Three seasons in a row.
Yes, that’s right. The Red Sox have missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. It seems nearly impossible, doesn’t it? It was just a few years ago that the Red Sox were considered baseball’s model franchise. They established an organizational philosophy that was followed from top-to-bottom; built a deep farm system; put together an intelligent, diverse, and highly respected front office staff; and fielded a very competitive team despite having a payroll that was only 60% of their biggest competitors. That’s all changed now.
Somewhere along the way–the winter of 2009/2010, as best as I can pin point it–the Red Sox decided to abandon the successful strategy that had served them so well over the previous seven seasons. Instead, they replaced it with a New York Yankee style method of building a team. Certainly, I don’t mean any disrespect to the Yankee franchise as this is a strategy that has brought them much success over the past dozen years or so. Still, it was a stark contrast the usual way of business on Yawkey Way, and definitely one that did not work for Theo and company. In all fairness though, the Red Sox had few other options. After several years of successful promotions combined with less than fruitful drafts, the farm system was running pretty thin. Furthermore, the cost of trading for young major league talent, particularly on the pitching end, was completely unreasonable. As a result, they had to look to free agency to supplement their roster needs, while saving their brightest young talent for the ideal trade situation.
Now, after three seasons that could best be described as trying, disappointing, and/or frustrating, the Red Sox front office has begun the rebuilding process. It started out with the mega-trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford (and their mega-contracts) to the Dodgers in exchange for prospects and the objectionable (and soon-to-be-gone) James Loney. As great of a start as it is to clear $270M off of your ledger of financial obligations, there is still so much left to do. Let’s take a look a few of the key areas they need to shore up this offseason.
The Managerial Situation
While I was originally against the hiring of Bobby Valentine, and was certainly one of his most ardent naysayers in the early going, I grew to respect the fiery and truculent manager for the man he was. He wasn’t as bad as many made him out to be, but he also wasn’t an ideal solution either. He created a lot of his own problems due to his inability to keep his mouth shut, and made his share of unbelievably baffling decisions. Still, he shouldn’t be held entirely accountable for the situation in which the Red Sox are in. Under performing players and a plethora of major injuries are easily the top two reasons. And to be fair, the roller coaster managerial search that occurred last October and November certainly set him up for failure. Regardless, he still needs to go.
Based on a recent report, it seems that Ben Cherington feels the same way. Here’s what he said on WEEI (through Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe):
“I’d always rather get the decision right than rush it. But what we know we need to do is hit the ground running this offseason. One of the things that, as I look back on last offseason, that didn’t go perfectly was simply the amount of time that we spent on the manager search and what that did to the rest of the offseason and I would like to spend less time on it this offseason, that’s for sure.”
Granted, Cherington backtracked later in the day, but really the damage has been done. If Valentine isn’t fired, it’ll be a massive shock to everyone.
In a short Twitter conversation I had with Nick Cafardo on Thursday (yes, seriously), he offered up a few suggestions as to whom the Red Sox could hire this fall. Obviously, John Farrell was the name he mentioned as the top choice. Still, that seems more like a pipe dream at this point. Farrell is under contract through 2013, and they’re on record as saying that people under contract will not be allowed to consider jobs outside the organization. Without some sort of compensation in return, Farrell is staying in Toronto.
The two other names he mentioned were old Red Sox favorites: Brad Mills and Demarlo Hale. Both make a lot of sense, but Mills seems like he’d have the upper hand. He has experience managing at the major league level, while Hale does not. Additionally unlike Hale, Mills isn’t tainted with the stench of the September 2011 collapse. That would likely account for a bonus point or two.
Outside of that, it’s tough to think of many candidates the Red Sox might bring in that they didn’t interview last season. The Rays bench coach, Dave Martinez, is the one that most easily comes to mind. Other than that, Torey Lovullo (Toronto) and Mike Maddux (Texas) seem like interesting options to re-enter the fold.
With only $45.5M on the books in guaranteed contracts, plus an additional $30-40M in arbitration, it would be easy for an undisciplined GM to enter free agency with the an eye toward spending money like a drunken sailor in a whorehouse. Luckily, our GM isn’t Ned Colletti or Ruben Amaro. No, no. We have Mr. Joe Cool. We have Ben Cherington.
