The Boston Red Sox's offseason retooling effort has yielded promising results thus far in 2013. As early as it is, an 11-4 record and a first-place standing in the AL East make for an impressive turnaround from the disaster that was 2012.
In the land that lies beyond 2013, things should only get better for the Red Sox.
They should be graduating some very good young players to the majors over the next couple of seasons. On top of that, the salaries they shed in their big trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers last August left them with payroll leeway that's going to keep coming in handy.
I have no clue how the Red Sox's future is going to pan out down to the last detail. Neither does general manager Ben Cherington or any other member of the club's brass, for that matter.
But I don't mind taking a few wild and educated-to-a-degree guesses. My vision of what's going to become of the Red Sox over the next two seasons looks a little something like this.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia is due to test the free-agent waters this winter, and he's going to be a valuable commodity. Dependable 28-year-old catchers don't grow on trees, you know.
So what are the Red Sox to do?
Simple: Re-sign Salty.
The Red Sox could use Salty's departure as an excuse to go with Ryan Lavarnway, but that would be a pretty risky play given Lavarnway's questionable defense and unspectacular major league production. Blake Swihart is waiting in the wings, but he's still a couple of years away.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the 2013-2014 free-agent market is going to be thin on everyday catchers. Unless the Red Sox feel like taking a chance on an injury-prone Brian McCann, there won't be many viable alternatives to Salty.
Re-signing Salty is likely to involve paying him more than he's worth. If Russell Martin, a guy who hit .211 with a .713 OPS last year, can get $8.5 million per year on the open market, then Salty is in for about that much. Since Salty will be a year younger than Martin was when he signed, he'll probably require three years as well.
My best guess: Three years at $9 million per year for a total of $27 million. That's a big sum for a guy with a .723 career OPS but a sum worth paying for the Red Sox. They'll retain some power and, more importantly, a durable catcher who knows the pitching staff.
So, first base is another area the Red Sox are going to have to address. They could look to continue their partnership with Napoli, but they could be wary enough of his hips to consider other options.
Some free agents who stand out are Corey Hart, Kendrys Morales, Mike Morse and Justin Morneau.
Morse is going to be the big-ticket guy out of this bunch, and you may recall a January report from Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com that the Red Sox looked into trading for him when talks with Napoli were dragging out.
But there's a real possibility that Morse will be a qualifying offer guy if he stays on his 30-homer pace, and the Red Sox shied away from such free agents this past winter. Even if Morse doesn't get a qualifying offer, it's easy to see the bidding for his power spinning way out of control.
Hart is more like it for the Red Sox. Since a good chunk of his 2013 season is going to be lost due to his recovery from knee surgery, he's presumably not going to be a qualifying offer guy. He's also not going to appeal to many teams due to his career home/road splits. Hart owns an .891 career OPS at Miller Park and a .762 OPS everywhere else. That's an alarming gap.
But Hart will appeal to the Red Sox, who will be drooling over his .307 career ISO on balls hit to left field (see FanGraphs). Like Napoli, he'd be a guy who could take aim at the Green Monster.
Nick Swisher got a four-year deal coming off his age-31 season, and Hart could be looking for something similar coming off his own age-31 season this year.
But since Hart doesn't have Swisher's dependability, he'll have to settle for a lesser deal. Given their recent track record, the Red Sox would likely to offer Hart three years and a big average annual value, just as they did with Shane Victorino and were prepared to do with Napoli.
Three years and $39 million sounds pretty fair to me. But just to make sure I'm not aiming too low, I'll go three years and $42 million.
Here's where things start to get easy.
Dustin Pedroia is signed for $10 million next year, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, and the Red Sox hold an $11 million club option for the 2015 season. That will be exercised with no fuss.
I'd also expect the Red Sox and Pedroia to work out an extension in the near future. The five-year, $75 million extension Ian Kinsler signed with the Texas Rangers last year will serve as a starting point, but Pedroia is probably going to walk way with a deal worth well over $100 million in the end.
And not a soul in Boston will complain.
Here's another area where there's unlikely to be much drama in the next couple of years.
Will Middlebrooks had a big three-homer game in Toronto earlier in the season, but he hasn't done much outside of that. Through 59 plate appearances, he's only hitting .182/.220/.436.
The talent, however, is definitely there. Middlebrooks may not be a perennial .300 hitter, but he's a guy who has the goods to give the Red Sox 25 homers and above-average defense at the hot corner on an annual basis. Production like that at third base is more than welcome.
The other good thing about Middlebrooks is that, for the time being, he's cheap. He's not even arbitration eligible until after 2014, and he doesn't hit free agency until after 2018. Look for him to be sticking around at third base for a while.
Stephen Drew is going to man shortstop for the Red Sox in 2013, but the position will be in flux once again after he walks as a free agent.
But don't expect the Red Sox to go out and sign somebody. They're much more likely to stay in-house, with the two primary candidates for the job being Jose Iglesias and top prospect Xander Bogaerts.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the job is going to go to Bogaerts. He's the best prospect the Red Sox have, and the sooner they turn the job over to him, the sooner the club's longstanding shortstop problem is going to finally be taken care of.
