What Does the Future Hold for the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox?

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What Does the Future Hold for the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox?
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Right about now, the Boston Red Sox probably aren't too focused on their future. After capturing their third World Series title in the last decade on Wednesday, the present is just too good.

Heck, they haven't even done the parade yet. The duck boats await on Saturday.

Once the parade is over, however, that's when the Red Sox will go full into future planning mode. After building a winning team last winter, general manager Ben Cherington and his staff will look to turn the Red Sox into a proper dynasty.

Cherington and his staff have the means to do so, but don't expect them to do it the conventional way by making sure the band stays together.

The breakup of the 2013 Red Sox won't happen overnight, but the gradual process will start very soon.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The following Red Sox are free agents: shortstop Stephen Drew, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, right-hander Joel Hanrahan, first baseman Mike Napoli and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Hanrahan, who last pitched in May before heading in for Tommy John surgery, is definitely a goner. My powers of prognostication tell me that Drew and Ellsbury are likely goners as well. 

Ellsbury is in line for a huge contract after hitting .298 with a .355 on-base percentage and a league-leading 52 stolen bases, and Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has reported that the speedy center fielder has no shortage of suitors out on the open market. 

Heyman has also reported that there's a qualifying offer in Ellsbury's future, but I'm on the record with my belief that it's doubtful that rejecting that offer and tying himself to draft pick compensation will hurt Ellsbury's market. There's simply going to be too much interest in his services, and it bodes well for him that several of his most logical suitors own protected top-10 draft picks.

Elsa/Getty Images

The bidding for Ellsbury is bound to reach nine figures, and that's when the Red Sox could bow out. Heyman wrote back in September that $100 million deals make the Red Sox "anxious," and that such a price tag could mean Ellsbury's exit from Boston.

Which is easy to believe. While the Red Sox did sign Dustin Pedroia to an extension worth over $100 million this season, signing Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to deals worth over $100 million didn't work out. They were lucky to get rid of those in last August's mega-trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

As for Drew, he was an admirable fill-in at shortstop in 2013. But that's where the Red Sox have budding star Xander Bogaerts ready to step in, and Will Middlebrooks has a legit case to start at third base after posting an .805 OPS in 41 games after returning from the minor leagues in August. 

If Ellsbury and Drew leave, the Red Sox will have money lying around with which to re-up with Napoli and Saltalamacchia. It will take multi-year deals to bring both of them back, but "multi-year" in this case more than likely doesn't mean "long-term." 

Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe has heard from one GM that a three-year deal is in the cards for Napoli. Assuming the Red Sox make him a qualifying offer, they're going to be the one team in the best position to give him such a deal. They're more familiar with Napoli's degenerative hip issue than anyone else, and they also wouldn't have to forfeit a draft pick to sign him. 

As for Salty, he stands to benefit from a weak market for catchers this winter, and his price will escalate if Brian McCann does indeed get the $100 million contract he's been rumored to be in play for. But even if Salty's price tag does escalate, it won't escalate to ridiculous heights.

MLBTradeRumors.com, for example, has projected a four-year deal for Saltalamacchia worth $36 million. Even if his price goes to $40 million or $44 million over that same time period, the Red Sox will be looking at more or less the kind of deal that would fit the model Cherington established last winter.

Cherington has darn good reasons to keep that model alive this winter. The immediate gratification of that model working out in 2013 is certainly one of them, but the year-to-year payroll leeway is another. And given larger circumstances at play, now is certainly not a good time for Cherington to abandon it.

More on that in a moment. For now we're still on the immediate future, which is what the 2014 team is going to look like. And if Ellsbury and Drew leave and Napoli and Salty stay, then the 2014 team will look, well, a whole lot like the 2013 team.

Not that that will be a guarantee of success, mind you. Roster consistency is great, but it's not the kind of consistency that really counts.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Though all sorts of changes were made last winter, the meat of Boston's success in 2013 came courtesy of players who were already on the roster. Several key incumbents—Ellsbury, Saltalamacchia, Pedroia, David Ortiz, Daniel Nava, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey—all had fantastic years.

That tends to be what championship years are all about: a bunch of good players all having good years simultaneously. What can go right goes right, and then the rings are handed out.

It's a shame that regression is part of the natural order of baseball, and that it can be a real you-know-what. Regression has played a big role in the fact that there haven't been any repeat champions in over a decade, and the Red Sox are the next in line to feel the effects.

Leaving aside the key free agents, here's a look at how the 2013 WARs (FanGraphs version) of Boston's incumbent hitters compare to their 2014 projections.

2014 Projections for Red Sox Hitters
Player 2013 fWAR Projected 2014 fWAR
Shane Victorino 5.6 4.6
Dustin Pedroia 5.4 4.9
David Ortiz 3.8 3.3
Daniel Nava 1.8 0.3
Mike Carp 1.2 0.1
Jonny Gomes 1.0 1.7
David Ross 0.9 1.1
Will Middlebrooks 0.3 0.3
Xander Bogaerts 0.2 1.9
Jackie Bradley Jr. -0.2 0.0

FanGraphs

We see here that six of 10 key hitters the Red Sox have under contract for 2014 are projected to either take a step back or not improve at all based on what the numbers have to say. And while they're not pictured due to the fact that they might be somewhere other than Boston, Steamer has Napoli and Saltalamacchia regressing next year too. 

Now, these projections aren't gospel. Especially not at this point in the big picture of 2014. And in all likelihood, not every single one of Boston's key hitters is going to take a step back next season.

