As a Wisconsin-ite possessing the odd combination of a love for baseball and having a passionate dislike of winter, the final out of the World Series is always a bitter-sweet moment for me. It means that winter is on the very near horizon (or in some years, has already arrived) but it also means that one of my favorite in-door seasons comes with it: Baseball’s Hot Stove Off-Season.
Surprisingly, given that they typically have many positions already locked up annually with big names, the Red Sox head into this year’s Hot Stove season with more question marks (along with the ammunition and will to address them) than any other club. After an odd, injury-plagued, 2010 season the fans of the Olde Town Team will be in for quite the ride.
Rumors abound this time of year and it seems like virtually every big market team is connected to every available name at some point. Without further adieu, here is my prediction for how the Red Sox address their various needs this off-season.
Red Sox captain Jason Varitek (and this past year, Victor Martinez) have made it a long time since Boston has needed to address their catching situation heading into an off-season. With both of the aforementioned catchers heading into free agency, the only catcher left on the Sox’ roster is one-time prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia. His bat has always been his primary tool, however Salty’s OPS has gone down every season since his 2007 debut. He’s still just 26 and cathers are notorious late bloomers with the bat, which could mean that Saltalamacchia is ready to break out if given the chance. However, it’s extremely unlikely that Boston puts it’s faith in Salty as their primary option going into 2011. My guess is that Boston takes advantage of Saltalamacchia’s split contract and lets him get reps and at-bats in Pawtucket, which could help him. Throughout his career, Saly’s only had 374 AAA at-bats. It seems thus far to be a fait accompli Boston won’t pay Victor Martinez’ open market price. Former Royal John Buck seems to be the rumor mill favorite to head to the Sox as part of a catching rotation, which makes sense if the price is right. Buck has been trending upward with the bat in both 2009 and 2010 (his age 28 and 29 seasons, respectively). Throughout his career, Buck has crushed left-handed pitching (hitting to a 1.116 OPS vs. LHP in 2010), something that is increasingly important in the AL East.
Prediction: Boston signs John Buck and brings back Jason Varitek for a final season of backup duties, allowing Saltalamacchia to re-develop at Pawtucket. In allowing Martinez to walk, Boston will receive two draft picks due to his Type-A status. Buck, a Type-B free agent, wouldn’t cost the Sox a draft pick to sign and will come much cheaper than V-Mart, giving the Sox both salary relief and draft pick compensation for the swap, the latter of which being something not to be taken lightly given Boston’s drafting success under Epstein. Bringing back Varitek on a club-friendly deal allows the captain to retire as a Red Sox without too much uncovered risk given Salatalamacchia is just a call-up away.
Adrian Beltre was a steal on a one-year contract in 2010. He has officially declined his player option for 2011 and, being far and away the top third baseman available, will wind up with a hefty payday somewhere other than Boston this off-season. The Sox have plenty of options here. Kevin Youkilis came up as a third baseman and the resurgent Jed Lowrie can also man the hot corner, if he can stay healthy. After Beltre, there isn’t much at the position available on the free agent market, so expect to see the club address this hole internally. Kevin Youkilis has said that he is going into this off-season preparing to play third.
Prediction: The Sox shift Youk back to third base. Finding a first baseman is an infinitely easier task than filling a hole at third.
