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When Can We Realistically Expect the Boston Red Sox to Contend Again?

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When Can We Realistically Expect the Boston Red Sox to Contend Again?
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The Boston Red Sox were doomed from the very start this season.

Actually, they were doomed well before that. The organization crumbled for good last fall. Boston's September collapse was swiftly followed with a great purge of sorts, and the Red Sox then used scotch tape to close the gaping holes in their ship.

Naturally, the patches in the ship didn't hold. It's been roughly a year since last September's collapse, and the Red Sox have gone from being a flawed team with a lot of talent to a broken down team with very little talent.

They're also going to be without a manager again pretty soon. All signs point toward Bobby Valentine getting the axe, say, about five seconds after the regular season comes to a close on the third of October. 

According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, Bobby V has no shot of keeping his job. Ownership knows he's gone. So does general manager Ben Cherington, who supposedly never wanted Bobby V in the first place.

Assuming Valentine does get fired, Boston's slate will finally be totally clean this winter. The Red Sox will be without a manager, and they'll have a roster that they'll be looking to rebuild.

It's been a while since we last saw the Red Sox in such a position. The question everyone wants answered is how long it will be before they can get themselves back on top.

I don't have a crystal ball, but I can say with certainty that it won't be immediately. The Red Sox aren't going to be rebuilt in a single night.

Harry How/Getty Images
The Red Sox ditched Adrian Gonzalez in the first year of his seven-year, $154 million deal.

They certainly could be rebuilt in a single night, mind you. The Red Sox cleared $250 million in salaries, thanks to their mega-trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that's money that they could use to go on a massive free-agent spending spree this winter.

If the Red Sox choose to do that, they'll basically be making like the New York Yankees prior to the 2009 season. After missing out on the playoffs for the first time in a millennium (or something like that) in 2008, the Yankees went out and spent over $400 million on CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. 

They also traded for Nick Swisher, a transaction that went under the radar at the time but is now looming large in the Yankees' plans for this offseason.

What the Yankees did after the 2008 season was exhaust every single resource they had at their disposal to make themselves a championship-caliber team in one fell swoop. Fortunately for them, it worked.

The Yankees are paying for their spending spree now, but you won't get them to admit regretting it seeing as how they got a championship out of it. As such, the Red Sox could set their own sights on a championship in 2013 and attempt to bribe their way to it, so to speak.

If the decision to go for it in this manner is made, somebody will surely shout, "YOLO!"

The pieces are out there if the Red Sox want to make it rain this winter. It's not a great free-agent market, but there will be some stars available.

They need a left fielder after trading Carl Crawford. That's an excuse to sign Josh Hamilton.

They need a starting pitcher after trading Josh Beckett. That's an excuse to sign Zack Greinke.

They need a first baseman after trading Adrian Gonzalez. That's an excuse to sign Mike Napoli.

After experiencing much of the 2012 season without Andrew Bailey and watching Alfredo Aceves struggle in his stead, the Red Sox could use a closer. That's an excuse to trade for Chris Perez, who practically begged for a trade with his recent comments to Fox Sports via Jon Paul Morosi.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Josh Hamilton is leading the AL in two triple-crown categories.

The Red Sox have the cash to sign Hamilton, Greinke and Napoli after clearing so much money in the Dodgers deal. They also have the resources to trade for Perez. Conceivably, they could land all four of them this winter.

If they do that while also re-signing David Ortiz to be their DH and Cody Ross to be their right fielder, the Red Sox are going to be loaded for 2013. They'd be primed to make a run.

This all sounds fine and dandy, but let's be real here. The Red Sox failed miserably in the last two seasons largely because they got too reckless with their cash. Just because they can be reckless with their cash this winter doesn't mean that they will. After all that's happened, they know better.

So, do yourself a favor and purge the notion of an offseason spending spree from your mind. It's not going to happen. 

The Red Sox are going to be smarter. As Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal wrote, Cherington making "knee-jerk decisions and filling his roster with long-term commitments defeats the purpose of having made the trade in the first place."

It will be all about discipline and cleverness for Cherington and the Red Sox this winter. The trick won't be to sign the best players. The trick will be to find the best value.

MacPherson touched on a number of bargain buys the Red Sox could pursue, such as Edwin Jackson, Brandon McCarthy and Dan Haren, if the Angels decline to pick up his $15.5 million option. Even Napoli could be in play if he is forced to settle for a one-year contract similar to the one Adrian Beltre signed with Boston in 2010.

