In the much bigger picture, maybe it is worth remembering that the Red Sox have a relatively good outlook. They just won 95 games. They have qualified for the postseason six times in the last seven years. They have a baseball operations staff that is committed to long-term sustainability more than short-term success, and they will take one step backward to ensure two steps forward.
At the moment, the problem is that the 2010 season looks like it will be a step back.
Here’s the big question: Is it likely that the Red Sox can win the 2010 World Series?
The obvious answer is no. Despite a deep pitching staff that should be very much intact -- let’s not forget that -- the Red Sox at the moment have an aging lineup that will steal from the poor and give to the rich, which creates a problem come October. Like the Bruins of the '80s and '90s, the Red Sox suddenly seem good enough to make the playoffs, flawed enough to ultimately fall short.
Here are five suggestions on how the Sox can cure their ills:
1. Re-sign Jason Bay or replace him with Matt Holliday. Obvious, right? The free agent market is thin, and the reality is that the Sox need more offense even if they keep Bay or replace him with Holliday. If they get neither, the likelihood is that the 2010 lineup will be even worse than 2009. The Sox may be forced to rely on stop-gap measures like Bobby Abreu, who will be a free agent again after a very productive year for the Los Angeles Angels.
Holliday (.394) and Bay (.384) had virtually identical on-base percentages in 2009, but they got there in very different ways. Holliday hit almost 50 points higher. The Red Sox of 2010 batted just .257 on the road, a number that ranked ninth in the American League behind teams like Cleveland, Oakland and Chicago. Unless the Sox are expecting opponents to repeatedly issue walks with the bases loaded, they need to re-sign Bay or replace him with someone who hits for a high average.
2. Beyond Bay or Holliday, add another big bat. We know what you’re thinking -- why not Bay and Holliday? The reason is that there really isn’t enough room for them in the outfield, though one of them certainly could serve as the designated hitter given the decline of David Ortiz. Still, the reality is that the Red Sox will have a hard enough time signing one of those guys, let alone both. There is also the matter of getting a little too righthanded in the lineup.
At the trading deadline this year, the Sox seriously explored the possibility of acquiring slugging Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, a career .281 hitter. A lefthanded batter, Gonzalez hits to all fields (with power) and would almost certainly gain a bump in batting average by playing at Fenway Park. If the Sox can pry Gonzalez away from San Diego by trading some pitching (Clay Buchholz) and some of their lower-level prospects, they should do it. That could give them a middle of the lineup that includes Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, Gonzalez, Bay, J.D. Drew, and even Mike Lowell.
3. Upgrade at shortstop. As we've learned through the years, this is easier said than done. These days, finding a shortstop who can produce offensively is almost as hard as finding a catcher who can do the same. But given the nature of the Red Sox lineup now, the club really can no longer afford to carry a shortstop who provides them with below-average offense. The best way for them to thicken out their lineup is to find a shortstop who can get them in the top five in OPS at the position.
As terrific as Alex Gonzalez was for the Sox this year, he is almost exclusively a defensive player. While re-signing him is not entirely out of the realm of possibility, the Sox need to explore every possible avenue for a shortstop who can give them something offensively, even if they sacrifice some defense. Maybe that means bidding on a free agent like Toronto's Marco Scutaro. Maybe it means inquiring about Milwaukee's J.J. Hardy.
With regard to Hanley Ramirez, we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the chances of acquiring him are virtually non-existent. Still, there was some indication this year that the Marlins grew at least a little tired of Ramirez’s immature behavior, which means the topic (as always) is at least worth revisiting.
4. Explore the idea of trading Jonathan Papelbon. This has nothing to do with Game 3 of the AL Division Series. Papelbon is still one of the elite closers in the game and has played a huge role in the team’s success since becoming a closer. At the same time, assuming the Sox have little interest in re-signing Papelbon once he is a free agent following the 2011 season, he is, perhaps, one of their more valuable and expendable bargaining chips.
In 2009, the obvious strength of the Boston team was pitching, particularly in the bullpen. Daniel Bard looks like a closer in the making and Hideki Okajima, Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen, among others, are under team control. The Sox even hold an option on Takashi Saito for roughly $6 million, which the club almost certainly will decline -- unless there is a reason to keep him.
This year’s free agent class includes, among others, Octavio Dotel, Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Fernando Rodney, and Jose Valverde, among others. All have at least some experience closing. If the Sox could sign another setup man/closer for relatively short dollars and get something of value for Papelbon -- even prospects that could replenish the Boston system or be flipped in a deal -- it might make sense for them to do so.
5. Sign another starting pitcher, assuming the price is right. At the moment, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield (option) are all under team control. The problem is that the Red Sox don’t have a lot of depth behind them with regard to 2010, at least based on what we saw this year. Michael Bowden can’t be counted on yet. Everyone else is at least a year away. The Sox need some starting pitching depth and this might be a good market to find it.
Remember: Unless the Red Sox re-sign him, Beckett will be a free agent following the 2010 campaign. Wakefield will be a year older. The pitching market of 2010 could be deep -- Brandon Webb, Cliff Lee, Tim Hudson and others, including Beckett, could be available -- and the Red Sox will have money to spend then. In the interim, the Sox might be able to strike gold with someone like Justin Duchscherer or Erik Bedard, depending on the value of the contract. Given some of the issues with those pitchers, the Sox might be able to lock one of them on a one-year deal.
If this sounds a lot like last year’s plan, it is. Certainly, the Sox would be wise to explore a deal for someone like Seattle ace Felix Hernandez, but their prospects would be put to better use for offense given the shortage of hitters in the Boston organization. A stopgap at the end of the rotation would serve the Sox well for 2010 and leave them with ample money to spend following next season, when the contracts of Beckett, Ortiz and Mike Lowell will all expire.
That winter, any remaining problems should be easier to fix.
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