So that's done with. The Red Sox have hired Bobby Valentine to fill the managerial position vacated by Terry Francona, and like him or hate him, he's probably not going to be the man who makes or breaks the team barring an unprecedented disaster.
What will make the difference is the talent on the field. While last year's team seemed to be too talented to fail, that clearly was proven not to be the case. For the 2012 Red Sox to succeed where the 2011 Red Sox failed, Ben Cherington will need to make some moves.
So what's the first step for Boston? And how about the rest?
Jonathan Papelbon is already gone, so that's over and done with. Now the focus shifts to David Ortiz.
The Red Sox' long-tenured designated hitter status as a Red Sox is for the first time threatened by free agency. Apparently seeking a three-year deal, Ortiz has reportedly drawn interest from an outside club, which wouldn't seem so dangerous were it not for how adverse the Sox likely are to such a lengthy deal. It was only last year, after all, that they dodged extending Ortiz for even one extra season, exercising his option even at the cost of upsetting their resurgent star.
The good news here is that Ortiz has at least given the Sox a reason to believe an eight figure annual salary is a reasonable investment. While the market for pure designated hitters has been down in recent years, Ortiz is one of the few bats impressive enough to actually be worth big money--to the point where it's quite possible he'll be undervalued next year. With Ortiz being what he is to the Red Sox, it's hard to imagine him in another uniform, even now that it's a very real possibility.
Fixing The Rotation:
The biggest issue that faces the team over the next few months will be shoring up the starting pitching that so failed the team in September. While Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Josh Beckett are locks, the back-end is in desperate need of reliable talent.
Erik Bedard is on the way out, and could be an option if available at a reasonable price. His results with the Sox weren't spectacular, but he was hurt by some circumstances outside of his control (strike zones and defense), so it wouldn't be too surprising to see him coming back despite his risk of injury.
There are other options in the free agency market, too, though it seems the Sox are (rightfully) out on the big name in C.J. Wilson. But the trade market is where the Sox are most likely to make a move. They're said to be in on Wandy Rodriguez and Gio Gonzalez to start, although it's not clear that either will be worth the investment required. Matt Garza would be another interesting option, even though he was never quite as good in the A.L. East as he was in Chicago.
Rebuilding The Bullpen:
With Jonathan Papelbon gone, the Sox need to decide what they're doing in the bullpen. Is Daniel Bard the new closer? Or will the team target someone else like Ryan Madson to take over the role? While their willingness to let Papelbon leave seems to suggest that Madson won't be coming on a contract like Philadelphia once offered him, if he could be had for a more reasonable amount (possible given the circumstances under which said deal died) he likely represents the best possible talent.
The trade market is a bit less impressive, though the Cubs' Sean Marshall is a very interesting target. If the Sox could put together some sort of blockbuster involving both Garza and Marshall, it could be the silver bullet for many of the Sox' difficulties. Straight up for Theo? No? Drat.
What has been one of the most visible areas of concern for the Red Sox this past month, with names like Carlos Beltran and Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes being thrown around in earnest, is actually one without any great need. While Josh Reddick isn't exactly a world-beater in the outfield, when combined with Ryan Kalish the Sox have a duo of young outfielders likely to at least prevent a black-hole spot in the lineup and possibly more.
Making a big acquisition here would certainly provide the fans with some excitement. But unless the current prospects are being used to fix a problem elsewhere on the team, it doesn't make much sense for the Sox to focus resources at a position where they have a decent answer.
Here, on the other hand, is where the most surprising need might be found. While it seemed throughout the year that Jarrod Saltalamacchia might be the answer behind the plate the Red Sox had been looking for, at one point pushing his line as high as .265/.329/.482, his decline in the last two months of the year was dramatic. Simply put, a .288 OBP will not cut it from any position on this team, even with decent power numbers.
The one thing that might help Salty keep his job is how well he fits with Ryan Lavarnway in a straight platoon. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has decent if unspectacular numbers against righties, while Lavarnway has traditionally killed lefties in the minors.
It doesn't hurt that the Sox don't exactly have many options elsewhere, either. Chris Iannetta has already been snatched up by the Angels, the free agent market is empty, and the trade market isn't much better. Hopefully Lavarnway will be able to come through, since it doesn't seem like there's much else in the way of answers.
The Red Sox' resources are limited this offseason, but so are their needs. While the team's disastrous collapse doesn't exactly inspire confidence, the team already has an incredible lineup and a strong start to the rotation. For what little it matters, their actual production was actually rather better than their record showed. If they can just bring the bullpen in line and find some back-end starters who won't make half the team's games unwinnable, then it shouldn't be too hard to get the job done--even with the new playoff rules making a wild card spot so much less acceptable.