The winter meetings typically represent the peak of an offseason crescendo, the preliminary activity of the previous weeks building toward decisive, landscape-changing moves over a four-day span in which the baseball industry convenes under one roof. This year, however, for the industry in general and the Red Sox in particular, the waves have already crashed.
The Sox largely have reshaped their roster already. Jacoby Ellsbury is gone; Jackie Bradley Jr. is his likely replacement, even as the Sox kick the tires to see whether there's a potential fit (likely in a trade) who would upgrade their outfield. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is gone; A.J. Pierzynski will replace him, a place-holder who will permit the team's catching prospects to edge closer to the big leagues. Mike Napoli is back. The team's bullpen has been upgraded with a strike-throwing fallback closer behind Koji Uehara (Edward Mujica) and a groundball machine (Burke Badenhop).
The Sox' winter shopping list hasn't been completed entirely. The team still wants to add depth to the left side of its infield, either by re-signing Stephen Drew (thus permitting the team to have depth with Drew, Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks all available on the left side of the infield, with Garin Cecchini not far behind) or by adding a strong utility player who might represent a fallback option for Middlebrooks at third, Bogaerts at short and Dustin Pedroia at second. The team almost certainly will trade a starter to free the money to complete the rounding out of the roster, at a time when the team has committed nearly all it hopes to invest in payroll this offseason.
"We think if Opening Day was tomorrow we’d be in pretty good shape but like I said before it’s not. We’ll keep working," Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said in a weekend conference call. "There are things we could do, things we’d like to do to pursue and there are still the flexibility and means to do that. But certainly the team is much more filled out than it was in the beginning of the offseason. It could be that we’ve done most of our heavy lifting for the winter, but certainly we’ll still keep working and see what else we can come up with."
That being the case, given the advanced state of the roster, while the next few days will be dominated by the often-contradictory smoke signals regarding the team's next moves, it's worth taking stock of what the team has already done this winter.
WHO THEY'VE LOST
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (Signed with Yankees: 7 years, $153 million)
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Signed with Marlins: 3 years, $21 million)
WHO THEY'VE ADDED
RHP Edward Mujica (Signed as free agent: 2 years, $9.5 million)
C A.J. Pierzynski (Signed as free agent: 1 year, $8.25 million)
RHP Burke Badenhop (acquired from Brewers in trade)
WHO THEY'RE BRINGING BACK
1B Mike Napoli (Re-signed as free agent: 2 years, $32 million)
1B/3B Brandon Snyder (Re-signed on minor league deal)
WHO IS IN LIMBO (FREE AGENTS)
SS Stephen Drew
UT IF John McDonald
RHP Joel Hanrahan
LHP Matt Thornton
RHP Andrew Bailey (non-tendered)
OF Ryan Kalish (non-tendered)
OF Quintin Berry
THE BIG PICTURE: LINEUP
There's an excellent chance the Red Sox won't have the offense in 2014 that they did in 2013, when they led the majors -- by a lot -- with 5.3 runs per game, in a year where no other club cracked the 5.0 runs per game mark.
Of course, even if they had managed to bring back the entire ensemble with which they played last year, the team believes there was a good chance of regression anyway. For instance, the team operated on the presumption that Saltalamacchia's career-best 2013 season (a .273 average, .338 OBP and .466 slugging mark, compared to a career line of .246/.310/.428) might be an outlier based on a career-high batting average on balls in play. So, while Pierzynski is not expected to match the former Sox catcher's production against lefties, the team is hopeful that he will come close to delivering the sort of production that it expected from Saltalamacchia next year.
Jackie Bradley Jr. is not expected to be able to match Ellsbury's offensive production as a hitter and baserunner in his rookie season. Still, the team feels that he can have solid on-base numbers while delivering tremendous defense that may prove superior to Ellsbury's even as a rookie.
Xander Bogaerts could upgrade the team's production on the left side of the infield, but it remains to be seen how significant his impact will be in what will likely prove his first full season in the big leagues. Still, whether Bogaerts or Middlebrooks ends up being the primary third baseman, the Sox do expect a boost in production at the position (though it's worth noting that there is some concern from the club about the potential for a broader lineup impact of having two hyperaggressive hitters such as Pierzynski and Middlebrooks in the lineup at the same time). If Drew returns, it would go a long way towards giving the Sox balanced production against both right-handed and left-handed pitchers.
