Losing Napoli to free agency would leave the Sox with very little right-handed power.
Under pressure to rebuild a team that had lost 90-plus games for the first time since 1966, Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington had an extremely active and nearly flawless offseason as he made over a roster that currently has the best record in baseball at 95-62. The circumstances will be different, but expect Cherington to be just as busy this time around with several key players eligible to become free agents.
Armed with several high-caliber prospects who are close to making an impact in the majors, the Sox are capable of filling holes on the roster with young and inexpensive talent or through trades. But with a payroll that is still fairly flexible since the blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers last August, it wouldn't be a surprise if Cherington utilized the free-agent market to fill out his roster once again.
The rotation is set after the midseason acquisition of Jake Peavy, who is signed for 2014, and with Jon Lester's club option expected to be exercised. But with potential holes at catcher, first base, shortstop, center field and the bullpen, the Sox will have some work to do.
Here's a breakdown of each need and which free agents could be targets.
It's a good year to be the top catcher available on the free-agent market. Not only will the Red Sox be in the mix with Jarrod Saltalamacchia eligible for free agency, the Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers are big spenders who could also be looking for catching help.
That top catcher would be 29-year-old Brian McCann (pictured), who could command a deal in the neighborhood of Yadier Molina's five-year, $75 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals. The seven-time All-Star, who has an .810 OPS with 20 homers in 99 games, would be a strong fit for a veteran Red Sox pitching staff with former teammate David Ross working as his backup.
The state of the team, which appears to be in as good of shape as any team in baseball for the foreseeable future, will also be a strong selling point as well as the ability to keep him in the lineup as the designated hitter if he's unable to catch more than five or six days later in his career.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, BOS: (.788 OPS, 13 HR; 22% caught stealing)
A.J. Pierzynski, TEX: (.732 OPS, 17 HR; 32% caught stealing)
Kurt Suzuki, OAK: (.629 OPS, 5 HR; 12% caught stealing)
Carlos Ruiz, PHI: (.708 OPS, 5 HR; 26% caught stealing)
The only thing that could keep Mike Napoli, the top first baseman on the free-agent market, from re-signing in Boston is if the team's concerns about his chronic knee condition still exists. That's because there is a much greater chance that at least one other team doesn't have that concern about offering him a multiyear deal after his highly productive and injury-free season.
In 136 games, the 31-year-old has an .836 OPS with 23 homers, 36 doubles and 90 runs batted in during his Red Sox debut. While he had to settle for a one-year deal that guaranteed him only $5 million after initially agreeing on a three-year, $36 million deal, Napoli has earned $8 million in incentives and would like to return to the team next season, according to Rob Bradford of WEEI.com.
If Napoli departs, there are a few other decent options with right-handed hitting Corey Hart (pictured) near the top of that list. The 31-year-old, who has missed all of the 2013 season after surgeries to both knees, had an .830 OPS with an average of 24 homers and 78 runs batted in per season between 2007 and 2008 for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Another right-handed slugger who could interest Boston is Jose Dariel Abreu, a 26-year-old power hitter out of Cuba who is expected to become a free agent this winter. Bleacher Report Lead Writer Mike Rosenbaum wrote all about Abreu here last month.
James Loney, TB: (.760 OPS, 12 HR)
Kendrys Morales, SEA: (.785 OPS, 22 HR)
Justin Morneau, PIT: (.734 OPS, 17 HR)
Paul Konerko, CWS: (.675 OPS, 11 HR)
It's unclear how much of a priority that the shortstop will be in the offseason. In all likelihood, it's not at the top of the list, but they're probably open to bringing back Stephen Drew (pictured) at the right price if they fail to re-sign Napoli or find an adequate replacement for him.
How does that make sense? With Drew back in the fold, top prospect Xander Bogaerts would likely shift over to third base permanently while Will Middlebrooks would slide from the hot corner over to first base. There you go.
With Bogaerts, who is 10-for-38 with a homer in limited playing time since his call-up last month, capable of handling the shortstop position defensively, this scenario is highly unlikely unless they feel it is the best one.
