There weren’t any other conclusions to draw. The Red Sox roster just wasn’t that good.
It was too flawed, with a chance to get too old and too injured, with too little financial flexibility to pull itself out of a mess that is now one year in the making. Remember when the Red Sox were the best team in baseball for a 4½-month stretch last year? That seems like ancient history.
Monday marks the one-year anniversary of the Red Sox’ doubleheader sweep of the A’s, two wins that improved the team’s record to an AL-best 82-51. It seemed like the point of departure for a prospective juggernaut.
From that point forward, however, the Red Sox were 8-21 and, with a loss to the Royals on Saturday night, 60-67 this year -- good for a .436 overall winning percentage over the last 365 days. A team that missed the playoffs by a game a year ago is nowhere near contending this season. The truth was glaring.
"It hasn't worked. It's on all of us," Cherington said. "I think we recognize that we are not who we want to be right now. And it's been a large enough sample performance going back to last year that we felt like in order to be the team that we want to be on the field, we needed to make more than cosmetic changes, so as we look forward to this offseason, we felt like the opportunity to build that we need, that the fans deserve that we want, required more of a bold move to give us an opportunity to really reshape the roster, reshape the team.”
Thus, the impetus for the Red Sox to cut away three centerpiece players -- Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford -- along with utility man Nick Punto and to send them to the Dodgers for James Loney and a package of prospects headlined by right-handers Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa.
The Sox went from approximately $100 million in guaranteed salary for nine players next season to just $39 million for five guaranteed salaries next season. That figure doesn’t include the Sox’ dozen arbitration-eligible players (a group headlined by Jacoby Ellsbury that also includes Andrew Bailey, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and several others) or the pre-arbitration-eligible players (Will Middlebrooks, Felix Doubront, etc.). Nor does it include potential free agents like David Ortiz or Cody Ross.
Still, the overarching point is that the Red Sox have money to spend, even if they will be, as Cherington suggested numerous times, disciplined in how they spend money. What does that mean?
“Find value in the market. Find the best opportunities. You've got to find players that fit your roster and your team, find the players that are going to deliver the best performance on the field in Boston and try to find those using resources in the most efficient way,” Cherington said. “The good thing for us is we've got a lot of resources. We can do a lot of that. We're not limited in what we'll be able to explore. At the same time, we've got to be smart about it. We've got to build a team and not be focused on one transaction.”
In light of the fact that the Sox just stripped away a trio of players who were slated (at least for now) to have considerable roles with the team, what do the Red Sox now need to do with their newfound financial flexibility this winter?
One thing they’re almost certain not to do: Unleash the kind of huge-dollar, multi-year deal of which they just rid themselves. The top free agents on this year’s market (outfielder Josh Hamilton, right-hander Zack Greinke) are suspect fits for the market. Both represent precisely the type of long-term health risks (Hamilton because he is in his 30s and injured every year, Greinke because he is a pitcher, even if relatively young at 28) that make long-term contracts so perilous to begin with (see Crawford, Carl; Lackey, John; Beckett, Josh; Drew, J.D.).
Still, Cherington made very clear that the Sox are not scaling back their competitive ambitions. This year has been a failure. They want to contend in 2013.
"We've started to look at opportunities in the offseason. I think the key is we are absolutely committed to building the best team we can in 2013 and beyond, and we're going to do that in the most disciplined way possible," Cherington said. "When we've been at our best, we've made good decisions, disciplined decisions. Found value, whether it's in the free agent market or trade market. And that's our job to do that. We have a core of players here, still, very talented core of players here still, that will be a part of our next great team, and we'll do whatever we can to put together the best team for 2013."
The challenge will be considerable. The Sox will have a number of areas of need, creating a mandate to reload the roster. The opportunity to do so is considerable, given the team’s struggles in so many areas. Foremost among those, in the broader span, the team needs to improve its rotation and its OBP. That could demand changes at a number of positions.
Here’s a look at the position-by-position breakdown of the team.
David Ortiz is now 36, and he'll be coming off a season in which he a) showed that he can be as productive in the batter's box as any hitter in baseball and b) showed that he can suffer through a significant injury that severely limited his ability to remain on the field. Still, with Gonzalez gone, it's almost unfathomable that the Sox won't figure out a way to keep Ortiz, given both the long-stated, mutual desire of the player and club to continue the famous relationship, and the fact that Ortiz's market will be dampened considerably by his inability to play in the second half.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a great success story in the first three months of the season and now has 21 homers, second most among big league catchers entering Saturday. But he’s seen his production drop precipitously over the last two months, just as an excellent stretch for much of 2011 came undone with a terrible September.
