By Jeff Louderback
Fresh off a three-game sweep to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to open a nine-game west coast road trip, the Boston Red Sox are a season-worst eight games under .500 at 62-70.
The franchise is likely headed for its first sub-.500 season since 1997 (78-84). The widely disliked Bobby Valentine is still the manager, and the starting pitching in such disarray that the team continues to trot sinkerballer Aaron Cook to the mound.
Yet, as a lifelong fan who devotedly follows the Red Sox year-round win or lose, I feel optimistic about September as well as 2013 and beyond after the recent blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It is quite an abrupt change in attitude considering that I wrote this column on BoSox Banter earlier in August. Red Sox fans had every reason to feel disgust about the organization based on points made in this article, ranging from Valentine’s antics, the questionable moves and a lack of communication from the ownership group, and a group of underperforming and apathetic players led by Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia.
Youkilis, of course, was traded earlier this season to the White Sox, freeing third base for 23-year-old rookie Will Middlebrooks, who performed well until a broken wrist sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Then the Dodgers presented the Red Sox with an early Christmas gift by taking Gonzalez, Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto – and all but $11 million of the $272 million that remains on their contracts – and sending top pitching prospects Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, plus useful role players Ivan De Jesus and Jerry Sands, to Boston.
Suddenly, there is a better feeling about the Red Sox heading into what will be one of the most interesting and active off-seasons in recent history.
Courtesy of Los Angeles, the Red Sox have just $42.938 million in payroll commitments for next season, so general manager Ben Cherington has money and flexibility for 2013 and beyond. Undoubtedly Cherington has learned from the mistakes of his predecessor Theo Epstein – who doled out the contracts to Gonzalez, Crawford, Beckett, Youkilis and John Lackey (who is still owed $30.5 million over the next two seasons) – so he will operate with caution.
The Red Sox say they will upgrade their roster by pursuing trades for young veterans who are still under team control but set to become too expensive for their current clubs because of arbitration or escalating contracts. Arizona’s Justin Upton and Cleveland’s Shin-Soo Choo are examples of these type of players.
Chances are, the Sox will fill some holes via free agency. The team is reportedly exploring a contract extension with 31-year-old outfielder Cody Ross, who has a .277 average with 19 home runs and 67 RBI and provides Boston with a productive right-handed bat and a positive clubhouse presence. He will probably get a deal in the vicinity of the three years and $27 million that Josh Willingham received from Minnesota last off-season.
Obviously, the most critical decision facing Cherington this off-season is whether to bring back David Ortiz, who will be 37 in November. Ortiz, who has played in one game since injuring his Achilles tendon on July 16, has a .318 average, a 1.026 OPS, 23 home runs, 60 RBI and 26 doubles in 383 plate appearances. His OPS, which includes on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, was its highest since he recorded a 1.066 mark in 2007.
The Red Sox appear to have three options with Ortiz:
- Offer him arbitration like they did last off-season, when he reluctantly accepted a one-year, $14.575 contract
- Give him a multi-year deal, which would likely require two years and anywhere from $25 million to $30 million
- Let him leave via free agency
Replacing Ortiz’s production would not be a simple task. Travis Hafner, Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome, Luke Scott, Raul Ibanez and Johnny Damon are the top DH choices set to hit the free agent market. Those would be appealing names five years ago, but not for 2013.
FoxSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal suggested the Red Sox might be interested in Joe Mauer, the former American League Most Valuable Player who was recently placed on revocable waivers by his hometown Minnesota Twins. The 29-year-old Mauer is not a slugger like Ortiz, but he is a plus defensive catcher who can also play first base and DH. He does carry a $23 million annual salary through 2018, though, and to get him the Red Sox would have to sacrifice a haul of top prospects and/or young Major League talent.
It would be better to trade a package of prospects and young Major Leaguers to Seattle for 26-year-old right-hander Felix Hernandez if the Mariners decide to deal their uber ace this off-season. He is under team control at $19.5 million in 2013 and $20 million in 2014, so Seattle does not have to move him. They could instead decide to build a rotation around him with top pitching prospects like Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.
If the Mariners want to upgrade their slew of pitching prospects, the Red Sox could send them De La Rosa and Webster, and perhaps even highly regarded right-hander Matt Barnes. Seattle is starved for offense, and the Red Sox have Xander Bogaerts, Bryce Brentz and Jackie Bradley, though Boston will likely hold onto Bogaerts and Bradley because of their extremely high ceilings.
Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and Franklin Morales give the Red Sox four under-30 starting pitchers who can be effective for the long term. What the team needs is a bonafide ace, which they have lacked since Beckett lost his dominant form.
Potential free agents who can help the Red Sox for next season include Nick Swisher, who could leave the Yankees unless they choose to move Brett Gardner to center field and find a taker for the costly Curtis Granderson, who has a $13 million team option and a $2 million buyout.
The switch-hitting Swisher would be ideal because of his versatility, and the Red Sox could also retain the 28-year-old James Loney, who is a plus defensive first baseman and is a line drive hitter who could thrive at Fenway Park. Loney, who is 7-for-17 (.412) since joining the Red Sox in the blockbuster trade with the Dodgers, is a free agent. Over parts of seven Major League seasons, Loney has a .285 average and a .765 OPS. If the Red Sox add a run-producing bat like Swisher, bring back Ortiz and Ross, and/or sign a masher like Josh Hamilton, they can afford to have Loney’s below average power numbers at first base.
Next season, the Red Sox will also have an array of help ready at Triple-A Pawtucket. Bogaerts, Brentz and Bradley will be a step away from the majors. Ryan Kalish, the 24-year-old outfielder who has struggled this season while still recovering from shoulder and neck injuries, should be fully recovered by spring training. De La Rosa, Webster and Chris Hernandez will offer starting pitching depth at Triple-A.
Though he could be an off-season trade candidate, Jacoby Ellsbury will likely be back with the Red Sox in his last season before becoming eligible for free agency. Since he is represented by Scott Boras, the Red Sox will have a difficult time reaching a long-term extension before he hits the free agent market. With Bradley poised to take over in center field by 2014, Boston would be wise to keep Ellsbury, enjoy the fruits of a player with a lot of incentive to generate big numbers before he hits free agency and then let him walk after the 2013 season (and getting a supplemental first round draft pick when he declines arbitration).
There are naysayers who believe the Red Sox will have a rebuilding year in 2013. I am not one of them. With a group of productive core players in their prime (including Pedroia, Ellsbury, Buchholz and Lester); key veterans like Ortiz and Ross; exciting young names like Middlebrooks, Doubront, Ryan Lavarnway and Morales; useful role players such as Pedro Ciriaco and the recently acquired De Jesus; and a bullpen that features closer Andrew Bailey, the Red Sox are not barren.
And considering they have just $42.938 million in salary commitments for 2013, Cherington has a clean slate and a load of money for trade acquisitions and free agent signings. The Red Sox are in an enviable position because they are a big market team with a deep farm system, productive core players and as much as $145 million to spend, but only responsibly. That is the recipe for an exciting off-season in Boston.