The Sox can't be entirely sure what they'll get from Bradley, Bogaerts and Middlebrooks. Still, they feel secure in the notion that they'll still have one of the best offenses in the big leagues, if not necessarily the best, a notion to which manager John Farrell alluded in his interview on WEEI last week when discussing the team's comfort level with Bradley in center (at a time when Napoli had yet to re-sign).
"This is me speaking, this isn't the organization speaking or [Cherington] speaking, [Bradley] fits as we continue to fill out the other areas on our club," said Farrell. "I think our overall goal is to have no less than a top five offensive team. So if you've got a guy who's still in the transition and somewhat projection, you've got to have more competent and reliable offensive performers who are out there.
"We know that Mike Napoli is still out there, our guy who we want to be sure to do everything we can to bring him back or get a performer at first base who will give us well above average performance. All of these things are in the equation. I guess that's the best way to put it."
Napoli is now back, meaning that the team has comfort with the state of its lineup even if committing to a young player like Bradley. Of course, if the team drops from the top offensive team in baseball to a top-five team, then if it wants to sustain its competitive ambitions, then improved run prevention is essential.
So where do the Sox stand in that regard?
THE BIG PICTURE: RUN PREVENTION
An often-overlooked aspect of the Sox is that their run prevention had room to improve over where it was last year. The team permitted 4.05 runs per game last year, resulting in a good but not great ranking of sixth among the 15 teams in the American League.
But the talent level of the pitching staff may have exceeded that, at least in some respects. Clay Buchholz pitched just 108 innings; if he remains healthy for roughly 30 starts (instead of the 16 he made last year), then that would represent a likely improvement in the team's run prevention. Jon Lester's dominant second half resulted in a 3.75 ERA for the year -- roughly in line with his career norm of a 3.76 ERA, but certainly, he's shown the ability to post better marks than that. Felix Doubront has shown the potential to improve upon his 4.32 ERA, even if it remains to be seen how close he will ever come to scraping his ceiling. It's fair to ask whether John Lackey can repeat his tremendous performance (a 3.52 ERA in 29 starts), but if there is some regression, there's not necessarily a reason to believe it would be severe.
While it's difficult to project the individual performances that the Sox might expect from the members of their bullpen -- whether the ability of Koji Uehara to repeat his historic performance or Craig Breslow to post another sub-2.00 ERA -- the Sox should be deeper in the late innings this year. Andrew Miller, who was emerging as a dominant late-innings option, should be back and healthy. The additions of Mujica and Badenhop provide the Sox with a diversity of looks. And even if Uehara and Breslow prove incapable of repeating their career-best performances, both have track records that offer the basis for the anticipation of late-innings excellence.
The Sox bullpen had just a 3.70 ERA last year, 10th in the American League. If the team's late-innings structure can be less top-heavy in 2014 than it was in 2013, there's reason to expect the possibility of improvement.
Defensively, the addition of Bradley in center may offer some upgrade over Ellsbury, even acknowledging that Ellsbury was among the best defensive center fielders in the majors. Yes, Bradley is considered that good. Still, if Drew is not retained, then the combination of Bogaerts and Middlebrooks on the left side of the infield likely would represent a step back from what Drew, Middlebrooks and Jose Iglesias offered on the left side of the infield in 2013. If Drew is back, then the Sox may well have a better defense than they did en route to their title. Behind the plate, the Sox expect that if Pierzynski and Ross remain healthy, they will represent a defensive/game-calling upgrade over what the team had in 2013.
Overall, the Sox have some basis to anticipate that if their offense is vulnerable to decline, their pitching and defense has the potential to improve to offset some of that setback.
In Cherington's words, the Sox can afford to be "opportunistic" at this stage of the winter, with a few items on the to-do list:
-- The club will add an infielder, whether that means retaining Drew or finding a versatile backup behind Bogaerts and Middlebrooks.
-- The team will explore the outfield market as one of possibility rather than necessity. That said, there's strong sentiment in the organization that Bradley is big league ready and that Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp can deliver tremendous production in left while Shane Victorino is a very valuable asset in right. For instance, one team source wondered whether a player like Andre Ethier represented a talent upgrade over Nava.
-- The team will see if a trade market materializes for potentially redundant players, whether Dempster and Peavy as solid but expensive rotation options or Ryan Lavarnway (or Dan Butler or, less likely, Christian Vazquez) behind the plate. If the team wants to bring back Drew, dealing a starter and freeing money would be a near necessity.