Boston Red Sox Free Agents: Who Stays? Who Goes?

Ben ShapiroAnalyst IIIOctober 2, 2011

Boston Red Sox Free Agents: Who Stays? Who Goes?

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    The NBA had "The Decision," the soap opera-like courting of superstar LeBron James. Major League Baseball has that every season. It's not quite the spectacle that LeBron made it into, but superstar baseball players are available on the free-agent market nearly every winter. 

    This season will be no exception, and the Boston Red Sox, who are coming off arguably the worst regular-season collapse in major league history, will have some tough choices to make. They've already made a controversial decision to not retain manager Terry Francona. That choice may have a greater impact on the teams' fortunes than any other personnel moves between now and opening day. Still, there are some key components of the Boston Red Sox that will be free agents. Will they stay in Boston or move on? 

David Ortiz

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    There is no player currently on the Red Sox more associated with the never-again-to-be-matched glory of the 2004 comeback against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series than David Ortiz. 

    "Big Papi" had walk-off hits on back-to-back nights in Games 4 and 5 and cemented himself in Red Sox lore. He's had his moments since then as well.

    In 2010, he labored through a nightmarish start to the season. He eventually turned it around and finished with respectable numbers. 2011 was the opposite. Ortiz's final numbers were great and yet his final home run of the season came on September 8th. Even Ortiz was not immune to the funk that seemed to surround the entire Red Sox team as the 2011 regular season wound down.

    His eighth-inning at-bat in the final game of the season was all you needed to know about the offensive malaise he was in. Needing only a fly ball to score speedster Jacoby Ellsbury from third base with one out and provide a needed insurance run, Ortiz could only manage a weak ground ball that was fielded by the catcher for the second out. Ellsbury never scored and the Red Sox, unlike four other American League teams, are already into the offseason. 

    Ortiz's contract is up. There's no option year for the Sox to pick up. He can go anywhere or he can stay in Boston if the Sox want him. Do they? A lot of that depends on how much he will cost. Ortiz is one of the preeminent DHs in baseball. That's all he is, though—a DH. That severely limits his market. 

    Forget about every single National League Team. Also forget about teams that already have designated hitters under contract such as Chicago ( Yep Adam Dunn will be back). The Yankees with their short right field and Jorge Posada likely retiring would seem like a possibility but Alex Rodriguez's injuries and massive contract may create the first 30 million dollar DH in baseball history. 

    For the Red Sox, it's likely to come down to an undisclosed numerical formula. The Red Sox probably have a contract with both dollars and years in mind. Should Ortiz's demands fall into that area, then it's likely he remains in Boston. Losing Francona—regardless of whether he left on his own or was pushed out—has not been the most popular move in Boston, and Ortiz, with his clutch history and big personality, would be a tough loss for many fans as well. 

    Those numbers are probably no more than two years guaranteed with maybe one team option year. The dollars are probably not much more than around $10 million annually. 

    Will that keep Papi in Boston? It wouldn't be a shock if it did. 

Jonathan Papelbon

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    He's no Mariano Rivera. No one is, though, so perhaps that's not the best barometer to measure one's closer and their contributions and value to a franchise. 

    Heading into the 2011 season, Papelbon's departure seemed both inevitable and logical. He had endured back-to-back seasons of tangible statistical regression. 2009 wasn't a bad season by any standard, but 2010 was truly a mediocre season for a player once pegged as potentially a Hall of Fame-type closer. 

    2011 was different. Yes, Papelbon, like nearly every other player on the Red Sox, played a big role in the September implosion, but even with some real poor outings down the stretch, he finished the season with an earned run average of 2.94. He had 31 saves and struckout 87 batters in 64.1 innings. He also finished up with his lowest WHIP ratio since the 2007 season at 0.933. It was a very good season for Papelbon. 

    All of that may have been not that important for Red Sox management if young fireballer Daniel Bard had continued to improve and impress. Had that been the case, then Papelbon's season would have been likely to net him a big contract—but not in Boston. 