Simply put, while his power is tantalizing, it’s difficult to commit the vast majority of playing time -- even at catcher -- to a player whose on-base percentage (.285 entering Saturday) ranks 198th in the majors out of 212 players with at least 300 plate appearances.
That being the case, the team is likely to pair Saltalamacchia with Ryan Lavarnway next year. Lavarnway, even in a year when his power numbers took a hit in Triple-A, continued to show terrific on-base skills, and so 2013 appears likely to represent a transition from Saltalamacchia (a free agent after next year) to Lavarnway as the team’s primary catcher.
Suddenly, a position that appeared stable for years to come has no identifiable starter of the future. Gonzalez is gone. Anthony Rizzo, a worthy successor, was traded to the Padres in 2010 in the deal that brought Gonzalez to Boston. Lars Anderson, once the team’s top prospect, was dashed off to the Indians this summer for a knuckleballer.
The most advanced Red Sox prospect with a chance to be an everyday first baseman is Travis Shaw, who is roughly a month into his Double-A career. Most likely, he’s a couple of years away from being a consideration -- if he ever plays his way into a job as a big league regular.
Yet the offseason free agent options at the position are thin -- part of the reason why the Dodgers were intrigued by the addition of Gonzalez. Remember when Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder were free agents last winter? This year, there’s Adam LaRoche (.261/.335/.483/.818 with 23 homers) -- easily the best offense/defense option -- and not a lot beyond that.
The team’s options are likely along the lines of:
Sign LaRoche or make a run at the injury-prone Lance Berkman;
If Bobby Valentine is fired, might Kevin Youkilis be a consideration to return to Boston and play first every day?
Seek a trade for a surplus first baseman (Bryan LaHair of the Cubs?);
Gun for Justin Morneau, who has been hitting well over the last two months after starting slowly;
Hope to hit on a buy-low candidate with offensive inconsistency but solid defensive skills such as Carlos Pena or Casey Kotchman;
Take a flier on an unproven Four-A guy like Mauro Gomez, perhaps finagling a platoon -- though it should be noted that Gomez’s limitation is that he is an aggressive hitter whose minor league career has shown that he has an ability to hit for average and power but has not demonstrated patience;
Speaking of fliers … Victor Martinez is expected to be back for the 2013 season after missing all of 2012 with a blown-out ACL. He’s somewhat redundant on a Tigers team that has Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. However, Martinez had become primarily a DH with Detroit, playing just six games at first in 2011
All set, it would seem. Dustin Pedroia now is in the fourth season of his five-year deal that includes an option for a sixth season in 2014.
Will Middlebrooks is expected to be fully healthy after suffering a hairline fracture in his wrist in early August that likely ended his season. As long as he’s healthy, the position is his.
There appear to be three viable if imperfect internal options at the position.
Mike Aviles has delivered better-than-expected defense all season, measuring by virtually all advanced metrics as a well above-average shortstop this year -- a somewhat remarkable development given that it had been years since he’d played the position. He’s also shown power for the position, as his 13 homers are the most by a Sox shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra launched 28 in 2003.
However, he’s been somewhat like Saltalamacchia, in that his above-average power at the position also comes with deficient on-base skills. He’s hitting .254 with a .285 OBP, .401 slugging mark and .686 OPS.
Pedro Ciriaco, meanwhile, is an even more aggressive hitter. He has just three walks in 136 plate appearances this year. Still, his combination of a short-line-drive stroke that allows him to spray the ball from line to line and tremendous speed to beat out ground balls has resulted in a high average and, hence, a high OBP. He’s hitting an improbable .351 with a .366 OBP, .473 slugging mark and .839 OPS.
Still, the average is unsustainable, and so, too, is the OBP. It seems likely that he can have a higher OBP than Aviles -- perhaps something in the low-.300s -- which would put him a bit more in line with a league average shortstop (the AL average shortstop has a .308 OBP this year). And he does show solid defensive skills as well.
And then there is Jose Iglesias. He may well be the most interesting Sox player to evaluate in the month of September to see how his offense stacks up at the big league level. He smashed into a 1-6-3 double play on Saturday in his first plate appearance of the season on Saturday night.
