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The Boston Red Sox have a lot of choices to make this offseason, and with a relatively weak free agent class (outside of the mega contracts that will go to Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke), the Sox are left with limited options. Their late season salary dump of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and the oft forgotten “throw in” Nick “the Shredder” Punto has bolstered their farm system and created the ability to swing some trades at the winter meetings. Many names have been thrown around, but it would be important to recognize what their largest positions of need are before deciding who is worth going after.
The Red Sox enter into the 2013 season with a few positions of strength that will be the cornerstones of the offense. Third base, second base, center field, and the bullpen will be talented, but beyond that, there is a major overhaul in store. It is important to note that the Sox need to learn from past errors, and protect their farm at all costs. Gutting it similarly to 2010 would be a huge mistake, as most, if not all of the players dealt for Gonzalez are now Major League ready.
The Red Sox desperately need to pick up a consistent number 3 starter for their rotation. This guy has to be durable, throw for 200+ innings, and have an ERA under 4.00. Twenty eight pitchers fell into this category last season, and there are a couple that could be available via trade.
While not the big name front of the line starter the Sox covet out of Seattle, they may be able to pry Jason Vargas away for a relatively low price. After Seattle traded Ichiro, the Sox may be able to convince the Mariners to part with Vargas for Brandon Jacobs, a late blooming outfield prospect who is coming into his power. Vargas is your stereotypical “crafty lefty” — he doesn’t strike out many guys and isn’t overpowering, but he limits the damage with good off-speed pitches.
Personally, I believed the Red Sox should have targeted a different left hander last off-season, but with the Miami Marlins historically tanking after their offseason spending, they may be willing to trade Mark Buerhle; they have already started the salary purging by dealing right-handed power reliever Heath Bell, and the trades probably will not end there. Every season since 2009, Buerhle has won 13 games and thrown over 200 innings. This is exactly the kind of consistency that the Red Sox need. He could come over for a low price as well, potentially for third base prospects Travis Shaw or Kolbrin Vitek to fill the void left by the trade of Hanley Ramirez.
There are other options than trading, as it seems that the Rays may not pick up the option James Shields. Both of these guys fall into the “horse” category. Kyle Lohse is also a free agent, and with pitching prospects on the rise in the system, I don’t believe it would be a good idea to trade the farm for a number 1 starter. The club can also cross its fingers and hope that John Lackey is the guy they signed him to be, but that could be a long shot hope.
Jacoby Ellsbury is entrenched in center, at least for next season, and Jackie Bradley Jr. is waiting in the wings at Portland for if and when Ellsbury leaves Boston. This leaves right field and left field as holes in the Sox defense. With all signs pointing towards a welcome party for Cody Ross, that leaves one corner outfield spot to fill in. Josh Hamilton is the best option, as sliding him over into right field at Fenway Park would be an excellent addition, but for a team that just got out from under massive contracts, adding one right back would be a poor choice.
There are only four free agents under the age of thirty in the entire outfield class of free agents: BJ Upton, Travis Buck, Delmon Young, and Melky Cabrera. Travis Buck has been up and down from the minors for his career and Cabrera is just coming off a 50-game suspension (he has not been reinstated by his team) for using a banned substance. BJ Upton came on strong at the end of the season but he has been inconsistent at best throughout his career. The same can be said for the now-ALCS MVP Young. Torii Hunter is also an option, as he comes with an excellent glove and a plus .300 average over the past season, but age is definitely a factor.
This leaves the Red Sox with two options, fill the hole internally with players like Ryan Sweeney, Ryan Kalish, and others, or hit the winter meetings with a strong trade target.
My top two hitters for the Red Sox to target this offseason are Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals and Justin Upton of the Arizona Diamondbacks. On the surface, Gordon had a “down year,” but when you look closer, a major slump at the beginning of the season tarnished an otherwise excellent season. He finished with a .292 batting average and a career high 51 doubles. He also won a Gold Glove a year after permanently switching to corner outfield. Some of those doubles will undoubtedly turn into home runs with the sort porches of Fenway and Yankee Stadium, and the Red Sox need anyone besides David Ortiz to be a strong left handed hitter when they face the Yankees in NY. The only caveat for Gordon would be moving from left field to right field, but I don’t believe that would pose a big problem. With the Royals in need of quality talent and Gordon coming into the second year of a sizable contract, the Sox may be able to pick him up for a combination of Bryce Brentz and some minor league arms (not named Webster, Barnes, or Owens).