In fact, one-year "pillow contracts" could be all the rage in Boston this winter. The Red Sox could look to load up on players who are simply looking for a chance to put themselves in line for multi-year contracts during the 2013-2014 offseason.

If the Red Sox do end up signing a bunch of free agents to one-year deals, there's a chance they could return to the playoff hunt as soon as next season. For that to happen, their free-agent signings would merely have to pan out.

Even then, though, there are no guarantees. The Red Sox made a bunch of free-agent signings after the 2009 season (i.e. Beltre and John Lackey), and they failed to make it to the playoffs in 2010. In fact, they finished in third place for the second time in five years.

The disappointment of 2010 won't keep Cherington from pursuing team-friendly contracts in free agency this winter, but he's not going to be foolish enough to think that he can bargain-buy his way to a World Series run. That would take a lot of luck, and it's pretty clear that Lady Luck is fresh out of favors for the Red Sox.

No, building a foundation for a World Series run is going to take more patience. It's not unreasonable to think that the Red Sox will be active in free agency over the next few years, but the primary tool for the team's reconstruction will be its farm system.

The Red Sox had a good farm system a few years ago, one that bore fruit such as Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Jonathan Papelbon. They have a good one now, too. It's already bore Will Middlebrooks, and there's plenty more talent to be had down on the farm.

Three Red Sox prospects found their way onto Baseball America's midseason rankings of the top 50 prospects in baseball with right-hander Matt Barnes checking in all the way up at No. 13. This was before the Red Sox acquired Allen Webster in the Dodgers deal.

As far as Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus was concerned, the Red Sox already had the No. 12 farm system in baseball heading into this season. After the draft and other moves the Red Sox have made this season, their farm system could be top-10 material a few months from now.

H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY
Xander Bogaerts posted a .948 OPS in Double-A this season after getting promoted.

Webster is close to being ready for the big leagues. Barnes could be ready for the big leagues by 2014, maybe even late 2013. Outfielder Bryce Brentz could also be ready for everyday duty by 2014. There's a good chance shortstop Xander Bogaerts could be ready by then, too.

This is not to say that the Red Sox are going to stand idly by and wait for their star minor leaguers to be ready for the big leagues. Some will establish themselves as major leaguers in Boston but not all. With the minor league depth he now has to play with, Cherington will be able to trade some of the club's top prospects away for established stars if he so pleases.

He's only going to do that if he senses potential in the major league roster at his disposal, and I think he's only going to have that kind of confidence in the near future if a few things fall into place.

The big question mark in Boston right now is Jacoby Ellsbury's future with the club. The word from Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald is that an extension is definitely possible, but Scott Boras, Ellbury's agent, isn't going to let the Red Sox sign him for cheap.

If the Red Sox decide to trade Ellsbury this winter, their rebuild will be given an extra hole to fill. If he leaves as a free agent after the 2013 season, that hole will exist a year later than the Red Sox would have preferred.

There's also the matter of Jon Lester's situation in Boston. He'll be looking to rebound in 2013, and if he does, the Red Sox will surely pick up his $13 million option for 2014. If he doesn't rebound, the Red Sox will probably let him go. And if that happens, they'll have yet another hole in their starting pitching staff to fill.

If Ellsbury and Lester are taken out of the equation one way or the other, I highly doubt that the Red Sox will be able to seriously contend in 2014. They'll have some good young players mixed in with some veterans and some free-agent/trade acquisitions, but the overall talent level will be lacking.

When will the Red Sox be a championship-caliber team again?

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But, let's entertain the notion of what things will be like if Ellsbury signs an extension and Lester proves himself worthy of $13 million in 2014. What then?

In this scenario, the core that the Red Sox have now (which also includes Middlebrooks, Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, et al) is still going to be in place. Around it will be home-grown players from Boston's farm system, as well as trade and (probably modestly-priced) free-agent acquisitions.

This potential 2014 team is a nebulous thing, to be sure, but at the very least, we know it would feature a good core of players. If Boston's prospects develop into the players they're expected to be and Cherington plays his cards right in trades and free agency, the Red Sox will have a quality team on their hands.

So, 2014. Write that number down. If all goes well, that's when the Red Sox will be back.

Even if all doesn't go well, the target date for contention shouldn't be placed any later than 2016. The Red Sox have too much money and too many resources to go into a Kansas City Royals-like dry spell.

If something like that happens, it will be because of sheer stupidity.

...Yes, that's a cue to cross your fingers.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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