By now, the sting of the Red Sox’s postseason absence has begun to fade. Yes, the team collapsed after the All-Star Break. But up until the San Francisco Giants series at the end of June things were going quite well. When that series ended on June 27, the Red Sox were leading the wildcard race and were just two games back in the AL East. However, they suffered three key injuries: Dustin Pedroia went down with a broken foot, Clay Buchholz hyper-extended his knee, and Victor Martinez broke his thumb. Jason Varitek went down soon after. Losing Varitek didn’t hurt the offense, but it forced the Red Sox to rely on even worse offensive catchers, plus these new guys didn’t know the pitchers and couldn’t call games as well. Everything quickly went downhill. Buchholz didn’t miss much time, but Pedroia didn’t play a game after his injury on June 25. A former Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, his loss was nearly-catastrophic. And when Kevin Youkilis tore the webbing in his thumb, it was the final nail in the coffin. Injuries plagued this team all season, and they finally succumbed to them. So what does Boston do to come back next year?
The Offense: Stay the Course
Despite all of the injuries, the Red Sox were still one of the best statistical offenses in baseball. They were second in the MLB in runs, home runs, RBIs, and slugging, and first in doubles and OPS. They were also sixth or better in several other key offensive categories. All of this was accomplished with half a season from Pedroia, two-thirds of a season from Youkilis, and almost nothing from Jacoby Ellsbury. Think what this team could have accomplished with full seasons from these three. The top of the lineup will be much faster next year with Ellsbury at its helm. The middle of the of the lineup will extend with a terrific contact hitter (Pedroia) and a grind-it-out power hitter (Youkilis). And the bottom of the lineup will be better with Marco Scutaro batting ninth where he belongs. Scutaro definitely played beyond expectations this year.
The Red Sox will get key players back from injury, so their main objectives should be to just shore up the power positions in the lineup. Boston will probably have to overpay Martinez to keep him, but they should do it. He played well when he was healthy, he knows the pitchers, he can catch the knuckleball, and it will set the rotation back to introduce a new catcher into the mix. Plus, there isn’t a lot of catching talent entering free agency besides Martinez, so he remains the best option for the Red Sox. Varitek, meanwhile, will probably not be back. He should get his number retired, and he might get a one-year deal somewhere else, but his time in Boston is done.
David Ortiz, meanwhile, has a $12.5 million club option. The Red Sox would be justified in picking that option up, but the smart move might be to not do it. Yes, Ortiz had a bounce-back season. 2010 was his best season since 2007, with marked improvement in just about every offensive category. He’s reached iconic status in Boston, easily in the top five of most popular athletes in Boston history. But he’ll be 35 next year, and there’s only so much wear-and-tear a body that size can take. If the Red Sox let Ortiz go to free agency, they’ll probably be able to sign him for less than his current option. It might require a two year deal, but a two year, $16 or $17 million deal is still better than a year at $12.5 million. Plus Ortiz will feel happier knowing he has job security for two years. The Red Sox will overpay for Ortiz, but not by as much as they would by picking up the option.
The last situation to address is Adrian Beltre. He has a $10 million player option, but there’s no virtually no chance he’d take it. He was fourth in the MLB in hits, sixth in batting average, and first in doubles. He’ll get a fat check wherever he goes, and he should come back to Boston. It’s very rare that a free agent excels under the pressure of Boston’s fans and giant media presence. Beltre exceled this year. He was the offensive MVP, no questions asked. Pay him whatever he wants, but bring him back. There isn’t much in the free-agent crop of third basemen, so do whatever is necessary and make sure he mans the hot corner at Fenway Park every night.
The Red Sox had some interesting bench and prospect players come up this year, but none of them shined so brightly that they should definitely be brought back next season. The lone exception was Jed Lowrie, who played every infield position and showed some pop at the plate. It’s time he played a full season in the majors, just to see if he can handle it. Split him with Scutaro, use him off the bench, but he needs to be ready by 2012 to be the starting shortstop. And if he can’t, they need to learn that next year to so they can get a free agent for 2012. It wouldn’t be the first time the Red Sox signed a new shortstop in the off-season, after all.
