What now for Red Sox? A look at where team's offseason stands

by: Alex Speier on Wed, 12/04/2013 - 11:14am

 

What happens in the aftermath of a dizzying day that featured the departure of a pair of the Red Sox' key up-the-middle contributors to a World Series winner -- including the move of a star to the division rival Yankees? 

For starters, there probably won't be a press conference to explain the departure of Jacoby Ellsbury to New York. Unlike 2005, when the Red Sox under the co-GM stewardship of Ben Cherington and Jed Hoyer convened an awkward press conference to discuss the departure of Johnny Damon to New York -- at a time when the deal had yet to be announced by the Yankees -- the Sox now are operating from a secure position. The defection of Ellsbury (on a seven-year, $153 million deal) did not and will not yield a sky-is-falling response. 

The Red Sox had long expected Ellsbury's departure. Indeed, because of their comfort with their potential in-house alternative of Jackie Bradley Jr., the team had accepted the likelihood that the center fielder ultimately would find a better offer elsewhere. Had Ellsbury failed to find a seven-year deal and shown openness to a shorter-term deal, then the Sox would have been ready to engage; but given the likely involvement of the Yankees, Rangers and Mariners, the Sox thought that the market for the center fielder would be robust, and likely beyond the team's comfort level. 

The same became true with Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The Sox were interested in the idea of bringing him back on a two-year deal, but the team's desire to avoid blocking the ascent of prospects Christian Vazquez and/or Blake Swihart meant that, with Saltalamacchia -- quite understandably -- in search of a deal of at least three years, he was going to have to go elsewhere to get it. 

So now what? What do the Red Sox do?

The team made its initial move at the four positions of uncertainty -- catcher, first base, shortstop, center field -- by agreeing to a one-year, $8.25 million deal with A.J. Pierzynski on Tuesday morning, a move that preceded Saltalamacchia's move to the Marlins on a three-year, $21 million deal. 

But that leaves plenty that's unresolved. A few implications of what happened yesterday, based on conversations with multiple industry sources:

-- With $8.25 million committed to Pierzynski, the Sox have the financial latitude to add one or two everyday players. 

-- The Sox recognize that Pierzynski in 2014 is unlikely to match Saltalamacchia's production in 2013. At the same time, the team believed that, based on the fact that 2013 represented a career-best year for Saltalamacchia (a .273 average, .338 OBP and .466 slugging mark that stood apart from the previous four years, when he hit .228/.289/.427), there is a strong possibility that Saltalamacchia won't match his 2013 production next year. In other words, the Sox view Pierzynski and Saltalamacchia as being similar players in terms of the offensive production they might offer next year based on their career track records, while feeling that Pierzynski may be the superior game-caller. That being the case, the appeal of signing Pierzynski for one year rather than Saltalamacchia for three became clear.

-- That said, the Sox recognize that there could be offensive dropoff from 2013 to 2014, both at the catching position and in center field given Ellsbury's departure. Some of that could be offset with improved production at either short or third from Xander Bogaerts and/or Will Middlebrooks. Still, even if the team experiences some offensive compromise, it's willing to live with that. The Sox led the majors by a significant margin with 5.3 runs per game; the runner-up (Tigers) scored 4.9 runs per game. The team believes it is still in position to have a very good offense, capable of sustaining postseason ambitions, even if it's not as good as the 2014 version. 

-- Even so, the Pierzynski signing does have some implications for the construction of the rest of the lineup. Pierzynski has a notoriously aggressive offensive approach. His walk rate -- he took a free pass in just 2.1 percent of plate appearances, the lowest mark in the majors -- represented the antithesis of the approach that made the Sox successful last year. The team believes that its lineup can withstand one player with such an offensive approach. However, in 2012, the Sox saw the consequences of dedicating too many lineup spots to hitters who don't work pitch counts and take walks, as starters routinely blitzed deep into games against them in the second half. 

The player who could be most significantly impacted is Middlebrooks. While the Sox still view him, in a vacuum, as an impact bat whose power can change the shape of a lineup, the possibility of having both Pierzynski and Middlebrooks (5.3 percent walk rate) could change the complexion of the lineup. (Caveat: It is possible that Middlebrooks' plate discipline and walk rate could improve as he gains more familiarity with the league. He's still just 25.) 

So, in their subsequent moves this offseason, the Sox will be mindful of the fact that they now have a more aggressive roster than they did in 2013. If there ever was interest in a bad-OBP guy with big power like Mark Trumbo before, it's ever harder to see how such a player would fit now.  

-- The Sox have considerable flexibility in terms of how they deploy their available funds for the one or two player moves that await. 