    That's not what happened, though. Yes, everyone had a bad September, but with the exception of Matt Albers, no bullpen pitcher was worse in September than Bard. And while Albers was never expected to be much better than average in the first place, Bard was and still is being groomed to become a dominant closer. 

    That point in his career may be a bit further down the road than most members of the Red Sox front office thought just a few months ago. 

    Bard's September earned run average was 10.64. He issued 24 walks for the entire season and nine of them came in September. In short, he was not just disappointing, he was terrible. 

    With Bard's ability to step into the closer role next season in doubt and Papelbon coming off an impressive season, there is now an actual need to re-sign him. It's one thing to let Papelbon go the free-agent route, but if all the Red Sox would do is go out into the market and spend similar money on a player such as Heath Bell, who has never pitched in the American League and pitches in the pitcher-friendly confines of San Diego's Petco Park, then would the savings be worth it?

    In Papelbon they have a known commodity. They have a pitcher who they know can perform within the pressure cooker that is Red Sox Nation. Those aren't easy things to find. It will of course come down to money, but the days of mega-deals for closers seem to be waning a bit. If Papelbon is expecting K-Rod-type money (three years, $37 million), then he's not likely to receive that from the Red Sox. Who would pay him that type of money, though? Every single big-market team with the exception of the Cubs has a player occupying the closer position. If the Phillies were to let current closer Ryan Madson walk in free agency, then that would be a potential destination. Other than that, the real big-money destinations may not come calling.

    Three years and $30 million would probably get the deal done. Can the two sides get there? It's possible. Papelbon's agent Sam Levinson has a history of steering his clients toward more stable careers. Levinson clients such as Mike Lowell remained in Boston, and Jorge Posada always found a way to stay in the Bronx. Papelbon may be coming out of the bullpen for a few more years in Boston.  

Jason Varitek

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    On July 31st, 1997, Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette pulled off a heist. Not the type he'd ever be arrested for (he might be cuffed in Seattle). On that day at the trade deadline, he sent maligned closer Heathcliff Slocumb to the Seattle Mariners for pitcher Derek Lowe and catcher Jason Varitek. Had the deal just been for Lowe, it would have been a definitive win for the Red Sox. Instead, they also got Jason Varitek, a gritty and hard-nosed catcher who would lead the Red Sox to two World Series rings and assume the title of "Captain."

    Jason Varitek is a free agent, but the likelihood of him donning another uniform next season seems somewhat minute. He seems more than likely to just hang 'em up after what has been a memorable and glory-filled Red Sox career. 

    Varitek isn't ticketed for Cooperstown, but he'll occupy Hall of Fame status in the hearts of most Sox fans. Varitek was never an offensive star, but he still made four All-Star teams. He was never a defensive star in the manner that guys like Pudge Rodriguez or Johnny Bench were, but he still managed to win one Gold Glove. 

    Varitek was more of a character guy. He brought a tough, no-nonsense attitude to the ballpark day in and day out, and the bulk of his teammates recognized that and responded to it. 

    Varitek will turn 40 next year. He no longer has the bat speed to be a consistent offensive threat and no longer has the legs to be much more than an occasional backup behind the plate. There is a fairly good chance he will remain in the Red Sox organization in some capacity. Many observers view Varitek as potential manager material down the road. That would be a welcome role for many Sox fans. 

J.D. Drew

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    Grab that extra box of Kleenex, Sox fans. The J.D. Drew era is in all likelihood over. 

    Signed to a five-year, $70 million contract before the 2007 season, Drew seemed like a natural fit for the Red Sox' greater offensive philosophy. Calm and poised, he was the type of hitter who Sox brass felt would take pitches, draw walks, smack some home runs and be more than adequate in patrolling right field. 

    He did play some very nice right field. 

    Drew labored from the get-go, slumping out of the gate and well into the summer of his first season in Boston. He would heat up a bit down the stretch and with the Sox playing very good baseball as a team, his subpar season was not placed in the same types of crosshairs that Carl Crawford would experience this season. 