The Pitching: It’s All About the Bullpen, Baby
First off, every Red Sox fans should be positively giddy over the notion of several more years of Buchholz and Jon Lester. Both of them should pick up a few Cy Young votes, and they’ll be an even more formidable one-two punch at the top of the rotation next year. Josh Beckett, on the other hand, will be looking to bounce back after a season lost to injury this year. He always plays better in odd-numbered years with the Red Sox, and he’ll want to reclaim his status as an elite pitcher. Expect a phenomenal season from him. Daisuke Matsuzaka will be entering his fifth year in the majors. He is a perpetually frustrating pitcher who never seems to improve or decline. He just stumbles along, sometimes pitching well, sometimes pitching atrociously and sometimes going on the disabled list. Expect more of the same next year. John Lackey will probably have an easier time in 2011, having had a year of experience with Martinez (assuming they bring him back). Next year he’ll start the season with a better of understanding of how his stuff can best help the team win. Expect a small improvement, which is all you really need from a fourth or fifth starter.
The odd-man out in this equation is Tim Wakefield. Getting the 14 wins necessary to take the Red Sox franchise record for victories is unlikely. He hasn’t won that many games since 2007. It’s unlikely he’d get them as a starter, and it’s virtually impossible he’d get them as a long-reliever. He’s under contract for next year, so he might return again just to get paid. But the elder statesmen could do the team a favor and just retire. He had a great career with Boston, winning two World Series championships and being named an All-Star in 2009. He has nothing left to prove, so why not make the honorable choice to retire? The team would thank him for it.
The Red Sox starting rotation was ranked sixth in ERA in the American League last year. Not great, but not bad either. With an offense as prolific as Boston’s, you can get away with that. The Yankees made the playoffs with the eighth-ranked rotation in the American League, after all. The problem lay in the bullpen, ranked thirteenth in the AL with a 4.24 ERA. The bullpen was awful this year, and it’s where the most work is needed. Now, all of the Red Sox’s pitchers should be back next year. Hideki Okajima is arbitration-eligible, but that’s it. He needs to come back next year and prove he can still be the All-Star he was in 2007. Otherwise, Felix Doubront may take over some Okajima’s duties as primary lefty reliever.
There are some decent relievers entering free agency this year. To name a few: Grant Balfour of the Rays, unfortunately-named J.J. Putz of the White Sox (though he was injured this year), and Jesse Crain of the Twins. All three of these relievers played on low-payroll teams this season, so it’s unlikely their current teams will match what a team like the Red Sox could pay. So Boston should be able to add some bullpen depth this off-season.
The Red Sox also have an alternative means to strengthening the bullpen: trade Jonathan Papelbon. This was his worst year ever as a closer. He blew eight saves, walked more batters than ever more, struck out the fewest since 2006, and gave up the most home runs of his career. His ERA, 3.90, was 1.25 runs higher than his previously worst year, 2006: his rookie year. Papelbon is declining, and he isn’t acting like or saying anything to indicate that he wants to stay in Boston. He is still an elite leader, and he is cheap. That makes him ideal trade bait. Daniel Bard had a phenomenal season as a setup-man, and he is ready to make the jump to closer. He has already shown less of a propensity for meltdowns than Papelbon. The last time he gave up more than one earned run? June 10. In 73 games he gave up earned runs just 13 times. He can handle the pressure, and he throws harder than Papelbon ever did. Trade Papelbon for an elite reliever, move Bard to the closer’s role, and the bullpen should get better real fast.
If the Red Sox can bring back its key hitters and shore up the bullpen, they should be a force next year. The AL East crown is definitely a possibility. The Red Sox tied their season series with the Yankees, and the Rays are going to lose several key players to free agency. Ellsbury may win the AL stolen base title again, and either Lester or Buchholz (or both) will factor in the Cy Young voting again next year. The Red Sox should get to the playoffs. And with a dominating one-two (and possibly three if Beckett returns to form) starting rotation like Boston has, they might go quite a long way. The last time the Red Sox missed the playoffs, they won the World Series the following season. It’s too early to say that about next year without knowing who’s going to win this year, but just remember: history is on Boston’s side.