The 2011 Boston Red Sox went on an incredible journey. Last spring training, they were World Series favorites. After a 2-10 start, they were last in the AL East. They recovered well and reinstated themselves as favorites for the American League pennant.
Then the collapse started. The Sox quickly fell from pennant hopefuls to playoff contenders to competing for the AL Wild Card to, finally, the lowly depths of the biggest September choke in baseball history. Then the postmortem began.
With manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein gone, the owners turned to Ben Cherington as Carmine's new buddy. And he is left with a terrible mess.
No team had ever failed to make the playoffs after leading by nine games on September 1. It soon became clear why Boston became the first club to manage to.
Pitchers were accused of drinking beer and eating chicken during games; there was no leadership in the clubhouse; and the players had stopped listening to Tito, who found he had little to no impact as the captain of a ship that had already hit an iceberg.
The 2011 Red Sox were not as great as the sum of their parts, and that will be the same story in 2012 unless the culture in the clubhouse changes.
Part of solving that problem will be finding the right man to lead the team. Francona was the best manager in franchise history; but the ownership group will want someone more reliant on and trusting of sabermetric analysis.
They have interviewed Dave Mackanin and former third base coach Dale Sveum, and they are reportedly considering Dave Martinez, Tim Wallach and Joey Cora. Not big names, but if Cherington knows what he is doing, he will find someone who can regain control of the clubhouse. Don't be expecting a Dick Williams or a Jim Leyland, though.
Speaking of the clubhouse culture, the main focus of criticism has been the starting rotation. Namely, the stories of beer, chicken and video games involving Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey.
Setting aside the attitude problems and the talk of Beckett being jettisoned, the Sox have a strong top-three.
By Lester's standards, 2011 was a step back, but it was still a good year. Beckett was in Cy Young contention at the All-Star Break but faded in the second half and collapsed in September. A back injury cut short the 2011 campaign for Buchholz but he should be ready for a heavier workload in September.
John Lackey will miss all of 2012 with Tommy John surgery—which is something of a blessing—and Daisuke Matsuzaka will miss at least the first half.
So Cherington is left with a good ace (Lester) and good numbers two and three (Beckett and Buchholz, assuming that the former does not succumb to another even-year swoon and the latter is healthy). Alfredo Aceves is a must as number four. Francona viewed him as too valuable to come out of his bullpen role, but he should be able to step up to the rotation under a new manager.
Who the fifth starter will be is a big question. Kyle Weiland is not ready, but the Sox do have some arms in the Minors they could try out. If they look outside the organisation, they will see C.J. Wilson as the big-ticket item. A six-year, $100 million contract seems likely at the very least to sign him, though. Mark Buehrle is a strong possibility, with the added benefit of being able to teach Beckett how to throw more than two pitches a minute.
Good news for Red Sox Nation: the disaster that was the J.D. Drew era is over. The $14 million-a-year DL-favorite is gone and has left a vacancy in the cavernous right field of Fenway Park. So who should Ben Cherington get to fill it?
There are two in-house options—Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick. Both have performed well in the past (Reddick had a surprisingly good 2011 campaign), but they might not be ready to be in right for 150 games.
If the Sox go to the market, there are alternatives who can swing a hotter bat—something which Cherington might need to consider if David Ortiz leaves town. Carlos Beltran could be very available now that the San Francisco Giants have acquired Melky Cabrera. If the Sox pursue the versatile Michael Cuddyer, they will have to battle the Philadelphia Phillies; but he is coming off a relatively strong season.
Grady Sizemore does not make much sense, as he is a left-handed batter. But if things don't pan out during the offseason, he could be reasonably cheap.
In their 111-year history, the Boston Red Sox had never had a closer as good as Jonathan Papelbon (OK, technically they had Dennis Eckersley, but in eight years with the Sox he recorded only one of his 390 career saves).
In seven seasons, Papelbon recorded a franchise-record 219 saves, with a 2.33 ERA and 1.018 WHIP. He rebounded well in 2011, after a disastrous 2010 campaign that saw him blow eight saves and his ERA jump to 3.90.
The season ended on a sour note, though, as Pap blew the save in the final game of the season to send the Sox out. The team has been eliminated on a Papelbon blown save in two of the last three seasons.
Last week, he signed a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, leaving the Sox with a vacancy at the back of the bullpen. Daniel Bard could fill it but his long stretches of dominance last year were interrupted by absolutely disastrous outings. He might be viewed as too volatile to be the everyday closer.
The Sox have another option in-house in Bobby Jenks. His questionable health and terrible second half will probably scupper any chances he has of returning to the role he held in Chicago.
Free agency holds a few decent options, with Heath Bell topping the list. He has been excellent in the last three years for San Diego, saving over 40 games each season.The biggest downside is his age. At 34, he is already on the back nine, and as the best free agent closer available, he will be able to demand multiple years. The potential of having a 37-year-old stopper will worry Cherington.
The 2011 season marked an amazing return to form for Big Papi. After slow starts in both 2009 and 2010 appeared to signal his decline, Ortiz was actually one of the few Red Sox who performed well out of the gate. He maintained his good form throughout the season before tailing off slightly, causing him to fall just short of a seventh 30-home run, 100-RBI season.
He still finished with great numbers, though. His .309 batting average was the second-best of his career, he had his third-highest tally of doubles (40) and even had a stolen base. He also hit 29 home runs and drove in 96 runs. Now a free agent, Ortiz has to be one of Cherington's top priorities.
Again, age is a concern. Ortiz will want at least a two-year deal—that would tie him up until he is 37. The Sox would much rather sign a one-year contract with a club option, but Papi will never agree to it. There is not so much of a concern over his production—2011 proved he can still swing a hot bat. But when you get up there in age, you can fall off the map quickly.
The main reason for re-signing Ortiz, though, is that there is no one there to replace him. A woeful interleague road trip this summer proved how weak the lineup was without Papi's bat. If Cherington lets him walk, one option would be to shift the injury-prone Kevin Youkilis to the DH role and sign a third baseman.