In the winter after 2012, the Red Sox rolled seven after seven in the construction of their team. Of the seven free agents signed -- David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, Koji Uehara, Mike Napoli -- virtually every one of them at least lived up to their career track records. Each player represented a perfect fit, contributing to a strikingly balanced Red Sox team that had no real deficiencies.
This past offseason? Not so much. At least not yet.
To date, the Sox' moves and non-moves related to their four primary free agents following the championship run have yielded a roster that has yet to coalesce into a winner. The Sox are 20-23 and in fourth place, fortunate that the shared mediocrity of their division has them just three games back of the division-leading Yankees.
Given what has transpired through slightly more than a quarter of the season, it's worth looking back and wondering what kind of alternatives the Sox had in reconfiguring their roster after the championship. Based on recent conversations with industry sources, here is a position-by-position look at what transpired and the alternate paths that the team had.
The Sox ended up re-signing Mike Napoli to a two-year, $32 million deal -- an eminently reasonable contract from the team perspective given his combination of offensive production, defense and clubhouse leadership. That said, the team did pursue Jose Abreu when he was a free agent last September, and given what he's done to date -- hitting .260/.312/.595 with a major league-leading 15 homers prior to landing on the DL -- it's natural to wonder what kind of dominoes the Sox might have set in motion had they signed Abreu.
Still, given all that Napoli does well -- the grinding approach at the place, the extra-base power, strong defense at first, baserunning that has made him something of a role model in the organization -- the idea of not re-signing him wasn't really an option, particularly given his willingness to work with the Sox' preferred model of shorter-term contracts.
"Mike Napoli was always someone we were going to try to retain no matter what happened with the rest of our offseason," Sox general manager Ben Cherington said in an email.
The departure of Jacoby Ellsbury, of course, represented the most profound sea change in the Red Sox universe given how dramatically he impacted the game in the batter's box, on the bases and in the field. To replace Ellsbury, the Sox planned to make the transition to Jackie Bradley Jr. in center, but they provided themselves with a measure of insurance at the position with the signing of Grady Sizemore.
In retrospect, was re-signing Ellsbury a realistic option? Probably not. The Yankees' interpretation of a reasonable contract for the center fielder and the Red Sox' view of the same diverged pretty drastically.
But the fashion in which the Sox replaced Ellsbury did expose them to unpredictable performance at the position. In Bradley and Sizemore, the team turned to a pair of players who represented uncertainties, who didn't have recent major league track records. The team believed -- and still believes -- in Bradley's amateur and minor league track record, but his transition to the big leagues has been something other than seamless in the batter's box.
The Sox understood that there was a chance the 24-year-old could struggle, which is why they needed a veteran complement, ideally one who could challenge Bradley for a starting job while also providing protection in case he struggled. That led the Sox to Sizemore.
But while Sizemore represented -- and still represents -- a player of considerable intrigue and upside, and dazzled while outplaying Bradley to win the everyday job in center field out of spring training, he also offered no performance certainty after two-plus seasons in which he hadn't played.
As such, with the benefit of hindsight, it's fair to wonder whether the Sox should have pursued a player who would have offered a more natural complement to Bradley -- ideally, a right-handed veteran outfielder capable of protecting the team from injuries, struggle or even just drastic platoon splits.
However, the Sox weren't in position to add such a player (Rajai Davis of the Tigers comes to mind) given that the roster already featured a platoon in left field (Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava) that was backed up by a valued player -- albeit one whose skill set was redundant with other players on the roster -- in Mike Carp. At the time, the Sox thought that they needed to sign a player who either could take the starting job from Bradley or open the year in the minors. Sizemore represented just that.
Should the Sox more actively have explored trading an asset like Carp and pursuing a more versatile alternative? Perhaps. Alternately, should the Sox have considered a more drastic maneuver like committing to Bradley in center, trading Carp and signing a power bat like Nelson Cruz (even at the cost of a first-round pick) for the outfield? That's a harder sell, and would have required more foresight about the struggles of Nava than would have been reasonable to assume.
The Sox extended the qualifying offer to Stephen Drew, and their interest in re-signing the shortstop was legitimate even after he declined the qualifying offer. However, the team also felt comfortable moving on from him and exploring the potential upside of an infield featuring Xander Bogaerts at short and Will Middlebrooks at third. The team believed that it would enjoy a considerable boost in its production at third base from its standard set in 2013 (.242 average, .288 OBP, .395 slugging) regardless of whether Middlebrooks or Bogaerts manned the position.
In light of the struggles of Middlebrooks and of the Sox against right-handed pitching, it's again fair to wonder whether the Sox did enough to insulate themselves from performance uncertainties of players (Bogaerts, Middlebrooks) without proven track records. The team's pursuit of depth on the left side of the infield netted Jonathan Herrera rather than someone whom the team would be comfortable using as an everyday player (Brock Holt has been the Sox' preferred third base starting option during Middlebrooks' time on the DL).
