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Decisions loom for Red Sox and their top free agents

Posted by Adam Kaufman  November 4, 2013 02:27 AM

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For decades, stories will be told of the 2013 Boston Red Sox, the club with the payroll of a behemoth, the chances of David against Goliath, and the spirit of the Little Engine That Could.

We’ll buy hats, T-shirts, pennants, and mugs. Eventually, our shelves will feature one or more of the countless books that will hit stores by the time the team hits the field for its 2014 opener in Baltimore on March 31. And, of course, who could live without that DVD? Not me.

Boston’s latest champions will be remembered like few others. They’re the guys who, with a few new friends, went from loathed to loved. The ones whose chances shifted only from impossible to improbable before doing the unthinkable.

And, now, they’re a memory.

No matter how many local sporting venues the World Series trophy visits, rounds of drinks Mike Napoli buys for his pals on Boylston and Newbury, or rides Jake Peavy may someday offer fans in his new duck boat, it’s officially (and sadly) next season. Our 25 baseball heroes will never be together again. Not at the White House, nor their 2021 eight-year reunion night at Fenway.

General manager Ben Cherington, manager John Farrell, and the other privileged folks with seats at the operations table are well in the works of outlining the roster we’ll see in spring training in just about 100 days. A surprise or two will unfold, whether that’s a trade, a signing, or the loss of a free agent, and that’s where business begins immediately.

By the time you sit down for dinner tonight, the Red Sox will have announced whether or not they’ve qualified key free agents Jacoby Ellsbury, Napoli, Stephen Drew, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Doing so would guarantee each of the men selected $14.1 million for next season. Then, it’s up to the individual to decide within seven days whether to accept the offer and return to Boston, or decline and head to the open market. Should the latter occur, the player’s new team would have to provide the Sox with a compensatory first-round draft pick.

So, what will the Red Sox do? What should they do? And what’s next?

Jacoby Ellsbury

According to the centerfielder’s agent, Scott Boras, nearly half of Major League Baseball is interested in his client. I’m waiting for the news that NBA teams are recruiting him to play point guard, NFL clubs could use a kicker, and NHL squads may…never mind.

Thumbnail image for Jacoby Ellsbury 2.jpg

It’s as sure a thing that Ellsbury will be qualified by Boston as it is inevitable that he’ll politely say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The oft-injured All-Star had a great year (.298/.355/.426 with 52 stolen bases and 92 runs in 134 games) and, as a result, he’ll likely be seeking a nine-figure salary over at least five years. That’s going to price out the Red Sox. And, if it won’t, it should.

Ellsbury is remarkably talented and versatile, and has obviously proven in his seven big league seasons that he can thrive in the pressures of a competitive baseball city. But, over the last five years, his ability to stay in the lineup and produce consistently has been an every-other proposition. If teams like the rumored Mariners, Rangers, Mets, Phillies, Nationals, Yankees, Cubs, or Cardinals want to invest $18-20 million annually over several years for the upside of that uncertainty, it’s understandable, but I’d pass.

The Sox have a capable, albeit unproven, Jackie Bradley, Jr. waiting in the wings, and his presence and potential allow the organization to stay true to its revised philosophy of building a winner through the farm system, depth, and short-term deals.

Heart and soul players like Dustin Pedroia are exceptions to that rule. Ellsbury, even with two championships, hundreds of stolen bases, and several jaw-dropping catches, feels more like a “go to the highest bidder” hired gun. At 30, no one would blame him for cashing in elsewhere, but the Sox also shouldn’t be condemned for not wanting to make him their highest-paid player. That’s John Lackey’s title!

Mike Napoli

Maybe it’s just his city-strolling celebratory exploits or his positive comments about his time with the Sox, but I genuinely believe Napoli wants to stick around, and Boston should make his return a priority. That starts with a qualifying offer, which will surely happen. However, as with Ellsbury, it’s unlikely the righthanded slugger would accept the tender.

Thumbnail image for Mike Napoli 2.jpg

The 32-year-old’s numbers from the postseason don’t leap off the page (.217/.308/.435 with 2 homers and 7 RBI), but he had some very big hits – just ask the Tigers – after a show-me regular season. The converted first baseman was snubbed in his bid for a Gold Glove and he set new career-highs in plate appearances (578), runs (79), hits (129), doubles (38), RBI (73), and walks (73) when the Red Sox ripped up his original three-year, $39 million deal out of concern for a previously undiagnosed chronic hip condition.

Pending my medical degree, sure looks like that hip’s okay. But someone should really check out that hole in his swing.

While the qualifying offer represents a modest raise over the $13 million he earned last season, another multiple-year, short-term deal is appropriate. I’d attempt to redo the initial agreement. Change the years, a couple of bonus incentives, and hit reprint!

If Napoli leaves, that could mean Will Middlebrooks, Daniel Nava, Mike Carp, or an alternative free agent at first. Want to give James Loney another kick at the can?

Stephen Drew

Reports have circulated that the Red Sox plan to qualify Drew, ensuring a nearly $5 million raise for the 30-year-old shortstop if he accepts.

No, thank you.

Drew was given an opportunity in 2013 to prove he’d recovered from his ankle injury and he did so, despite appearing in only 124 games. By the end of the regular season, he’d put a putrid start behind him to finish with a reputable year (.253/.333/.443 with 13 homers and 67 RBI), but he was abysmal offensively in the playoffs. His saving grace – the only thing that kept him in the lineup outside of Farrell’s loyalty to his veterans – was his defense.

Stephen Drew 2.jpg

In a bridge year (at his position, that is), a bump in pay to return a hard worker would make sense if not for the fact that Xander Bogaerts has shown he’s ready to play every day. Unfortunately for Drew, he’s a natural shortstop.

Qualifying Drew with the hope that Boras (yeah, he’s got Drew, too) would still pursue a multi-year option and leave the Sox with a compensatory pick makes sense, but I have a hard time seeing a team surrender a high draft selection for this player. That then introduces the fear of him actually accepting the opportunity, which would potentially create a logjam on the left side of the infield.

It’s fair to ask which Middlebrooks we can expect next season – the rookie who batted Kevin Youkilis right outta town, or the sophomore who spent most of the year in Triple-A – and it’s equally reasonable to consider using him at first if Napoli leaves, but the goal will be to bring Napoli back and hope Middlebrooks returns to form. At that point, the last thing the team wants is to have to creatively find playing time for a young phenom like Bogaerts.

Plus, could you stomach Drew being the third-highest paid player on the team?

Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Unlike the aforementioned players, Saltalamacchia isn’t expected to be qualified. It’s not that the Red Sox aren’t interested in retaining him; they just don’t want to do so for that kind of money.

If I’m Cherington, unless I’m certain I can bring the catcher back for two or three years at shorter annual dollars, or I’m confident I can replace him with a high-caliber backstop like Brian McCann or a secondary choice like Carlos Ruiz, I’d make the move.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia.jpg

There’s a common thread here: Behind Ellsbury and Drew exist options, youngsters ready for their turns. Without Napoli, there would be suitors, but he’s the ideal candidate. In this case, depth is a problem because a David Ross split with Ryan Lavarnway is probably unrealistic and Christian Vazquez isn’t quite ready. But, if the minor league standout is a year away, it makes sense to gamble on Saltalamacchia hopefully producing another banner season in which he reached career-highs in average (.273), OPS (.804), RBI (65), and doubles (40), among several other offensive categories.

His terrific regular season shouldn’t be overshadowed by a spotty playoff performance. Plus, at 28, he’s still improving, both at the plate and behind it, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s popular in the clubhouse. Have you seen that hair?

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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