Now, the Red Sox face the unfamiliar terrain of what may prove an offseason that resembles few in recent memory.
With the team’s managerial search concluded and John Farrell now in place, the business of reconstructing the Red Sox roster from its season-ending state of rubble can commence in earnest. Its scope and guiding principles will represent a departure for the franchise.
For years, the Sox defined their goals narrowly at the conclusion of any baseball season. From 1998-2011, the team enjoyed 14 straight winning seasons, advancing to the postseason in eight of those. Every offseason started with the premise that the team featured a strong core that required no more than a few moves to sustain the playoffs as a reasonable ambition, almost a rite of passage.
Reality humbled the Sox. The team went 69-93, finishing last in the AL East in 2012.
Not one starter had an ERA that was league average or better. The team lacks an identified fifth starter, first baseman, shortstop, left fielder, right fielder and DH (though the latter element, at least, likely will be addressed with the re-signing of David Ortiz). Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who is entering his final season before becoming eligible for free agency, is coming off a 2012 in which he never resembled the MVP-caliber force of 2011.
The result? There is no bravado about the likelihood of building a playoff team. The goals have been recalibrated, or at least, a shift of tone is underway.
The team isn’t making any bold decrees that it will reach the playoffs or, for that matter, that it will even contend in 2013. There’s too much uncertainty. The team acknowledges as much.
"I think people are tired of hearing about how good we're going to be before the season starts," GM Ben Cherington said at the end of the regular season when asked about whether he expects to contend in 2013. "We've talked a lot about that the past several offseasons and it hasn't worked out that way. I'm confident we're going to be better. I'm confident that, in time, we're going to be very good.
“I don't know yet whether that's going to be April 2013 or beyond or when, but I know we'll be back. This team will be back. There are too many good people here, too much strength and support at the ownership level. I'm confident this team will be back. How long it takes, I don't know, but we'll be better next year than we were this year.”
CEO/president Larry Lucchino likewise declined to offer a definitive answer as to whether the team will or won’t be in position to make a postseason run realistic in 2013. He suggested that only with the benefit of a full offseason can the team start talking about what it might accomplish next year.
“Things have broken and we’re going to fix them. It’s nearly impossible to put a precise timetable on that. There’s too many factors and too many variables and too many uncertainties,” he said earlier in the offseason. “We know that the team needs to be better next year, pointed in the right direction, doing the right things. We think it will. That’s as far as I will go to kind of hazard a timeline. This is not some 10-year rebuilding process, as Fenway Park was, but we can answer that question better after a winter of reconstruction.”
That’s not to be confused with a proclamation that the team won’t contend next season. Four teams that finished 2011 with sub-.500 records reached the postseason in 2012. That group included an Orioles club that finished last year with a 69-93 record, a prelude to becoming the fifth team in the last six seasons to go from a 90-loss season to the playoffs. Hence, the idea of a dramatic rebound can’t be ruled out.
Certainly, Farrell was inclined to observe the silver linings on Tuesday. The new Sox manager alluded on many occasions to the strength of his new team’s core going forward.
Assuming that Ortiz is re-signed, a lineup with Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks offers a potentially outstanding foundation. The bullpen is loaded with tremendous arms. And if Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and John Lackey . . .
“I think a couple of things will need to happen [to contend in 2013],” said Farrell. “Certain players return to the form and the performance that they’ve established for themselves -- and not just one-year situations, guys who have established a career path and a career record of being above average -- and get the guys back who were taken out because of injury, to get them back fully healthy and then whatever additions are brought forward into this group. I think this has got an opportunity to be a fairly quick turnaround and get to the point of contending next year.”
Still, it seems fair to say that a lot of elements have to fall into place in order for the Sox to reach that point. In that sense, the fact that Farrell said only that “this has got an opportunity to be a fairly quick turnaround” underscores the fact that no one with the Sox is taking such a turnaround as a given. It’s couched in possibility.
