The Red Sox have had some crazy offseasons over the past decade.
After the season in 2000, Manny Ramirez signed a massive $160 million contract, kicking off one of the most complicated relationships the team and fanbase would ever have with a player.
The offseason between '02 and '03 was Theo Epstein's grand introduction, with the groundwork being laid for the historic championship run. This was the offseason that helped change the way general managers looked at statistics and team building, as Theo spent paltry sums to bring in Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, and of course Big Papi himself, David Ortiz.
After losing the 2003 ALCS in heartbreaking fashion, Theo was determined to give the Red Sox the final push they needed to finally reach the top. At first, this seemed like it would come in the form of Alex Rodriguez, but the deal was killed as the MLBPA objected to a voluntary pay cut for A-Rod. Undeterred even when Rodriguez ending up with the Yankees, Epstein set his sights on a different big fish, pulling in Curt Schilling, whose bloody sock in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS became one of the lasting images of the Red Sox' furious comeback.
The 2004 offseason was more notable for who didn't come back than who did, as Pedro Martinez was allowed to leave the team as a free agent due to concerns over his durability.
2005 saw the short-lived departure of Epstein as front-office tensions reached a head, and the long-term departure of Johnny Damon to the Yankees. In the interim the Red Sox' biggest trade of the decade went down, sending Hanley Ramirez to Florida for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell.
2006 had Daisuke and Drew (not to mention Lugo -- because doing so makes me sad), 2007 had the Johan Santana drama that amounted to nothing, and 2008 had the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes. And then there was last year. The "bridge year" offseason that saw the Sox lock up their rotation for the foreseeable future and put together a lineup that, while often dominant, was entirely transient. Setting up 2010.
When the 2010 postseason ends, the Red Sox will find themselves with perhaps more questions to answer than in any year before. Between free-agents-to-be, positional battles, a crop of young up-and-comers, and an all-but-empty bullpen, the Red Sox could come out of the looking like either championship contenders, or a group of misfits. Let's take a look at the moving parts of the team, and see how it could all come together.
Departing Free Agents
Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre spent the year as key parts of this year's offense, and on lesser teams could easily form a strong middle-of-the-order. But both have question marks that make re-signing them a big risk.
For Adrian Beltre, there's the red flag of the contract year. Adrian Beltre has had one other huge year: 2004, when he put up an MVP-type season in his last year with the Dodgers before signing for big money with the Mariners, with whom he failed to repeat his dominant performance. The question is, was 2010 a fluke/contract year explosion, or was it just a matter of a good player getting out of Safeco and into Fenway? While Beltre's home-away splits always suggested that the cavernous ballpark in Seattle was hurting him, he's actually been better on the road in 2010.
There's also the matter of Beltre's inflated BABIP. Sitting a .331 (compared to a career average of .294), it's hard to expect his numbers to stay the same, even if we accept that the change in venue is a big factor. With the third baseman approaching 32, and the phantom of Mike Lowell's disappointing deal looming over the Red Sox' head, the team could be reluctant to commit the money it will take to keep Beltre in Boston.
Of course, that's assuming they even have a shot. In a recent interview with Rob Bradford, Beltre said the most important determinant for him this offseason was winning. However...
But in the next breath, Beltre suggests there might be something even more powerful in play than simply finding a contender. The first hint of that motivation could be found in the image of the third baseman getting ready to check in on his pregnant wife, Sandra, whose due date is early October.
"I'll see what's best for me and my family," Beltre explained. "This year I was selfish enough, coming to the East Coast, knowing my wife was pregnant and she would be away from me basically for the whole year. This year is going to be more a family thing. It's been tough. I haven't seen family like l wanted to. We're going to settle down, discuss it, and see what's best for us."
The Red Sox could be out-of-it on the basis of geography alone.
As for Victor Martinez, the question on the hard-hitting catcher has always been one of defense. Martinez' value comes entirely from his ability to stay behind the plate. A .850-or-so OPS (which Martinez has again been able to reach thanks to a huge September) is not impressive coming from a first baseman or designated hitter, and depending on who you ask, that may be where Victor Martinez ends up before too long.
Already, the Sox have shown a reluctance to extend a lengthy offer to Martinez, opening with a two-year offer in August which was summarily rejected. If this sort of offer seems familiar, there's a reason: Jason Bay. After medical reports suggested the already questionable left fielder might not stay in left field much longer, the Red Sox knocked Jason Bay's deal down to two years. While there aren't necessarily any such medical reports on Victor Martinez, it's hard not to connect the dots.
And then there's David Ortiz. Thankfully, Big Papi actually provides some stability with the team. There's not a lot of doubt that Ortiz will be back in 2011 -- the question is, how? The Red Sox have a $12.5 million team option on Ortiz which they appear willing to exercise, but with David Ortiz wanting more years and the Red Sox possibly needing money for other free agents, they could well elect to give the slugger a longer deal with a lower yearly salary.
So what if the Red Sox don't choose to sign Beltre or Martinez? What are the other options?
Third base seems like the easiest problem to solve. Since the Adrian Gonzalez rumors began, there has been a lot of talk about switching Kevin Youkilis to his old natural position at third base and going from there. And while initially that seems like a fine solution, there are big problems to be found. To start with, Youkilis was never really a plus defender at third, just a passable one, and this isn't the sort of thing that gets better with age. Then there's the question of who plays first? Adam LaRoche? Carlos Pena? They may be able to pick up one of the big names after 2011, but that's a shaky crop of fill-ins for next year, and then Youkilis is stuck at the hot corner. It seems clear that moving Youkilis to third is just too big of a hit defensively without seeing any real return in 2011.
So what about filling in third base? The Red Sox might actually already have the answer here in Jed Lowrie. Finally healthy, Lowrie has been putting up big numbers for the Sox while filling in at all four infield positions. If the team were to bring Beltre back, he might well enter 2011 as the starting shortstop, with Marco Scutaro either dealt away, or filling a supersub-type role (he can't, after all, be any worse than Bill Hall in the outfield). But if Beltre is gone, so far Lowrie has shown that he's got a big enough bat for the hot corner, and as a natural shortstop, plenty of glove too. Under team control for the next few years, the financial flexibility Lowrie would allow the team could be too good to pass up.
As for the catching position, the Sox find themselves without any impressive internal options ready for 2011. With prospects Luis Exposito and Ryan Lavarnway both about a year away from being ready to try their hand at MLB, the Sox would need to find at least a stopgap at the position. Interestingly, who they end up with may depend on the Colorado Rockies.