Starting out free agency, the Red Sox have two major decisions to make on Cody Ross and David Ortiz. Ross is reported to be looking for a deal in the range of three years and $20M. After putting up a .270/.333/.488 line, it certainly seems reasonable. Still, he’s a hitter who as historically struggled to hit right handed pitching, is a below average to average defensively in the outfield, and would be under contract for his age 32 to 34 seasons. While there are quite a few negatives there, it seems like a pretty smart signing considering the price. Sure, a two year deal with a third year option would be far more ideal, but signing him means the Red Sox have a bridge between now and the future.
David Ortiz is a bit more complicated. He’s been with the club since 2003, and is something of an institution in Boston. Losing him now, after the tremendous season he produced, would be a public relations disaster the club really can’t afford to experience right now. Understandably, the Red Sox are reluctant to go beyond year-to-year given his age and skill set. Still, his recent track record is strong enough that he is justified in looking for a multi-year deal. He’s going to get it from someone (the Orioles perhaps?), so the Red Sox will need to strike quickly if they hope to retain their eight-time All-Star and playoff hero.
What lurks beyond Ross and Ortiz? Not as much as initially hoped, but still some top talent. Josh Hamilton, Zack Grienke, Michael Bourn, Hiroki Kuroda, Nick Swisher, and Mike Napoli top the list. Hamilton is easily the biggest name on the list, but his extensive history with drugs, alcohol, and injuries make him a major risk. Given his age and contract demands, he’s going to be far too rich for the Red Sox blood. Greinke reeks of the type of pitcher who perennially underperforms his peripherals, and likely won’t be worth the contract he receives. Bourn is a nice player, but redundant to both incumbent center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and up-and-coming grade-A prospect Jackie Bradley. Kuroda is interesting, and would slot nicely in at the three spot in the rotation. His desire for a one-year deal would bring additional value in terms of payroll flexibility. Swisher is the classic new-era Red Sox player, so they could make a play for him. He’s somewhat of an extroverted J.D. Drew minus the plus-defense. It’ll all come down to his contract demands. Lastly, Napoli seems a bit redundant, but he could certainly fill the hole at first base. He could be an interesting option.
The Red Sox have their biggest needs at first base, the corner outfield spots, and middle-of-the-rotation starting pitching. They really need to stay away from the elite, big-ticket guys, and go after better values among the mid-range players. Going after top tier players is what got them into the mess they’re working to get out from under.
The Trade Market
Clearly, I’m talking about Felix Hernandez. He is our destiny after all. It’s inevitable really. In all seriousness, it’s very unlikely we’ll trade for him. We’re finally getting our farm system back up to speed, and it doesn’t make sense for us to trade away our top prospects for a top tier pitcher when we may not be serious playoff contenders next year. The cost would likely start with two of following three players: Bradley, Matt Barnes, and Xander Bogearts. I don’t see Cherington making that deal. And most importantly, the Mariners aren’t interested in moving him. Ergo, he’s going nowhere.
Other than that, the usual suspects will come into play. Matt Garza will be dangled by the Cubs this winter for sure. Pitchers like Edinson Volquez, James Shields, and possibly Jake Peavy and Dan Haren will be as well. The Red Sox will likely kick the tires on each of them at the very least. If the price is just right, the Red Sox will pounce.
The Red Sox need to have a very strong and very decisive offseason. They can neither afford to be overly deliberate, nor as overtly conservative as they felt they had to be last winter either. With a ton of payroll flexibility, the Red Sox have the option to extend themselves a little bit further than they would normally, provided it’s for the right player.
The goal for the Red Sox needs to be on improving the team with an eye toward the playoffs–not outwardly making the playoffs. They stand at 69-87 with six to play. They have a very real shot at 90 losses, which is something they haven’t experienced since the 1966 season. They need to rebuild with the right players, and bring in the right manager. That may take a year or two. Considering the intense pressure of the Boston market, Cherington and company can’t afford to mess this up.