Moving Kevin Youkilis from first base to third base opens plenty of avenues that Boston will explore. Both San Diego and Milwaukee have stated a willingness to listen on Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder and the Sox will explore each. Fielder is a future DH with a body type that does not age well (see Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Greg Vaughn) which will limit his value significantly. I doubt Milwaukee finds value in the trade market and holds on to him for draft picks after next season. Gonzalez, however is more in the Mark Teixeira mold with a plus bat and glove. Boston’s interest in him is no secret, the question is whether Jed Hoyer’s asking price will be something the Sox will be willing to stomach. I don’t think the Sox will be willing to part with the likes of Casey Kelly, Jose Iglesias, Anthony Ranaudo, or Jacoby Ellsbury. If a package of Jed Lowrie, Ryan Kalish, and Felix Doubront don’t get it done (which I don’t think it will), the Sox will move on to plan B – Adam Dunn. Dunn has been the model of consistency at the plate his entire career (his 38 homers in 2010 was the first season in which he didn’t hit exactly 40 since 2004 when he hit 46), his problem has been his lack of a defensive position, however his best position has been first base (where he surprisingly has been about league average in terms of both fielding percentage and Range Factor). Dunn fits the Epstein mold – he’s an On Base machine with power in a market that has seemingly under-valued him. A long-term deal with Boston allows Dunn to play in the field in 2011 (his stated preference) ad a stop-gap first baseman, and to transition to DH after Ortiz’ tenure with the club ends (likely after 2010). The transition to DH once again frees up the first base spot for the Sox next off-season, an off-season where Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, and Albert Pujols could all be potential free agents (plus the Sox will have another year to develop and project the futures of 1B prospects Lars Anderson and Anthony Rizzo).
Projection: Boston signs Adam Dunn to play 1B in 2010, transitioning him to DH for 2012 and either a run at Adrian Gonzalez or promotion of Anderson/Rizzo.
The healthy return of Jacoby Ellsbury will help solidify the outfield picture and the top of the batting order. JD Drew will man right in the final year of his contract. His decline in OPS in 2010 was due in large part to a 25% drop off in walks. For someone who has had a keen eye throughout his career it seems odd that impatience at the plate would suddenly manifest itself. Expect at least a marginal return to his career levels in 2011. Expect the Sox to go hard after Carl Crawford to man left field. With Ellsbury filling the leadoff slot in the order, Boston can legitimately offer Crawford the #3 hole, something that he has expressed a desire to do at this point in his career. The fourth outfielder slot will be given to either Ryan Kalish or Josh Reddick, depending on whether one of them is moved in a package for Gonzalez or not.
Prediction: Sox sign Carl Crawford to play left with Ellsbury and Drew back for center and right, respectively.
Heading into 2010, the starting rotation was supposed to be a position that Boston would not have to worry about for several years. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholtz certainly delivered that standard, however Josh Beckett, Jon Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka were all let downs of various sorts. Beckett and Lackey will certainly be back and one can only assume that, given their career track records, they will have a measure of improvement. That leaves the question of what to do with Dice-K. There have been trade rumors and if the Sox want to move him there will be a market. The question is whether anyone else available would be an improvement as a #5 starter. The Sox will kick the tires on Cliff Lee, only to help drive up the price on the Yankees (although Texas may accomplish that for them). Beyond Lee, the starting pitching available on the free agent market is pretty thin (especially given Carl Pavano’s east coast struggles). My guess is that the Sox simply hold on to Dice-K and see if new pitching coach Curt Young can improve his consistency (and reduce the amount of antacid sold throughout New England).
Prediction: No change – Lester, Beckett, Lackey, Buchholz, Dice-K.
The bullpen fell apart entirely in 2010. Papelbon and Bard will both be back, I believe Epstein when he says he has no intentions of moving Papelbon. The value is simply not there after an off-season for the closer, plus beyond that pair there is no semblance of stability in the Sox’ ‘pen. Boston will not go after any of the Type-A relievers that get offered arbitration, relief pitching is simply too volatile to give up anything of that much value to acquire. I’m guessing, however, that Tampa will not offer arbitration to both Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour, either of whom would instantly become a very attractive middle relief option. Boston simply must address their LHP out of the bullpen. It’s pretty clear that quality left-handers are essential when playing in Yankee Stadium and the Sox simply don’t have any in their bullpen. Expect the Sox to be in on virtually every Type B free agent reliever – Kerry Wood, Jon Rauch, Brian Fuentes, Octavio Dotel, Jesse Crain, etc.
Prediction: Sox rebuild their middle-innings bullpen, adding at least two leftys (Randy Choate and Hisanori Takahashi) and one righty (Dotel, Rauch, Wood, or one of the Rays’ if not offered arbitration).