Depth proved a hallmark of the Red Sox' 2013 run to a championship. When the team encountered injuries or performance struggles, there were in-house alternatives that allowed the team to sustain success in both the pitching staff and the lineup, avoiding the kind of potholes that can derail a season. The team's ability to limit its losing streaks to three or fewer games served as a testament to a roster that ran more than 25 deep.
That being the case, as much as the focus of the offseason to date has been on what the Sox might do from a starting standpoint at the positions where they have four key free agents (catcher with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, first base with Mike Napoli, shortstop with Stephen Drew and center field with Jacoby Ellsbury), little attention has been given to how the Sox might go about sustaining the more significant depth that permitted the team to excel in 2014. The matter is particularly complicated since, while the Sox have in-house alternatives at three of the four positions where they have free agents, the depth behind those alternatives in their farm system is notably lacking.
Here's a position-by-position look at the Sox' depth and needs at this still-early stage of the offseason to get a better understanding of their needs going forward:
Starters (6): Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront, Ryan Dempster
Depth options (6): Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Drake Britton, Steven Wright, Anthony Ranaudo
Key prospects: Matt Barnes (2015), Henry Owens (2015)
As Ben Cherington has noted, this is an area of organizational strength. The team's ability to deal a veteran starter is fueled not only by the fact that it has six pitchers who are experienced big league starters but also by the presence of a fairly impressive group of depth starters behind them. If the team dealt, for instance, Dempster or Peavy, then it would still have not only five veterans with track records of success but also a half-dozen options behind them -- albeit comprised of a group that includes some pitchers who will be stretched out as starters but who could be candidates for the bullpen (Britton, perhaps De La Rosa).
Big league relievers (6): Koji Uehara, Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, Burke Badenhop, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales
Injured (1): Andrew Bailey
Depth options (6): Workman, De La Rosa, Britton, Alex Wilson, Brayan Villarreal, Chris Martin
The bullpen is always an area where it's important to maximize the number of available options, and so it would come as little surprise if the Sox remain in the market for late-innings options even after the addition of Badenhop. The team has used at least 19 relievers in each of the last five seasons. Since 2000, the Sox haven't used any fewer than 15 relievers in a season.
As valuable as Workman might be as a rotation depth option, it may prove difficult for the Sox to resist the temptation of returning him to the bullpen given that he'd slot immediately into the late innings. He was, after all, the team's eighth inning option in Game 6 of the World Series. By and large, most of the team's bullpen depth as it currently shapes up will draw from a group of pitchers who can also start, as Workman, De La Rosa and Britton all represent pitchers with power arsenals.
Wilson had carved out a niche as a seventh-inning option through June before injuries wiped out his second half.
Though not on the 40-man roster, Martin is something of a sleeper after a very impressive 2013 season that featured 21 scoreless innings in Double-A Portland, 11 scoreless innings at the end of the year in Pawtucket and eight scoreless innings as a closer in the Dominican Winter League before returning home. He had a cumulative 2.03 ERA with 82 strikeouts and 16 walks in 80 innings between the three stops.
Bailey is expected to be unable to pitch for the first half of the season, and his ability to return to effectiveness following a significant shoulder surgery is of sufficient question that he represents a non-tender candidate at a time when the Red Sox' 40-man roster is fully occupied.
Backup (1): David Ross (signed through 2014)
Major league-ready depth (2): Ryan Lavarnway, Dan Butler
Prospects: Christian Vazquez (2015), Blake Swihart (2016)
The Sox seem intent on having place-holders for Vazquez and/or Swihart as opposed to anyone who would impede their path to the majors, hence the reluctance to go beyond two years in contract offers for either Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Carlos Ruiz. While Lavarnway represents an option in theory, he has yet to command the trust of either the pitching staff or the coaching staff behind the plate, and given that the considerable power potential he showed in 2011 (32 homers in the minors, two in the big leagues) has vanished in the last two years, it seems unlikely that the Sox turn to him as their fronliner to work with Ross. Indeed, some evaluators believe Butler represents the better big league option right now after a year in which he had an impressive offensive and defensive showing as Pawtucket's everyday catcher while Lavarnway was in the big leagues.
Moreover, the Sox are leery of entrusting too much, too quickly to prospects. Given the performance uncertainty (based on limited track records) that will accompany Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts and/or Will Middlebrooks (at least two of whom could find their way into the Opening Day lineup, with the possibility that all three will be there), it's difficult to imagine that the Sox would entrust primary catching responsibilities to either Lavarnway or Butler, both of whom represent unknowns, both of whom -- as right-handed hitters -- represent imperfect complements to Ross.