Iglesias was amidst the best offensive stretch of his career at the time of his call-up. In 19 Triple-A games in August, he hit .329 with a .402 OBP, .397 slugging mark and .800 OPS. For the year, his numbers are more modest (.266/.318/.306/.624), but that still represents a step forward for the 22-year-old from his 2011 season, in which he hit .235/.285/.269/.554. If he can get on base with roughly the same or greater frequency than Aviles, the run-prevention impact of his glove would make him the more impactful player.
There’s a very good chance the Sox will seek their 2013 solution at shortstop from these internal options. Even though the team has financial flexibility, the shortstop market is a poor one. Stephen Drew -- hitting .197/.297/.309/.606 this year -- might represent the top of the line as a free agent, assuming that he can be closer to his career line of .266/.329/.435/.764 than to his current marks.
There’s one shoot-the-moon strategy. If the Rangers deem top prospect Jurickson Profar big league ready, then it’s possible they could explore the trade value of shortstop Elvis Andrus.
Andrus not only has outstanding defensive skills, but he’s also an excellent on-base guy. The 23-year-old has a .364 OBP as part of a .297/.364/.389/.753 line this year.
One major league source suggests that the Rangers do not feel compelled to move him -- he’s under contract through 2014, when he’ll become a highly sought-after free agent at age 26, and while the team features a pair of compelling middle infield options in Ian Kinsler and Profar, Kinsler’s contract is front-loaded so that it will continue to offer good value even if he moves to another position later in the contract.
Of course, Andrus would also come at considerable cost if the Rangers do decide to move him. The prospect cost, rather than the money for Andrus, would be the hangup to a potential deal.
For now, it seems like the most likely scenario is to stay with an internal option at this position. That, in turn, means that the Sox will need to have strong on-base numbers throughout the rest of their lineup to compensate for some deficiency in that area at shortstop.
Both corners are wide open with Crawford now gone and free agency looming for Cody Ross as well as Scott Podsednik.
Ross, hitting .276/.339/.520/.859 with 19 homers in 96 games, could be re-signed, with former Marlins teammate Josh Willingham representing a good comp. Willingham received a three-year, $21 million deal after his age 32 season in Oakland, where he hit .246/.332/.477/.810 with 29 homers in 136 games. Ross has struggled at times in both outfield corners at Fenway, and he’s less-than-ideal for the considerable expanse of right field, but the right-handed masher is a good fit for both the Sox lineup and the clubhouse.
The team could also turn over a corner to Ryan Kalish, although given his health struggles of the past two years (which have in turn limited his production), the strategy would represent a considerable leap of faith.
Hamilton represents the option on the market, though indications are that the Sox are disinclined -- now that they are out from under the weight of several onerous long-term contracts -- to rush into the very type of deal that got them into a position of financial inflexibility in the first place.
Other prospective free agent corner outfielders include Nick Swisher (whose .273/.358/.486/.844 line has him positioned to do very well for himself in free agency) and Torii Hunter (hitting .294/.346/.428/.774 as the Angels right fielder).
Of course, the most intriguing option who might be available is Justin Upton, who will earn $37.5 million over the remaining three years of his six-year, $50 million deal. The Diamondbacks have been frustrated at times by Upton’s inconsistency -- after a season that landed him in the top five in MVP balloting in 2011 while swatting 31 homers with an .898 OPS, he’s hitting .275/.357/.405/.762 with 10 homers this year. But he just turned 25 on Saturday, he’s had OBPs of .353 or better in every season since 2008 and he’s under team control for a reasonable -- yet desirable -- stretch of his career.
Those factors would mean that he would come at considerable cost in a trade with Arizona, but the Sox and D-backs did explore the idea of a deal that would have sent Upton to the Sox and Jacoby Ellsbury to the desert after the 2010 season. Still, that was at a time when both players were under team control for several years -- as opposed to now, when Ellsbury is a year away from free agency, and amidst his own disappointing season.
Indeed, it is possible that, in an offseason that features Michael Bourn (an impact defender and baserunner with a .349 OBP since 2009) and B.J. Upton (a disappointing hitter but superb defender), the Sox could sign one of them and either push one of them to a corner for a year or trade Ellsbury and let one of them play center.
That assumes, of course, that the team cannot find common ground with Ellsbury on a long-term deal -- something that seems unlikely given his inconsistent performances of the last few years. Right now, the Sox would want to treat his 2011 season as a dramatic outlier, while Ellsbury (and his rep, Scott Boras) would want to be paid based on the fact that his performance ceiling now has been demonstrated to be elite.