So what? With the Red Sox neither ruling out nor banking on a postseason run, what are the implications for the offseason?
There are a few:
-- First, the team likely will treat trade opportunities in much the same way during the offseason that it did leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. That means that, in all likelihood, the team won’t consider moving key prospects unless it’s for players who are under control for multiple years.
The Sox can’t focus on the coming year to the detriment of future seasons when the blueprint for what Cherington refers to as “the next great Red Sox team” is more developed. And so, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to burn top prospects on, say, starting pitchers like Matt Garza or Josh Johnson or an outfielder like Shin-Soo Choo of the Indians, all of whom will be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season.
After all, those players represent valuable assets worth a considerable prospect cost if they’re the difference between an 85-win season and the playoffs, but their value is limited to (at most) a draft pick if they represent the difference between a 79- and 82-win team.
-- Similarly, the fact that the realistic goals for next year’s team are in question likely will increase the receptivity of the Sox to the idea of trading players who are under team control only through 2013.
If the Sox had the look of a team knocking on the door of the playoffs, then a player like Ellsbury -- an arbitration-eligible player who was affordable on a one-year deal with immense talent and all the incentive in the world to have a huge year before hitting free agency -- would represent an unquestioned and critical asset. But, if the Sox are uncertain about their ability to contend next year, they have little choice but to listen if teams are willing to give them valuable players who could impact them beyond next season.
(In Ellsbury’s case, however, it’s possible that his trade value will be at its greatest if he can demonstrate a return to elite performance levels during the 2013 season. Even though a team must have him on its roster for a full season in order to be in position to gain a draft pick should he leave in free agency after 2013, his value this offseason remains nonetheless dampened concerns about injuries and performance inconsistencies. A huge first half would restore his luster in the trade market.)
Other players who are in their final year under team control are catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and left-hander Craig Breslow. While the likeliest scenario is that both will remain with the Sox, it’s worth asking: Might the Sox explore dealing Saltalamacchia and signing a multi-year deal with a player like catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli, who matches Saltalamacchia’s considerable power but has posted better on-base percentages throughout his career?
None of that is to say that any of those players will get traded. However, where in past years the Sox have been happy to keep players like Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Bay, Johnny Damon and others in their last seasons of arbitration eligibility, different weight is now given to the factors involved in the keep-him-or-trade-him calculus.
-- Free agency might be impacted the least by the Sox’ altered world view. After all, one-year, buy-low contracts can pay off handsomely regardless of a team’s standing. If the team can convince someone like Napoli to sign for a year to re-establish his market value, there’s a chance of a meaningful payoff (a good player who can help the team try to move forward, potentially a draft pick if he departs via free agency after a full year, or a shot at a trade return mid-year if the team truly falls out of contention).
So, the same principles will be in play this year as in others when it comes to the open market. Short-term contracts are good. Long-term deals are bad. There is no prospect cost, save for a second-round draft pick should the Sox sign a free-agent who received a one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer from his old team.
That pick, in turn, merits a footnote. For the first time since 1993, the Red Sox will have a protected draft pick, meaning a first-round pick so high in the draft (No. 7 overall) that they won’t have to forfeit it if they sign a free agent who gets a qualifying offer. Instead, they would part with a second-round selection, a far less significant cost.
The net effect of the Sox’ position is that between now and spring training, the Red Sox front office might be guided by an approach that looks different from previous offseasons. While Farrell represented the answer to one area of uncertainty with the club, others will prevail over the course of what promises to be a fascinating winter exercise in reshaping the roster.
Note: Red Sox Hot Stove, a weekly one-hour radio show exploring the team's offseason, will debut on Thursday, Oct. 25, from 7:00-8:00 p.m. on Sports Radio WEEI 93.7 and WEEI.com. The show will be hosted by WEEI's Kirk Minihane along with WEEI.com Red Sox beat writers Rob Bradford and Alex Speier. Red Sox manager John Farrell and Texas GM Jon Daniels will join as guests on the first show.