But the reality is that the available depth options for the left side of the infield verged on non-existent this past offseason. The Sox weren't going to compete with the Cardinals, who blew away the field while signing Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $52 million deal.
The one alternate path was to sign Drew -- though doing so would have meant giving up the possibility of a draft pick had he signed elsewhere. It's also unclear what kind of market demands Drew was making after turning down the qualifying offer.
Meanwhile, Bogaerts has done nothing to dissuade the Sox from the idea that he has a chance to deliver elite production as a shortstop. The Sox have the best OBP of any AL team from the shortstop position (.358), even as Bogaerts has yet to start hitting for power this year.
Nonetheless, Middlebrooks' struggles have created an environment in which the Sox are clearly intrigued anew by the idea of bringing back Drew to shore up their infield defense and to give themselves more balance against right-handed pitching.
With Jarrod Saltalamacchia a free agent, the Sox made a run at Brian McCann, but again, the Yankees weren't going to be outbid for the preeminent catcher on the market. The Sox made a hard run at Carlos Ruiz on a potential two-year deal, but he returned to Philadelphia for three years. But even after those two came off the market early, the Sox' interest in re-upping Saltalamacchia was no better than tepid.
The Sox never made as much as a formal two-year offer to Saltalamacchia. The best that the team could do was a one-year deal that included a team option that would vest and become guaranteed for a second year if Saltalamacchia wasn't sidelined by a lower back injury. (The Sox had concerns in negotiations about the lower back issues that required Saltalamacchia to receive an epidural in September and again required treatment in the postseason.) Had the second year vested and had Saltalamacchia hit all of the incentives in the deal, he could have earned as much as $18 million, but the guarantee wasn't sufficiently compelling to motivate him to abandon his preferred pursuit of a three-year deal.
Should the Sox have extended a qualifying offer to Saltalamacchia? In retrospect, had he accepted that would have been a considerable overpay -- though it's worth noting that, at the time that qualifying offer decisions were being made, it wasn't clear that Saltalamacchia would have accepted it, given his expectation at that point in the winter that a three- or even four-year deal for an average salary of $10 million could be within reach.
Should the Sox have made a guaranteed two-year deal to the catcher rather than presenting it as a vest? Perhaps, though clearly, a) the team did have some medical concerns about the 29-year-old and b) the Sox clearly like the idea of having a clear lane for Christian Vazquez by the start of 2015. Moreover, it's unclear if a two-year guarantee would have motivated Saltalamacchia to sign.
Saltalamacchia did approach the Sox to see if there was any scenario where they'd be open to a three-year deal, even if the third year would have to be structured as a reachable vesting option. The team declined.
Instead, the Sox opted for the ultimate bridge signing, adding A.J. Pierzynski on a one-year, $8.25 million deal. Initial returns have been poor, as Pierzynski is posting career lows in average (.244), OBP (.281) and slugging (.353). His fellow 37-year-old colleague, David Ross, has likewise struggled (.182/.250/.364).
Meanwhile, Saltalamacchia -- even with a recent seven-game, 0-for-23 run -- is hitting .268/.358/.465 with six homers as the everyday catcher for the Marlins, making a similar impact against right-handers (.264/.378/.505) that he did for the Sox a year ago. Neither he nor the Marlins have any regrets about the three-year, $21 million deal (a deal, of course that would have fit within the Sox' payroll given that the average salary to which he agreed.
If the struggles of Pierzynski and Ross continue, then perhaps Vazquez will find his way up to the big leagues in the middle of the season. Of course, that would merely add to the Sox' reliance on young players without established big league track records, replacing one form of vulnerability with another.
It's impossible to know how different the Sox might look right now had they followed a different offseason course. After all, there are plenty of holdovers at different positions who are underperforming -- it's not just the free agent decisions that have yielded poor results to date.
Moreover, there's a chance that the Sox' strategy this past winter may yet be borne out as having been a successful one -- if Bradley or Sizemore or Pierzynski or Middlebrooks starts hitting, among other possibilities.
But whereas the strength of the Sox in 2013 was the ability to have trustworthy depth at virtually every roster spot, the 2014 club right now features the dangerous combination at some positions of both starters and backups without reliable track records or performance certainty.
While Bradley and Sizemore have considerable upside, their floors are ill-defined -- leading to the possibility of poor performance from the position. Ditto Middlebrooks and third base. The ages of Pierzynski and Ross have raised the possibility that catcher, too, could prove an area of weakness, particularly given Pierzynski's free-swinging approach.
How the Sox' approach to their free agents ultimately plays out remains to be seen. But for now, the virtually unqualified free agent successes that helped lay the foundation for a championship team haven't proven repeatable -- at least not without a period of transition. And so, with just over a quarter of the season now complete, the Sox are struggling to find their stride as a result, last year's quick start yielding to this year's stumble.