So, while the Sox' long-term depth at this premium position is considerable, the likeliest scenario remains the acquisition through free agency or trade of someone else.
Options: Daniel Nava, Mike Carp, Will Middlebrooks
Prospects: Garin Cecchini (Late-2014 or 2015), Travis Shaw (2015?)
Given how much the Red Sox benefited from the production and depth created by having Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava and Mike Carp on the roster last year, it's certainly conceivable that the team could seek to re-sign Napoli and keep the other two players around as potential insurance options. If Napoli leaves, then the team could entrust first base to Nava and/or Carp (something that would either lead the team to be thinner at first base/left field than it was in 2013 or that would require the signing of a Carlos-Beltran type to play left). Given that both Nava and Carp hit significantly better against righties than lefties, such a move might open the door for the Sox -- if, for instance, they re-signed Stephen Drew -- to have Middlebrooks get some playing time at first base against lefties.
Still, this is a position with an uncertain long-term prognosis. The Sox could consider moving Cecchini -- who may well open the year in Triple-A Pawtucket -- to first base at some point, with a potential homegrown infield of Middlebrooks at third, Bogaerts at short, Dustin Pedroia at second and Cecchini at first.
But given some of the uncertainty surrounding that group of young players around Pedroia, and the compromise that would entail of power at a position that typically features middle-of-the-order characteristics (Cecchini is an on-base machine but has a swing geared for line drives that has translated into few homers thus far in his career), one wouldn't expect that the Sox would block the position if they had the right first baseman for two years, perhaps even more.
The same, to some degree, goes for Shaw, who endured a considerable struggle in Double-A Portland in 2013 when he abandoned his career-long approach of staying back and driving the ball to left-center. He rediscovered that hallmark approach while working out with his father, former All-Star closer Jeff Shaw, for a month after the Portland season as a prelude to a monster performance in the Arizona Fall League (when he hit .361/.452/.705 with five homers and six doubles in 17 games). Shaw has more power than Cecchini, though his potential is wrapped up more in the ability to get on base and hit doubles. Some evaluators believe that Shaw has at least a chance to emerge as a big league everyday first baseman, but his struggles in 2013 suggest that he wouldn't stop the Sox from making a deal for someone else.
Starter: Dustin Pedroia
Depth: Brock Holt, Alex Castellanos
Prospects: Mookie Betts (late-2015 or 2016)
Having Dustin Pedroia play 160 games with a torn thumb ligament was not merely a luxury but a virtual necessity for the Red Sox. The dropoff behind him would have been precipitous.
That will seemingly remain the case in 2014, though the time when the Sox will have a compelling in-house fall-back could be getting a bit nearer with the rise of Mookie Betts in the farm system. Betts' breakout 2013 performance in Single-A Greenville, High-A Salem and the Arizona Fall League was sufficiently compelling that he's likely to open 2015 in Double-A Portland. Still, while he's moving onto a developmental fast track, it would be unrealistic to view him as a second base depth option in the big leagues prior to sometime in 2015.
For now, Holt represents the likely second baseman of first resort, but the fact that the Sox opted to deal for John McDonald last August suggests that they see avenues for a better roster fit. GM Ben Cherington suggested that the team is looking, at the least, to add to its depth on the left side of the infield if they don't add someone who is a starter; if it's a depth option behind Bogaerts and Middlebrooks, then the team could likely use a utility option who is capable of playing third, second and short and who represents an upgrade over Holt.
Options: Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts
Depth: Brandon Snyder, Brock Holt, Alex Castellanos
Prospects: Garin Cecchini (Late-2014 or 2015)
Cherington said that he expects a boost in production at third base in 2014, something that's not hard to forecast given the team's poor offensive output at that position in 2013 and the likelihood of either some kind of rebound by Middlebrooks or the anticipated impact of Bogaerts (if he ends up at third rather than at short -- something that likely would require the return of Drew).
However, it's worth noting that one critical area of strength for the 2013 Red Sox was in the team's depth on the left side of the infield. By signing Drew last year, the team had Drew, Middlebrooks and Jose Iglesias as everyday big league options; that depth proved pivotal at times early in the season when Drew and Middlebrooks were injured and then when Middlebrooks struggled. Snyder, Holt and Castellanos don't represent true everyday fallback options at third and/or short. If the Sox entrust the left side of the infield to Bogaerts and Middlebrooks, then they'd face considerable vulnerability to injury in the absence of, at the least, a quality backup for those two positions.