But even if some do, 2014 is going to be a rockier ride than 2013 was. Rather than an excellent team, it's fair to expect the Red Sox to be rendered a very good team.

What could help level things out are contributions from the younger players, which happens to be our cue to start to tiptoeing into the bright side. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Bogaerts is one of the players projected to get better in 2014, and a 1.9 WAR certainly isn't reflective of how good he might be. He's the No. 2 prospect on Mike Rosenbaum's top 100 list, and is sure to be a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2014 after playing a starring role in October.

Though he may not start right out of the gate, Jackie Bradley Jr. also has the potential to outperform his WAR potential if he ends up being Boston's replacement for Ellsbury in center field. 

Bradley projects as a plus defensive center fielder with a solid bat. He may have hit only .189/.280/.337 over 107 major league plate appearances in 2013, but his .275/.375/.469 batting line at Triple-A is no joke.

And hey, while we're discussing talented offensive prospects who could make an impact in Boston in 2014, we should throw third base prospect Garin Cecchini into the mix. The 22-year-old had an .825 OPS at Double-A in 2013, and Baseball America (subscription required) thinks he could make a push for the major league roster as soon as spring training. 

So while the bulk of Boston's incumbents can be expected to experience some regression in 2014, that they have two high-ceiling youngsters ready to make an impact and a third a dark-horse candidate to make an impact saves the big picture from being overly grim. After building a success story in 2013 on the backs of veterans, the Red Sox might build a success story in 2014 on the backs of youngsters.

Youth also provides some optimism for Boston's pitching staff.

Here's another 2013 WAR vs. 2014 projected WAR comparison:

2014 Projections for Red Sox Pitchers
Player 2013 fWAR Projected 2014 fWAR
Jon Lester 4.3 4.0
Koji Uehara 3.3 1.6
Clay Buchholz 3.2 3.2
John Lackey 3.2 3.7
Felix Doubront 2.8 0.6
Jake Peavy 1.3 3.4
Ryan Dempster 1.3 0.5
Junichi Tazawa 1.1 0.9
Brandon Workman 0.7 0.6
Craig Breslow 0.7 0.2
Andrew Miller 0.4 0.0

FanGraphs

Steamer sees an improvement in store for John Lackey, which is surprising in light of his age. Steamer also sees an improvement in store for Jake Peavy, which isn't surprising given that the 1.3 WAR pictured above only applies to what he did in a Red Sox uniform over less than half a season.

For everyone else, however, there's no improvement in the cards. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are projected to be basically the same pitchers they were in 2013—not that that's a bad thing, mind you—and regression is likely coming for everyone else. 

But where Boston's offense has Bogaerts, Bradley and Cecchini waiting in the wings, its pitching staff has a whole host of young arms that could potentially make a difference.

The Red Sox got some innings out of Allen Webster (23) and Rubby de la Rosa (24) at the major league level in 2013. Both are in play for 2014, and several of Boston's best pitching prospects made it as far as the upper levels of the minor leagues in 2013. Left-hander Henry Owens made it as far as Double-A, and right-handers Matt Barnes and Anthony Ranaudo made it as far as Triple-A.

This depth could mean an influx of young pitching in 2014, a la the influx that worked so well for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013. To this end, a youth movement could well impact both Boston's offense and pitching staff in 2014.

That's the perfect world scenario for the Red Sox in 2014. Or one of them, anyway. But even if a youth movement doesn't overtake Boston next season, having as many young players as the Red Sox do inevitably will come in handy.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

In a day and age when big-money extensions are keeping superstar players local, it's getting harder for big-market teams like the Red Sox to buy superstars. And since Cherington has established a model that shies away from buying superstars anyway, he had darn well better have the means to acquire superstars in other ways.

That's what deep reservoirs of young talent are good for, as they allow teams to either develop their own superstars or make deals for superstars that other teams either don't want or can't afford. The Red Sox are in prime position to do either as part of an effort to establish an enviable nucleus.

Which is important, because the nucleus they have now isn't going to last. The contract statuses of the club's free agents notwithstanding, the Red Sox currently don't have many veterans locked down for the long haul.

Ortiz, Lester, Uehara, Peavy, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster and David Ross are only under contract through 2014. Shane Victorino is signed only through 2015. The Red Sox currently have only two veterans locked up for 2016: Dustin Pedroia and Clay Buchholz. 

The 2014 Red Sox are going to look a lot like the 2013 Red Sox. But by 2015, the Red Sox will likely bear little resemblance to the team that won it all. By 2016, the 2013 club is going to be history like the 2004 and 2007 clubs are now.

Because we tend to associate dynasties with core players that stick around for a long time, this may seem like a bad thing. But it's really not.

The Red Sox would be a lot worse off if they were bogged down with expensive long-term contracts that restricted their spending capacity year after year. They'd be even worse off if they were bogged down with expensive long-term contracts and short on young talent, a la that one pinstriped team in New York.

Instead, what lies ahead of the Red Sox are payrolls that can be filled up in any number of ways in the coming years. All that payroll space means the Red Sox will be able to integrate and then extend young players from their own farm system, as is customary these days. The young talent the Red Sox don't integrate can be used to acquire established players, and there should still be money left over for whatever the club needs from the winter markets.

It will all come down to Cherington. He painted one masterpiece in 2013. By his own design, things are set up quite nicely for him to paint a few more in the years to come.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

 

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