There have been questions about Bogaerts' defense at short, but ESPN's Keith Law (Insider post) wrote in February that he made strides defensively last season thanks in large part to improved conditioning. Bogaerts won't be an excellent defender, but he has the goods to at least be solid.
If he becomes what he's supposed to become, the Red Sox will have a perennial .300 hitter with 30-homer power at shortstop for many years. That's a nice thing to have.
The big question here: What's going to happen with Jacoby Ellsbury? Will he re-sign with the Red Sox in the next few months or after the season? Or is he as good as gone?
Most likely as good as gone. Given his age and his all-around skill set, Ellsbury is going to be the top center fielder on the open market this winter, and that means his price is going to skyrocket.
What will happen is the Red Sox will make Ellsbury a qualifying offer, collect a draft pick when he signs elsewhere and then turn the center field job over to Jackie Bradley Jr.
But then a new big question would arise: Who would bat leadoff?
It wouldn't be Bradley. He's got the potential to be a good on-base guy, but Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus described him as a hitter who's likely to be a "down-the-lineup offensive threat."
The best leadoff man on the open market is going to be Shin-Soo Choo, whom the Red Sox could sign to play right field with Victorino moving over to left. The issue is that Choo is likely to be a qualifying offer guy, in which case Cherington and the front office would give him a wide berth.
So I'd like to propose a more creative (read: "probably crazy, but whatever") solution: a platoon between Victorino and Daniel Nava.
Nava could play left field and bat leadoff against right-handers. With a lefty on the mound, Nava could be benched in favor of Jonny Gomes in left field, and Victorino could bat leadoff.
The idea occurred to me because of Victorino's and Nava's career splits. Victorino has a career .373 OBP against lefties, and Nava has a career .372 OBP against right-handers.
If it were to prove successful, that same combination could be used again in 2015. But the Red Sox could also move to sign a more traditional leadoff guy, such as current New York Yankees outfielder/grinder/fly-ball-go-getter Brett Gardner.
Gardner is due to hit free agency after 2014, and the Yankees may not have the financial wiggle room to bring him back. The Red Sox certainly will, as my version of their future involves them having a lot of young, cheap players on their payroll.
Coming off his age-30 season, the best Gardner is going to be able to do is something akin to the four-year, $48 million contract Michael Bourn signed with the Cleveland Indians this past offseason.
Since Gardner's going to be a year older than Bourn was when he signed, I can see three years with an option happening for him. And while Gardner doesn't look like a pricey player now, I can see his value rising with a full year in center field in place of Curtis Granderson next year.
So I'll go ahead and play it safe: three years and $36 million, with an option for a fourth.
With Gardner in the fold, the Red Sox would then have three center fielders to sort out for three outfield spots. It would be time for some musical chairs.
Since it would be in Boston's interest to preserve Victorino's and Gardner's legs, the best bet would be for them to stash Gardner in right field with Victorino moving over to left field. Bradley and his young legs would remain in center. Combined, the three would give the Red Sox a tremendous defensive outfield.
David Ortiz is going to hold down the DH spot this year, and he's under contract for next season at $11.5 million.
But that's probably going to be that for Big Papi in Boston. He'll be pushing 40, and it's likely, given his recent history, that his body won't be up for it anymore.
The ideal scenario is going to involve the Red Sox replacing Big Papi with a guy who can provide similar power from the left side of the plate, but the free agents who fit that description aren't going to be very appealing. The Red Sox aren't going to want to mess with Adam Dunn, and old friend Victor Martinez's legs may be ruined by his many years of catching.
The Red Sox will have to go with the best option available from either side of the plate. Given the nature of things now, that looks like it's going to be Josh Willingham.
Willingham is a .252/.352/.500 hitter with an .853 OPS since the start of the 2011 season, and he's also a guy with huge power to left field. Per FanGraphs, his career ISO on balls hit to left is .430.
It wouldn't take much to sign Willingham. Coming off his age-35 season, my guess is that he'll be in line for nothing more than a two-year deal at an average figure just a bit higher than the $7 million salary he's making now.
Let's call it two years and $20 million.
The Red Sox are going with a rotation of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, Felix Doubront and John Lackey this year, and this same rotation should return next year.
Buchholz, Dempster and Lackey are all under contract, and Doubront is under club control through 2018. The only thing the Red Sox will have to do to retain their 2013 rotation is pick up Lester's $13 million option, which will be a no-brainer as long as it isn't voided by a top-two finish in the AL Cy Young voting this year.
But when it comes to Lester, the Red Sox would be wise to look beyond 2014. He's an extension candidate, and it's in Boston's interest to get something done.
Lester is an ace pitcher, and there's not going to be an ace on the open market after 2014 worthy of big dollars. Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander have already been locked up, and Clayton Kershaw is all but guaranteed to sign an enormous extension with the Dodgers sometime within the next, oh, five seconds.
