Even given the awful end to the season for the Boston Red Sox, the rumored departure of Francona is a stunner. Francona had a real case as the American League Manager of the Year as little as 10 days ago, and did a fine job of managing even as injuries and underachievement fueled a Red Sox collapse for the ages.
Now, though, everything is in chaos in Beantown, and the surprise moves could cascade from here. A number of other shocks could be in store for Boston fans this winter, because clearly, the Red Sox front office has some major changes in mind. Here are 10 moves that could catch everyone off their guard over the next few months.
Big Papi has become a Boston fixture, but as Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk (not to mention Roger Clemens) can attest, Boston never was very good at holding onto its most beloved icons. The frustration was palpable on Ortiz's face and in his words to the media this fall, as the Red Sox plunged in the standings and Ortiz seemingly plunged into despair.
Ortiz hit just one home run in September, so although he still reached base at a .396 clip, he posted a middling .769 OPS. He remains fixated on a long-term deal, not a one-year commitment, and after his September showing and their failure to tie up what should have been a semi-automatic playoff berth, the Red Sox might not be inclined to extend Ortiz much beyond 2012. It would still be a surprise if he left, but it no longer feels unfathomable.
Don't underestimate the degree to which Boston missed Youkilis down the stretch, even though he was not quite his elite self at the plate this season. He played just 120 games, 18 more than he had played in 2010, and his struggle to stay healthy is becoming an obvious problem for Boston.
To remedy that, GM Theo Epstein may decide the time has come for the Sox to stop shuffling Youkilis back and forth across the infield, and to simply ask him to hit every day and provide value by volume for the first time in his career. That would help the Sox fill the void left by Ortiz's potential departure.
Daisuke Matsuzaka has become a major and stark reminder of the organization's failure to identify or develop the right pitchers over the past five years. He managed all of eight appearances in 2011, lasting 37.1 innings and posting a 5.30 ERA. He's a drain on the team, not a contributor, and Epstein almost certainly wants him out.
It would be surprising if it worked. Matsuzaka has a full and iron-clad no-trade clause, so the Red Sox would basically need to bring him new trade offers weekly until they hurt his feelings so badly that he simply acquiesced. It's not impossible to do, though, provided that the Sox eat the majority of the $10 million they owe him in 2012. They will be willing to take on $7 million or so, and should be able to coerce Matsuzaka into leaving town by mid-January.
There may be no better fielder of the shortstop position than Jose Iglesias anywhere in baseball. He is as smooth there as Dustin Pedroia is at second base, and the tandem would represent perhaps the best double-play combo in Red Sox history.
Iglesias doesn't hit much, though, and the feeling over the past few months in Boston had been that either Marco Scutaro or a free-agent signee would play short again next season while the Sox decide whether Iglesias can stick even at the bottom of an everyday lineup. It says here that he can, and that the irritation of this collapse will spark Epstein to go a bit younger and more athletic with next year's team. Iglesias fits the bill.
After a bump in the road in 2010, Aramis Ramirez returned to his usual .300/.350/.500ish form this season, swatting 26 home runs for the Chicago Cubs as their everyday third baseman. He doesn't field that position well at all, but playing in Fenway would actually help him substantially in that regard. Here's how.
At Wrigley Field, the left-field fence is 355 feet away down the line. As a result, anything hit down there is real trouble. A double nearly always scores an average runner from first; a ground-ball down into the corner can become a triple for a speedy one. Ramirez therefore plays right on top of the foul line, guarding it as if perpetually in a 'no doubles' defensive alignment. It has not served him or his team well.
In Boston, though, the Green Monster is 310 feet away. Ramirez could comfortably take an extra step or two or three away from the line, and therefore become a more active participant in the defense of the infield.
At any rate, the Sox are hardly at the top of the list of potential Ramirez suitors, but they could be the ones to snag him, especially if they decide Youkilis is no longer durable enough for third base.
The Sox had serious problems with pitching depth down the stretch, wearing out their bullpen with short starts from John Lackey, Kyle Weiland and others. They need to add at least one ace-caliber pitcher, and although the consensus seems to be that CC Sabathia will get a raise but stay in New York, the Red Sox will push that envelope hard.
Sabathia could easily get $125-150 million this winter on a five- to seven-year deal, and only the Yankees and Sox can afford to pursue him at that rate. Sabathia will surely prefer the Yankees, but the Red Sox will ultimately outbid New York by so much that Sabathia will head to Fenway while the Yankees accept the consolation prize of Wilson.
Second-tier free-agent starters tend to end up on poorer or worse teams than the Red Sox, because they are frequently bad investments. In Jackson's case, though, the Sox might get involved. Jackson is an underrated hurler, a guy who can miss bats and has great power stuff. He would nicely complement Jon Lester and Sabathia atop the Sox's rotation, and while the price tag is starting to get astronomical to do all this, keep in mind that Boston's 2011 payroll was a modest (for them) $163 million, and that the departures of Jonathan Papelbon, J.D. Drew and David Ortiz will easily outweigh the costs of signing Ramirez and Sabathia.
Needing a replacement for Drew in right field, the Sox should be the front-runners for Beltran's services this winter. He just makes sense, but it will be a surprise if he actually signs with Boston because they so rarely invest in multiyear contracts for aging players. This need not be more than a three-year deal, but Epstein has always been hesitant about going even that far for players over 30. With a little luck, he will realize that Beltran is a special talent who could really help the Red Sox as a fifth hitter next year.
As demonstrated by Matsuzaka's continued presence on the roster, admitting mistakes and cutting losses has never been one of Epstein's strong suits. Jenks' signing was an awful decision, a $12-million commitment to a very fat, unintelligent and frequently unfocused fastball pitcher with a fading fastball. It has backfired badly, and now the Sox need to deal Jenks even if they must pay his whole salary for 2012. The surprise would be if someone were dumb enough to bite that bait.
Maybe it's just me, but between the miserable year he had on the mound; his wife's battle with breast cancer; their pending divorce; and his repeated declarations of personal and professional despair, Lackey seems to have been pushed very close to a career cliff here. It may well be that he and the Red Sox will work out a structured buyout this winter. It would shock most of the world to see a man leave the kind of money due Lackey (nearly $50 million over the next three years) on the table, but I don't see Lackey as being very motivated by money. He seems so distraught and uncomfortable in Boston that he might take half that money to simply walk into the sunset. It's worth a shot.