In Bradley, the team has a fallback option in center field. At shortstop, while the team is exploring the possibility of bringing back Stephen Drew, it could turn to Xander Bogaerts. At first base, where the team continues to explore the possibility of retaining Mike Napoli, the team could redeploy its current personnel -- moving around the likes of Daniel Nava and/or Mike Carp and/or Will Middlebrooks -- but indications are that the Red Sox feel less comfortable with such a scenario than they are with the idea of Bogaerts at short and/or Bradley in center. 

-- At first base, Napoli still appears to represent the best and most straightforward option. The Sox appear comfortable with the idea of trying to bring back Napoli on a two-year deal based on how he performed, fit with the Red Sox and held up physically in 2013. But there remains a very real possibility that another bidder will push beyond the Sox' comfort level, and so the Sox are in a position where they have to explore alternatives. 

-- The alternatives to Napoli aren't great. The team is intrigued by Corey Hart, who after missing all of 2013 reportedly was cleared to resume baseball activities on Tuesday. However, there's uncertainty about what kind of production he might be able to offer after a missed year and a pair of knee surgeries. Beyond him, the alternatives to Napoli at first base are likely to be defined during the winter meetings in Orlando next week, when trade conversations are expected to pick up given how picked-over the crop of free agents will be by that point. 

-- Multiple industry sources remain convinced that there is a solid likelihood that the Sox may re-sign Stephen Drew at shortstop. That outcome is not a certainty of course, especially given that agent Scott Boras said it would take seven or eight years to sign Ellsbury, and he proved true to his word. 

If he likewise proves capable of conjuring the four- or five-year deal that he has suggested Drew will end up with, then the Sox won't be in the bidding. But there appear few indications that a significant market has materialized for the 30-year-old shortstop who would require the sacrifice of a draft pick. 

And the Sox would love to have him back. He fits their offensive and defensive needs very, very well. 

He hit .253 with a .333 OBP and .443 slugging percentage in 124 regular-season games this past year, marks that were among the best by any shortstop in the majors. But his production against right-handed pitching was particularly outstanding. His .377 OBP against righties was the third-best by any free agent, behind only Shin-Soo Choo (an eye-popping .457) and Robinson Cano (.400). His .876 OPS against righties was likewise the third best of any free agent -- better than Saltalamacchia (.873), better than Carlos Beltran (.871), better than Brian McCann (.869), better than Ellsbury (.863). He gets on base, he sees a lot of pitches, he would give the Sox stability up the middle rather than entrusting both shortstop and center field to rookies (Bogaerts and Bradley) … 

In short, he checks a lot of boxes for the Sox, at a position where there aren't a lot of alternatives. Signing Drew would mean that Bogaerts likely would become the Sox' primary third base option. 

-- While the alternatives to Napoli and Drew (at least in free agency) are limited, the Sox do have greater flexibility with regards to outfield options. Choo, of course, would offer an interesting fit given his remarkable ability to get on base, but one industry source threw water on the idea of the Sox making a push for him, suggesting that his asking price is in the same vicinity as Ellsbury's -- if not beyond the seven-year, $153 million price tag that was affixed to the former Sox center fielder. That being the case, the same factors that left the Sox unwilling to match the Yankees' offer for Ellsbury are likely to leave the Sox as spectators in the Choo sweepstakes. 

Choo is a better on-base guy than Ellsbury (a robust .423 OBP), but in virtually every other respect (aside, perhaps, from durability), the Sox viewed Ellsbury as the superior option -- in terms of ability to play center field, ability to impact the game on the bases, age (Ellsbury is 14 months younger than Choo) and the proven ability to thrive in Boston. 

If the Sox had been willing to sign an outfielder to a deal of extreme duration and dollars, it would have been Ellsbury. 

The Sox have been interested in Beltran, who would give them some depth and flexibility given his ability to play both outfield corners. But the Sox' interest in the 36-year-old is limited to two years; the team is unlikely to match the veteran's reported three-year, $48 million offer. 

There is some interest in Curtis Granderson, whose ability to play all three outfield positions would give the team roster flexibility while adding some thump (he averaged 29 homers a year from 2006-12), but whether Granderson is available on the right kind of deal remains an open question. 

Outfield also is one area where there are intriguing names available in the trade market, and so it's an area where -- even with the possibility of turning to Bradley as Ellsbury's replacement -- the Sox have the freedom to pursue the right deal to give themselves a deeper and more versatile roster that might help them offset the loss of Ellsbury while also preserving some of the depth that proved a key component of their success in 2013.