It's probably going to take a six-year deal that would keep Lester in Boston through his age-36 season. That's how long Verlander is guaranteed to stick around in Detroit and Adam Wainwright is guaranteed to stick around in St. Louis.
As for dollars, Lester doesn't have the Cy Youngs or the insane numbers to ask for King Felix or Verlander money. In the realm of aces, Lester is more in Wainwright's company.
Wainwright got $19.5 million per year in his extension with the Cardinals. That's right around where Lester would land now, but he's likely to do better given the rising cost of ace starters.
So let's call it safe and go six years at $21.5 million per year for a total of $129 million.
If that deal gets done, rounding out the rest of Boston's 2015 rotation will be easy. The Red Sox will have Buchholz under contract and Lackey under contract at the major league minimum by way of a clause in his deal that was activated by his Tommy John surgery.
Dempster will be gone from Boston's rotation, but the Red Sox can put top prospect Allen Webster in his place. He's been opening a ton of eyes lately, and it's not out of the question that he'll find his way into the rotation for good as soon as this year. By not penciling him into Boston's season-opening rotation until 2015, I'm admittedly playing things conservatively.
I'll play things a little less conservatively by guessing that Matt Barnes is going to take Doubront's place in the rotation in 2015. He's another top prospect, and it's worth noting that Jason Parks of BP actually holds Barnes in higher regard than Webster.
If this is the way the dominoes fall, Boston's 2015 rotation would look like:
- Jon Lester
- Clay Buchholz
- Allen Webster
- Matt Barnes
- John Lackey
If what they say about Webster and Barnes is true, that's a darn good rotation.
I don't know if Joel Hanrahan is going to survive the season as Boston's closer, but my powers of observation say not to count on it.
What I do know with some certainty is this: Hanrahan's time with the Red Sox is going to end when the season ends. There's no way the Red Sox are going to pay to retain him as a free agent.
Not while they have so many intriguing in-house closer options, anyway. Among those are Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa and flame-throwing prospect Rubby De La Rosa.
Bailey is the most likely guy to close for the Red Sox in 2014 in what will be his walk year, but De La Rosa will be the guy to keep an eye on. He's working as a starter now, but his high-90s fastball, swing-and-miss breaking stuff and iffy control make him a guy who looks destined for late-inning relief.
It's a good bet that De La Rosa is going to play a prominent role on the 2014 Red Sox and that it's probably going to be in the bullpen, given the starting pitching depth the Red Sox are going to have.
But come 2015, De La Rosa's going to stand out as a clear and affordable option to replace Bailey in the ninth inning. The Red Sox will roll with him.
There's obviously a lot of guesswork going on here. I wish I had more exact science to offer, but that's impossible in a set of projections like this.
Forecasting how much money free agents are going to be paid at the outset of a given offseason is hard enough. Forecasting what the dollars are going to be like several months ahead of time is even harder. Looking two offseasons ahead borders on being crazy-pants.
The salaries for the younger guys are just as difficult to project. Per MLB's collective bargaining agreement, we know that the major league minimum is $490,000 this year and will increase to $500,000 in 2014 and will stay roughly right around there in 2015. But not every young guy is going to make exactly the major league minimum. Will Middlebrooks isn't this year, for example.
Then there's the salary arbitration, which is a puzzle even when it's going on. Anticipating how salary arbitration cases in 2014 and 2015 are going to pan out now is like trying to predict each and every plot point in Christopher Nolan's next movie.
It is with these words of warning that I present the projected payrolls the Red Sox are going to be dealing with in my vision of their future:
The Red Sox are spending about $125 million out of their roughly $155 million payroll this season on their key parts. If they incorporate the young guys over the next couple of seasons, the money spent on the club's key parts will continue to fall, and the overall payroll will fall with it.
We know from their $175 million Opening Day payroll in 2012 that the Red Sox have the financial capacity to spend more than roughly $150 million on their payroll. But that 2012 team also taught everyone a rather important lesson: It's not how much you spend. It's how you spend it.
Am I going to be right about any of this?
Maybe one or two things. But all of them? Not a chance.
But you should think of these projections as being like a concept illustration: a rough preview of the real thing.
The current Red Sox roster features a number of guys who are right in the primes of their careers. We know for a fact that a couple of these guys—namely Dustin Pedroia and Clay Buchholz—aren't going anywhere in the near future, and it's a good bet that some of the others (i.e. Salty and Jon Lester) will be locked up as well.
The Red Sox are also sitting on a farm system that has plenty of talent, and it bodes well for them that many of their best young prospects don't have a lot of developing still to do. The club's prospect pipeline is going to bolster the big league roster in a significant way very soon.
If the young guys pan out, what the Red Sox are going to have in the very near future is a roster consisting of quality veterans and talented homegrown players. It will be reminiscent of what things were like in 2007, when guys like Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jonathan Papelbon were rubbing shoulders with David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Curt Schilling.
To my recollection, that mix proved to be a good one.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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