions need?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

The World Series is won, Boston has celebrated, and now it's time to get back to work. What do the Red Sox need to do before spring comes again?

The change from postseason to offseason can be jarring when you're playing right up until the last day. One week ago, the Red Sox took the field at Fenway Park for Game 6 of the World Series. Today the headlines are about possible landing spots for Jacoby Ellsbury, whether or not the Red Sox should have given Jarrod Saltalamacchia a qualifying offer, and whether Mike Napoli has found his shirt yet.

In other years, it's been a process we've eased into. Those days when other teams compete for the World Series are used to take stock. In 2013, though, the rest of Major League Baseball has been chomping at the bit to light up the hot stove, and us Red Sox fans risk being swept up into their furor before we really gain our footing.

The situations for the Red Sox come in two flavors: the obvious, and the nebulous. Let's start with the obvious:

Center Field

Jacoby Ellsbury leaving the Red Sox has seemed like a fait accompli ever since his rib-induced row with the team back in 2010. Also, Scott Boras. It's not that Red Sox fans don't like him or appreciate him--there's no ill-will in Boston as far as I can tell, at least--it's just that he's going to cost a lot of money, the Red Sox are reluctant to give out huge contracts, and they have a natural replacement in Jackie Bradley Jr.

First Base

If there's one other situation that seems pretty much worked out, it comes at first base. Mike Napoli has a degenerative hip condition which should scare teams away from long-term deals. Mike Napoli will cost any other team a draft pick to sign, which should scare them away from short-term deals. Maybe the Red Sox give him some security with a two-year deal and a vesting option as a sign of good will, maybe Napoli has another night on the town and wanders into Ben Cherington's office shirtless before signing back on for one year. Either way, he seems very likely to make his return.

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Photo Credit: Greg M. Cooper

Now, onto the more nebulous situations...

Shortstop / Third Base

Xander Bogaerts will almost certainly be starting opening day for the Red Sox. It's hard to deny him that after giving him the nod in the World Series. The question is, who is he starting with?

Will Middlebrooks was the one bright spot of 2012. Now, however, it's hard to look past his performance in the first half and the postseason. He had a month of excellence upon his August return, but finished the year in an 8-for-58 freefall before looking completely inept at the plate and, often enough, in the field come October.

Stephen Drew, likewise, was terrible in the playoffs, but that stands in stark contrast to his performance during the regular season. He also showed a terrific glove at short, and while Xander has looked more-and-more likely to be able to stick at short as the years have gone by, he still seems best suited for third.

The question is, what will Drew cost? Having two league-minimum players on the left side of the infield would allow the Red Sox tons of room to maneuver elsewhere, but on a team that has relatively few needs, perhaps that would be ignoring one of the better possible places to allocate their resources.

Starting Rotation

Jon Lester, Jon Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Clay Buchholz allowed 34 runs in 93 innings of work over the course of the postseason. That's good for a 3.29 ERA--better than any American League team managed during the regular season. If they were only pitching their four best, they also were only facing the best--the Rays, Tigers, and Cardinals all come in as top-7 offenses by wRC+, with the Tigers second only to the Red Sox.

Also pitching well? Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront, combining for 10 innings of two-run ball out of the bullpen, allowing just seven hits and three walks as they shored up the relief corps that was supposed to be Boston's biggest weakness.

But what to do with all those arms? Few teams seriously consider the six-man rotation, and it doesn't seem like Boston will be the first. They don't even have a need to hoard depth with Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, Dalier Hinojosa, and Matt Barnes all providing high-level rotation depth, though half of those names may find themselves appropriated for bullpen work.

The obvious solution would be to find someone to take Ryan Dempster, but who knows how easy that will be? Perhaps the Sox would prefer to shop one of their more valuable pieces--say, Doubront--in order to pick up talent elsewhere? Or maybe it's even Jake Peavy on the move--easier to find a home for, while still getting money off the books.

Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester don't seem likely to be going anywhere, and unless a team gets really fixated on that cheap option year John Lackey has coming up he'll probably stick around too. But everyone else is open game.

Catcher

Jarrod Saltalamacchia wasn't so much as given a qualifying offer, and is currently wondering why the Red Sox don't call more often? Whatever the case, it's starting to seem more and more likely that the man known as Salty will have to find a new home.

Where does that leave the Red Sox? Who can say. Maybe they have their sights set on top free agent Brian McCann? Maybe they're looking for more of a short-term deal with Carlos Ruiz leading into Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart in the years to come? Maybe they'll just bump Christian Vazquez all the way up and put him in something of a platoon with David Ross?

Change seems to be coming for the Red Sox behind the plate. Likely defensive-minded change. It's just entirely unclear who the Red Sox have set their sights on to bring that change.

Bullpen

It's all-too-easy for the bullpen to get lost in the shuffle, but there's work to be done there, too. Koji Uehara is, obviously, the closer. Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa are solid set-up options. And then...then what?

Remember, the late-season/playoff bullpen was filled out by Brandon Workman, Felix Doubront, and Ryan Dempster. The Red Sox have said they see Workman as a starter long-term, and might be hesitant to start him in the bullpen for 2014. And the Sox seem much more likely to trade one of Dempster/Doubront than to put one of them in the pen. It will be nice to have Andrew Miller back, but when you consider both his past record and his injury, it's hard to be supremely confident in him.

Beyond those names, there's still a bunch of minor league players--any of the starting depth can be shifted into the bullpen for a time--but it seems like the Sox could still use at least one more reliable arm rather than the likes of Steven Wright and Drake Britton.

Will Andrew Bailey return to the team on a small deal to prove himself healthy? Will Franklin Morales have any role on the team at all? It's hard to imagine the Red Sox are going to go after the biggest names on the market like Balfour and Benoit, but it would not be surprising to see them pick up a couple of mid-level relievers and sign a few more to minor league deals as they try to build a solid foundation under their top-3.

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It's a reasonably long list, to be sure, but really when you look at it all the Red Sox are not a team with many needs. Of these six items, one is actually a matter of surplus (the rotation), two seem easy enough to solve, and even on the left side of the infield it's not so much a question of "can we fill this hole," but "is there a hole to fill?"

The most concerning situations, then, are to be found behind the plate and in the bullpen. And it's certainly possible to see a scenario where these just do not work out for Boston. McCann and Ruiz sign elsewhere, Salty feels slighted by the Red Sox' inattention, and in the end they're left with Christian Vazquez in over his head. And I certainly don't have to remind everyone of how much trouble the Sox seem to have putting together a bullpen these days.

Still, compared to just about every other team out there, the Red Sox have relatively little work to do. Only one of their departing free agents is actually likely to leave the team with no clear replacement in line, and they've got plenty of money to work with assuming that they're willing to go up to the CBT threshold again.

It's the luxury of being World Series champions with a well-stocked farm system. There are no guarantees of success in professional sports, but at least for now the Red Sox seem poised to keep on winning in 2014 without much help.

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