Justin Upton is a curious case as well. The Diamondbacks already began parting with major league ready outfielders when they dealt CF Chris Young to the Athletics. The former 2005 number one overall pick [Upton] had a banner year in 2011, coming in fourth in the MVP voting and collecting a silver slugger in right field. He fell a bit in 2012, but he is only 24, and it is hard to believe his peak as a hitter came when he was 23. The Diamondbacks, should they choose to part with him, hope that other teams believe that too. Upton is signed through the 2015 season to a very team-friendly contract and could fetch a pretty penny. If the Sox are going to get Upton, it would probably have to include Jose Iglesias (to fill the hole left by Stephen Drew), and outfielder like Brentz, and a starting pitcher (potentially of the quality of those named as untouchables previously). At this price, I think it would be better for the Sox to pursue Gordon, but if the Diamondbacks relent and throw in a Major League caliber pitcher for one of the big prospect pitchers (read Trevor Cahill or Ian Kennedy), then a deal could be made.
With the departure of Adrian Gonzalez, the Red Sox have a huge power outage at first base. James Loney (free agent) and Mauro Gomez (AAA MVP) filled in admirably, but no one believes that they are the Red Sox future at first base. Mike Napoli is a free agent, and he could be just the kind of dual position player the Red Sox target as their big free agent splash this offseason, with Gomez, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway getting occasional reps at first.
There are very limited trade options at this position, and the best fit I can think of would be Kendrys Morales in LA. The Angels have a major logjam at first base with Mark Trumbo (who sometimes plays 3rd), Albert Pujols, and Morales all competing for time. Morales is the odd man out, and the Angels need to restock their farm after going for broke trading for Zack Greinke (whom they may not retain come winter’s end). The Angels, who are very weak on the left side of the infield and after trading Jean Segura to the Brewers, could find a place for Jose Iglesias. Their other need lies at third base, where a player like Kolbrin Vitek could fit in. This would be relatively low cost for the Red Sox and would give them a capable hitter and excellent defender to lock in at first base.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia had a career power year in 2012, crushing 25 home runs, but he had an OBP under .300. For a team that during its championship years prided itself in getting on base, Salty does not do this consistently enough to warrant 120 games a year. Many around the organization also consider Ryan Lavarnway to be a “work in progress,” and he could use some more seasoning in Pawtucket before being the full time receiver behind the dish. The Braves hold a club option on Brian McCann, but if they exercise that, that leaves Napoli as the only free agent target.
Realistically, the biggest catch for the Red Sox could be Joe Mauer, but it would be a deal that would cost them. They would have to absorb most of his salary over the next six seasons, and they would have to majorly manage his time behind the plate. After a disappointing 2011 season, Mauer reached 140 games played for the first time since 2008, but that came at a price. He only caught 74 games, while splitting time between DH and first base the rest of the year. This deal may not cost the Sox as much as people think, because the Twins could be desperate to get out from under a contract they cannot afford.
The best situation for the Sox in regards to catcher could be to trade for Mauer and sign Napoli to as affordable a deal as possible. This is a pipe dream because it would hamstring the team in filling other positions, but it certainly is a possibility. Napoli could be in line to make $14 million and Mauer will make $20 million, but averaging $17 million for a catcher and a first baseman who will combine for power, average, and on base percentage may not be too bad a deal.
The winter meetings are going to be an interesting time for the Red Sox. This offseason is filled with possibilities, but the Sox also have multiple important needs. It is possible for the Sox to contend next season, but it is going to require some wheeling and dealing to get what they need.
To recap my ideal Sox offseason:
*Statistics courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball Reference