More likely, the Sox retain Ellsbury for his last year of pre-free agent control and hope that he rebounds while filling in the outfield spots around him, perhaps with Ross and another creative addition from outside the organization -- whether Justin Upton or someone else.
It seems certain, however, that this will be a fascinating area of the team’s offseason -- perhaps its most intriguing.
Beckett is gone and Daisuke Matsuzaka will be off the books, and so a team that had over $50 million tied into its underachieving rotation this year now has some money with which to play.
Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz represent the obvious building blocks. Both are young and inexpensive, and both -- even in inconsistent seasons -- have shown top-of-the-rotation stuff.
John Lackey will be returning, and there is a considerable likelihood that he will in fact be in the Sox rotation next year as he makes his way back from Tommy John surgery; the Sox will hope that he can be a durable pitcher who can resemble the one who was effective for years with the Angels, rather than the pitcher whose non-existent ulnar collateral ligament killed his command and movement over his first two years in Boston. If that happens, then he could represent an upgrade over Beckett’s spot in the rotation.
Felix Doubront (10-6, 4.70, 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings) and Franklin Morales (3-4, 3.77, 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings) have both shown swing-and-miss stuff; one of them likely will return to the rotation next year, with the Sox hoping that another year of development for either as a starter will lead to steps forward.
The team doesn’t have major league-ready additions in the minors; Matt Barnes (currently in High-A Salem) and the newly acquired Allen Webster (who will join Double-A Portland) represent the two top options in the system, and both will be in the minors next year. But, with Doubront and Morales, the team has credible alternatives to avoid being held hostage in negotiations. Still, the Sox recognize that they are desperately in need of an upgrade in their rotation, and there are some promising -- if imperfect – options on the free agent market.
The shortcut solution of signing Zack Greinke, unquestionably the most talented starter on the market, is considered untenable by multiple sources, given the skepticism about whether Boston would represent a good fit for a pitcher with social anxiety disorder.
There are several other solid free agent options. Edwin Jackson was there for the taking on a one-year, $11 million deal last offseason and has demonstrated the ability to compete in the AL East; he’ll be looking for a longer-term deal this go-round, but undoubtedly, the Sox will check in.
Shaun Marcum, who missed a couple of months due to injury, just returned to the mound on Saturday; his track record of success both with Milwaukee and the Blue Jays, along with the fact that his injury history might limit the number of years he gets, could make him an intriguing target.
The Marlins could look to deal Josh Johnson, though he’s struggled to a 4.06 ERA overall and a 5.22 mark on the road, grounds for skepticism about him, particularly given that the Marlins might seek an overwhelming prospect haul.
Free agent-to-be Brandon McCarthy is young and, when healthy, very effective, even if somewhat less so while pitching on the road (3.66 ERA) than in Oakland (2.55). Like Marcum, the 29-year-old’s spotty health history might either suppress the number of years he gets on the open market or lend itself to a one-year deal in which he tries to better position himself for free agency.
Dan Haren, after several elite seasons, has struggled to a 4.82 ERA this year, creating questions about whether the Angels will exercise his $15.5 million option for next year. If that happens, given that he’s still posting good strikeout (7.2 per nine innings) and walk (2.2 per nine innings) rates, if the Sox see stuff in line (or close to) his impressive career norms, he would represent a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation potential. Still, his age (he turns 32 next month) suggests that his peak years of durability and effectiveness are most likely behind him.
Hiroki Kuroda -- a pitcher whom the Sox would have loved to sign last offseason but lacked the financial flexibility to pursue -- will be a free agent once again, though it’s difficult to imagine the Yankees letting him get away.
The Sox seem likely to use their newfound flexibility to wait out the market and look for value among starters. The last couple of years have proven promising ones for buying late, but the team was unable to do anything about that fact given its multi-year commitments to five starters.
This year will be different, and the Sox are hopeful that their newfound financial freedom will put them in a position to achieve upgrade on an area that has been an Achilles' heel all year long.
The Red Sox have enough pieces under team control that the bullpen will be the least of their concerns this offseason. Their biggest bullpen moves -- at considerable cost -- occurred last offseason with the acquisitions of Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon. The acquisition of Craig Breslow and emergence of Andrew Miller as a dominant left-hander out of the bullpen (a couple recent hiccups, likely related to fatigue, notwithstanding) puts the team in a good (or at least good enough) place on this front.