The Sox can't wait too long on the 30-year-old Drew, who has a .772 OPS and 13 homers on the season. He is the only solid option on the free-agent market and is likely to be pursued aggressively by multiple teams.
If they don't feel that Bogaerts is ready and Drew signs elsewhere, the Sox could turn to a veteran stopgap like Brendan Ryan or Clint Barmes, or possibly even Rafael Furcal, who hasn't played this season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The Sox can afford to re-sign Jacoby Ellsbury (pictured). The question is whether they want to meet what is expected to be an extremely high asking price for a player who has missed a lot of time due to injury in two of the past four seasons.
Payroll flexibility is a good thing, and the Dodgers gave that to the Sox when they took on the huge contracts of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez in the multiplayer trade last August. The Sox took full advantage by signing several solid free agents last winter, although none were given more than three-year deals, and then continuing to add to the payroll during the season with the acquisitions of Jake Peavy and Matt Thornton.
With top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. a pretty good option to have as Ellsbury's replacement, the Sox could pass on Ellsbury and hand the job to the 23-year-old, who has struggled in a few different big league stints this season (.628 OPS, 3 HR in 33 games). He was impressive in Triple-A, though, with an .842 OPS and 10 homers in 80 games. He also has a career .404 on-base percentage in his minor league career and could turn out to be an adequate replacement for Ellsbury in the leadoff spot.
Another option would be to move Shane Victorino to center field and sign one of the top corner outfielders on the market, which includes Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz and Hunter Pence. Beltran and Cruz, in particular, would be intriguing because they won't require the four- or five-year deals that Choo and Pence will.
Lastly, the ability to move Mike Carp and/or Daniel Nava to first base gives them yet another option. In this scenario, Bradley would play center field, Victorino would stay in right field and the aforementioned outfielders would be pursued to play left field.
Either way, the Sox's lineup could be extremely talented whether Ellsbury is brought back or not.
The Sox have so many intriguing bullpen options for 2014, including several prospects with big-time arms and no chance to pitch in the rotation anytime soon. But aside from closer Koji Uehara, one of the unsung heroes of the 2013 season, the Sox don't have too many highly reliable options.
Picking up Matt Thornton's $6 million club option would help, but that's no sure thing considering the pen already has several other lefty options in Craig Breslow, Drake Britton, Andrew Miller and Franklin Morales. The 28-year-old Miller pitched very well in 2012 and was having his best season in 2013 (2.64 ERA, 30.2 IP, 25 H, 17 BB, 48 K) when a foot injury ended his season. If they feel confident that he'll return healthy and productive, Thornton is unlikely to return.
Lefty bullpen help isn't their main concern, anyway. Finding a right-handed setup man could be on the priority list. Junichi Tazawa has been very good in that role (2.96 ERA, 25 holds) but has been shaky over the past month. If Jesse Crain or Edward Mujica (pictured) can't find closer jobs in the offseason, they'll likely be the top setup men available.
Crain was one of the best relievers in baseball this season (0.74 ERA, 36.2 IP, 31 H, 11 BB, 46 K, 19 holds) before being shut down with a shoulder injury. The Sox were one of the teams rumored to have interest in acquiring him from the White Sox before he was dealt to Tampa Bay.
Mujica, who was recently removed from the closer's role in St. Louis after a few rough outings this month, has been terrific overall (2.53 ERA, 64 IP, 57 H, 5 BB, 46 K, 37 Sv) and might just be worn down in his first full season in a high-leverage role. It could be enough of a concern, though, that his best opportunity could come as a setup man on a contender rather than as a closer.
Francisco Rodriguez, BAL: (2.56 ERA, 45.2 IP, 40 H, 13 BB, 54 K, 10 Sv, 5 holds)
Jose Veras, DET: (2.80 ERA, 61 IP, 41 H, 21 BB, 58 K, 21 Sv, 7 holds)
Ryan Madson: DNP in 2012-13 (recovery from Tommy John surgery)