Options: Xander Bogaerts
Prospects: Deven Marrero (2015)
Clearly, this is a position where the Sox are vulnerable, something that helps to explain why there remains a very good fit for Drew for at least a couple of years on the right terms. Team officials still have a very high opinion of Marrero, who has the upside of a player who could offer similar production in terms of average, OBP and quality of defense (but less power) to what Drew offered in 2013, but he requires time for further offensive development and will need at least one more full year in the minors and quite possibly more. If the Sox elect to go with Bogaerts at short, though, Marrero won't be ready as an Opening Day fallback option, and so the Sox likely would need to aim higher than Holt as an alternative. Holt represents a nice left-handed backup complement at a number of positions, but not necessarily a player whom the Sox would have comfort in as an everyday alternative. Put simply, the Sox need to sign a player who can play shortstop -- whether a starter like Drew or a fallback like . . . actually, when one looks at the scarcity of shortstops on the market who represent upgrades over Holt, it starts to make sense why Jhonny Peralta received his mammoth deal from the Cardinals.
Starter: Daniel Nava/Jonny Gomes
Depth: Mike Carp, Jackie Bradley Jr., Alex Hassan, Bryce Brentz, Alex Castellanos
The Red Sox have a number of options in left for 2014, just as they did in 2013, when the team led the American League in OBP (.356), OPS (.790) and RBIs (101) from left field while also finishing among the top teams in terms of average (.278, 2nd) and slugging (.434, 2nd). The return of Nava, Gomes and Carp has the Sox positioned well in terms of hitters who provide a professional at-bat. In the minors, Alex Hassan (.338/.457/.471 in 63 minor league games during an injury-riddled 2013 campaign) has the ability to do the same, while Bryce Brentz has 30-plus homer power potential, albeit an all-or-nothing approach that may prevent him from achieving it.
Despite considerable depth in left, this remains an area with which the team could tinker if necessary to offset the potential departure of Napoli in free agency. One means of replacing Napoli's production at first would be to move Nava or Carp to first base and to acquire a left fielder (someone like Carlos Beltran) who could offer the sort of offensive production delivered last year by Napoli.
Options: Jackie Bradley Jr., Shane Victorino
Depth: Alex Castellanos
Herein lies the rub with letting Jacoby Ellsbury walk and committing to Jackie Bradley Jr. Given that the team's best outfield is with Gold Glover Victorino in right, the Sox don't have a great deal of major league-ready depth -- none, in fact -- behind Bradley should he be the everyday center fielder. Castellanos has limited experience in center, but the Sox view his best positions as the two outfield corners (along with second and third base). And even though the Sox are confident that Bradley will be able to find success at the big league level, there would be some uncertainty about that proposition (not to mention his ability to remain healthy -- he played in 117 games and went on the DL twice in 2013) to the point where the Sox would need a fairly compelling insurance option in center -- with the team likely preferring a right-handed complement to Bradley. That helps to explain the Sox' interest in free agent outfielder Chris Young before he signed with the Mets. If Ellsbury returns, then the Sox are in reasonably good shape in terms of their center field depth thanks to Bradley. If he departs, then the Sox still need a move to address their limitations in center -- with one possibility being to sign a player like Beltran who could play both outfield corners, and thus make it a bit easier for the Sox to slide Victorino to center at times when Bradley was unavailable.
Starter: Shane Victorino
Depth: Bradley (if Ellsbury returns), Nava, Hassan, Castellanos, Brentz
If Ellsbury doesn't return and Bradley is in center, then the Sox' most likely play would be Nava in right and Gomes in left -- an alignment that would mean that the Sox would be guaranteed of a situation where a) they didn't have their best defensive outfield and b) they had one hitter who wasn't working to his natural platoon advantage. Given that Victorino is at injury risk given his proclivity to bulldoze into walls, the appeal of adding a switch-hitting corner outfielder like Beltran again becomes apparent.
The Sox were successful in 2013 in no small part because of the positional depth that permitted them to have option after option when they faced injuries; the more one examines the team's depth chart, the more apparent it becomes how well Beltran would permit the team to sustain that formula. Of course, the same could be said of a return of Ellsbury, which would permit the Sox to have Bradley as a versatile fourth outfielder who could deliver above-average defense at all three positions.
Beyond Nava, Hassan and Brentz are somewhat limited defenders, with some evaluators feeling that Brentz may not have the range or fundamentals to be a right fielder in Boston. The same is likely true of Hassan.