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The Fan's Guide To The Red Sox' Offseason: The Free Agents, Bullpen, Outfield And More

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With the season over, the Red Sox face one of their most question-filled postseasons in the Theo Epstein era. How will everything go down heading into 2011?

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.

2001 was the last year for Dan Duquette, who continued to flex his financial muscle by bringing in Johnny Damon from the Athletics.

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.

The Alternatives

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.

Between Miguel Olivo and Chris Iannetta, the Rockies are not exactly wanting for catchers. However, according to Tony Renck, that hasn't stopped them from coveting Victor Martinez.

Manager Jim Tracy said Thursday that adding an "impact bat" is a top offseason priority. The Rockies will target catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez, if he becomes a free agent, but he could be out of their price range.
The Rockies have always had a questionable relationship with Iannetta, who the Red Sox tried to trade for earlier in the year. While it's unlikely they'd still be willing to offer Jed Lowrie, it's not at all unlikely that the Sox could try and fill in the position long-term with a guy like Iannetta, whose value has been brought down by some remarkably low BABIPs.

If the Sox do choose to go with a stopgap, though, the options are limited. The aforementioned Miguel Olivo is possible, as is John Buck, but with both of them severely lacking in on-base abilities, they are far from ideal options.

The Outfield

The Red Sox are not wanting for outfielders. With Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury hopefully coming back healthy, J.D. Drew set in right, and a number of prospects pushing towards the big leagues either as potential starters or backups, there just doesn't seem to be much room for roster changes.

But it's not just next year they have to think about, and with J.D. Drew and Mike Cameron on the last year of their contracts, there might be some need for an addition after all.

I've looked into it in depth already, but to lay out the basic argument here: Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth represent the cream of the free agent outfielder crop for the next couple of years, and even if Ryan Kalish turns out to be a long-term Major League starter, the team will still only have him and Jacoby Ellsbury going into 2012. The other starting options in the farm system nearing MLB-readiness (Josh Reddick, Che-Hsuan Lin) are pretty big risks who are by no means guaranteed to pan out.

Now, a trade is always possible, but the Sox haven't exactly had an easy time finding deals given how they covet their minor leaguers. Ultimately, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the Sox splurge on Werth or more likely Crawford going into 2011. With the team likely to treat at least Cameron and Drew with kid gloves, and each killing opposite-handed pitching, a platoon between the two seems like the obvious answer to the crowding situation that would arise.

The Bullpen

Easily the worst part of the team this year, the bullpen cost the Red Sox game after game after game. Last year, Theo Epstein basically threw as many fringe, minimum salary players at the pen as possible, hoping to find at least one or two guys to play a significant role. But the only one who emerged as even just passable was Scott Atchison (who has spent the last month ruining his season).  None of the Delcarmen - Okajima - Ramirez group ended up returning-to-form, and the rest is history.

This winter, it looks like things will be different. In a recent interview on ESPN, Theo acknowledged the bullpen's weakness, and let slip two important words:
Specifically, Epstein pointed to the bullpen (4.35 ERA, ranked 12th of 14 AL teams) as the biggest flaw on this Red Sox team, saying he has to "completely fix" the relief corps this offseason.
"Completely fix" sounds good to me. Last year, there was the sense that Epstein maybe thought the bullpen was going to work itself out. Papelbon closing, Bard setting up, and just one guy returning to form as a legitimate seventh inning man. That would get the job done pretty well when the starters are (supposedly) going seven innings most of the time.

But if the bullpen is going to be completely fixed, it's going to cost money, which is why the Red Sox might not be able to afford having Jonathan Papelbon be part of that solution.

Entering his third year of arbitration, Papelbon will likely be looking at a pay raise, even after his mediocre season. That's just how it works when it comes to arbitration. While at his best Papelbon is a dominant closer, the position is infamously short-lived, chewing up all but the most durable of players (Rivera, Hoffman). If Papelbon is just the latest in a series of used-up closers, who would really be that surprised?

Paying huge money to relievers is not exaclty Theo's typical MO, even less so for one individual reliever who might not be able to get the job done in 2011. The Sox aren't exactly in need of a closer, either, with Daniel Bard clearly the best reliever on the team, and one of the best in the league. What the Sox really need is to pick up a few solid-good relievers. The guys that Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez once were to the team. With a good crop of free agents, the Red Sox might be much better off taking his money and spreading it out between two or three different relievers.

The other interesting question involves Felix Doubront. After dominating Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket, Doubront got a quick shot at the Majors before being shut down for the season. What little Red Sox fans did get to see was impressive both as a starter and a reliever, especially against lefties. Doubront could very easilly fit into the Red Sox' bullpen as a Justin Masterson/LOOGY type of player, making spot starts and handling lefties for the team. Whether or not the team chooses to go in that direction or leaves him to develop as a starter in the minors remains to be seen.

The Possibilities

So what are we looking at for the 2011 Red Sox? The possible results of this offseason really do run the gamut. The rotation isn't really in question, but let's take a look at some of the possible extremes for the lineup...

The Cheap Team:
  1. Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. Dustin Pedroia
  3. Kevin Youkilis
  4. David Ortiz
  5. J.D. Drew
  6. Jed Lowrie
  7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia
  8. Mike Cameron
  9. Marco Scutaro
Not exactly pretty, is it?

This is the result of a conservative offseason. Not willing to risk big money on aging and perhaps overperforming free agents, the Sox let Beltre and Martinez walk without making any significant pick-ups. Papelbon is back since he's just a 1-year cost, as is David Oritz. Varitek is given a 1-year deal as the team hopes he can help tutor Saltalamacchia, who gets a shot as starter. Daniel Nava and Darnell McDonald back-up the outfield, and the Sox pick up some cheap free agents to back up the infield.

The "Get the Band Back Together" Team:
  1. Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. Dustin Pedroia
  3. Victor Martinez
  4. Kevin Youkilis
  5. David Ortiz
  6. Adrian Beltre
  7. J.D. Drew
  8. Jed Lowrie
  9. Mike Cameron
The Sox answer some "what if" questions, hoping that guys like Beltre, Ortiz, and Lowrie can repeat their strong seasons. With Lugo and Lowell off of the payroll, the Sox can afford to bring everyone back without even reaching last year's payroll. The question here remains Papelbon, who would probably be the odd-man out in favor of some cheaper one-year contracts for good veteran relievers.

The Crawford Team:
  1. Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. Dustin Pedroia
  3. Carl Crawford
  4. Kevin Youkilis
  5. David Ortiz
  6. Adrian Beltre
  7. J.D. Drew/Mike Cameron
  8. Jed Lowrie
  9. Chris Iannetta
If the Sox do choose to pick up Crawrford, that's when finances start to come into question. In this situation, the Sox let Victor walk and work out a deal with the Rockies for Chris Iannetta, whose BABIP issues hopefully do not follow him to Fenway. With four starting outfielders, J.D. Drew and Mike Cameron platoon in right field. Jonathan Papelbon is let go in exchange for whatever the remaining money can buy, probably something in the $15 million range if the Sox are looking to keep their salary even this year. On paper, this team is an easy World Series contender.

Of course, if there's one thing that's true about Theo and the Red Sox, it's that there's no real way to predict what will happen. Who saw Lackey coming to Boston after 2009? That deal came out of nowhere. For all we know, the Red Sox will sign Cliff Lee, trade Daisuke to a West Coast team, and then pick up Prince Fielder and move Youkilis to third. No matter how things turn out, though, this will be an interesting offseason for the Red Sox.