    Drew would atone for that subpar regular season when he stepped up to bat with the bases loaded in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. The Red Sox were down 3-2 in the series and had come back home to Boston needing two wins to advance to the World Series. 

    Drew would hit a grand slam and the Red Sox really never looked back after that. They would go on the win the World Series and most Sox fans thought that Drew would go on to have some real great seasons in right field for the Red Sox. 

    When Drew stormed out of the gate to start the 2008 season, those feelings were confirmed, but in spite of an All-Star appearance and the All-Star MVP award, Drew could not maintain his health or that level of play. 

    The second half of 2008 brought numerous nagging injuries, and a combination of injuries and inconsistency would plague Drew from that point on until the conclusion of this past season. 

    Even when healthy, Drew appeared old this season. His batting average dipped considerably, and he is thought to be announcing his retirement in the upcoming weeks. Drew's signing was, until a few years ago, thought to be among Theo Epstein's worst. Luckily (for Drew), John Lackey and Carl Crawford seem poised to steal that thunder. 

Marco Scutaro

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    Marco Scutaro has both options and an option. The shortstop, who has bounced around the league for 10 seasons and played for four teams, could file for free agency in a few weeks. The Red Sox could also pick up an option and pay him $6 million for the 2012 season. Scutaro could choose to exercise his own option and remain in Boston for $3 million next season. 

    These choices really do depend of a number of decisions the Red Sox make. 

    Will they choose to test out top prospect Jose Iglesias at shortstop next season? 

    Will the Red Sox pursue high-profile free-agent shortstop Jose Reyes of the New York Mets

    Will the Red Sox decide that Iglesias is not enough of an offensive threat to be an everyday big-league player? 

    The good news is that in Scutaro the Sox have a known commodity at a reasonable price. He's not an All-Star and he's not a flashy name to read in the box score, but Scutaro is a solid, respectable, everyday major league player who seems to fit easily into the clubhouse. 

    There's unspoken value in a known commodity. For $6 million, the Red Sox can have a very respectable everyday shortstop next season. That's a nice luxury in a league where even a bright shortstop prospect can easily be overvalued.

    The problem of course is that Scutaro's agent and probably Scutaro as well are fully aware of his value, and at around $6 million there are plenty of teams in both leagues that might get into a mini bidding war for his services. If the Red Sox exercise the option they have on him, then Scutaro would gladly take it, but I can't seem him exercising his own option.

    He's 36 years old and whether he's a free agent this offseason or at the conclusion of the 2012 season, his next contract is likely his last. Will he wait to see what the Red Sox do? Do the Red Sox see him as part of their 2012 plans? Whoever the new manager is will most definitely have input and opinions regarding his opening day shortstop for the 2012 season, whether or not Marco Scutaro will be on that lineup card remains to be determined.  

Tim Wakefield

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    It seems very likely that the longest-tenured member of the Red Sox will call it quits this offseason. Tim Wakefield will take his career 200-180 record and his two World Series rings and decide at the age of 45 that it's time to hang 'em up. 

    It's been an amazing ride for one of baseball's amazing stories. A former minor league prospect with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wakefield was told he probably wouldn't make it as a position player, so when he discovered he could throw a knuckleball, he decided to use that as the springboard to a major league career. 

    Wakefield did make it to the big leagues and he hung around for 19 seasons. As a member of the Boston Red Sox, he was part of the franchise's greatest successes—such as the two titles in 2004 and 2007, as well as its greatest failures, like in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and this past season's epic collapse. 

    Wakefield's reputation within the game is sterling and his demeanor—soft-spoken, articulate and gracious—has always been appreciated by Red Sox fans as well as baseball fans in general. Wakefield's pursuit of his 200th win may or may not have contributed to the Red Sox slide this past season. We'll never really know and yet I doubt there are too many Red Sox fans who weren't happy when he reached that milestone.

    Tim Wakefield, like Varitek, will hold a special place in the hearts of many Sox fans. Most would acknowledge that it's time for him to retire, and yet most will also have fond memories of him.