How do the Sox get back to the top? In 2012, Red Sox Nation will be celebrating again, but it won't come without changes.
The Red Sox went 86 years without winning a world championship, and to the city of Boston, the last four years might as well be 86—especially after blowing a huge lead in Wild Card and going 7-20 in the final month of the season.
You know the Sox will make some moves; the question is what will they be?
One of the biggest positives for the Red Sox in 2011 was the breakout season of Jacoby Ellsbury. After having missed almost all of the 2010 season due to injury, Ellsbury had career highs in batting average, home runs, RBI and was a 30/30 man for the Sox.
This just shows you that when healthy, the Sox have possibly the best leadoff man in baseball. Not only can he get on base and steal one for you, but he now has shown the power ability to drive in runs and do it in the clutch.
On top of what he does at the plate, he is also one of the best center fielders in the game.
Adrian Gonzalez was a key pickup for Sox in 2011, and he did not disappoint. Putting up All-Star and quite possibly MVP-type numbers was a great start in a Red Sox uniform for Gonzo.
There is a core group of players that will return to the Red Sox lineup that posted a .280 team batting average, 875 runs scored and blasted 203 home runs.
Gonzalez will be joined by a few more key players coming back: former MVP Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury.
With these players coming back, the offense should not have an issue scoring runs again next season. With that being said, as amazing as it may be, there is still room for improvement offensively.
Carl Crawford was "bought" into Beantown to bring more pop and speed to the lineup, and he did neither. Crawford posted a career low in batting average at .255, seven triples which was second-lowest only to his rookie year and he only stole 18 bases.
Finding himself hitting in the bottom third of the lineup all season long, Crawford needs to improve and be what he was brought into Boston to be. Crawford apologized to Red Sox fans for his poor performance. That is not what the fans want—they want you to produce and luckily you will have a chance to do so with a long winter.
With the way the season ended for the Sox, you knew there was going to be some changes made. Going 7-20 in the month of September had to be somebody's fault, and you can't get rid of 30 players so the blame goes to the man who runs the show.
Terry Francona met with management shortly after the season ended, and they came to a "mutual" decision. Or maybe not so mutual. Regardless, Francona will not be managing the team next season. Allegations came forward about clubhouse control, pitchers drinking in the clubhouse on their off days, the team not being together and that is placed on the manager.
Both Francona and the organization felt a new voice was needed. Now, there are large shoes to fill in the dugout. That is where the changes will start. Rumors fly around about who may fill these shoes; names such as Bobby Valentine and Tony LaRussa have been mentioned.
Whoever it may be, they will be placed with the challenging job of controlling a clubhouse full of veterans who showed this season; they do what they want.
The pitching was the major letdown, and led to the fallout of the Sox in 2011. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett were placed with the pressure of carrying the rotation all year long, and at most points those two did a great job. But when you rely solely on two pitchers to carry a five-man rotation, eventually you are going to get burned and that's what happened in September.
The biggest flop was John Lackey; no pitcher in Red Sox history who has thrown 150 innings has ever had an ERA as high as John's 6.41. Imagine if Lackey pitched for any other team; there is no way he wins 12 games. Something needs to be done with Lackey. Either he needs some major pitching changes or he's got to go. You simply can't have a guy like that in your rotation.
Losing Clay Buchholz in June was a blow the Red Sox never did recover from. A stress fracture in his back forced Buchholz out until the final day of the regular season. Thankfully, it looks like Clay will be back for spring training.
The Red Sox have to make some additions in the offseason, and they may come to the pitching staff. Buchholz and Dice-K are both coming off of injuries that cut their 2011 seasons short. Over the last few years, Dice-K has amounted to almost nothing and you've got to feel he doesn't have very many chances left.
The point is, you can't rely on those two guys to bounce back and be successful. That coupled with the struggles of John Lackey and Erik Bedard, who only signed a one-year deal in Boston, and it may not be a bad idea to add a starter.
CJ Wilson is a great left-handed arm who has proven himself in Texas and should the Red Sox show interest in Wilson, it wouldn't take much to bring him to Beantown. If the Sox did decide to go after Wilson, or any other starting pitcher, that would more than likely mean they would have to lose somebody else. Bedard is all but gone already and Lackey, Papelbon and Wakefield are all guys you may not see back in Boston.
One change that is very possible is that the Sox part ways with closer Jonathan Papelbon. The talks began during the season, and it could be a very real possibility. This would undoubtedly mean that current setup man and flamethrower Daniel Bard would move into the closer role.
To me, he is not ready. He showed his wear in September and struggled to get outs throughout the month. A lot of which came from possible overuse. Being a closer is quite possibly the toughest job in baseball, and if Bard didn't have the stamina to be the setup guy, there is no way he can handle being the closer at this point.
I think the re-signing of Papelbon to a short deal is necessary and could prove prosperous. If they sign him, and Bard shows he may be ready for the role, you can trade Papelbon at a later date and get something for him in return. I see Papelbon as not being finished; he's still got a lot of saves in the tank and I think it's too soon to throw him away.
Another big free agent is David Ortiz. In his contract year, Big Papi showed he's worth the investment and has always been a clutch hitter.
Hitting .309 with 29 homers and 96 RBI, Ortiz more than showed management that he deserves to be re-signed.
Ortiz would love to finish his career in Boston; he has said that before. He loves where he is and is loved by the fans in Boston. I see the Sox offering Ortiz a contract that would most likely take him to the end of his career and he will gladly sign his name on the dotted line.
Jason Varitek played very sparingly this last season, giving way to Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Salty will be back behind the plate and we saw a glimpse of prospect Ryan Lavarnway late in season.
Should Lavarnway insert himself, or the organization believe he's ready, there is a more than a good chance Jason Varitek would hang it up. He has had a great career behind the plate with the Sox, and has earned the "C" he wears on his chest.
If Tek does come back, it will be a very short-term contract and he will be there for his leadership of the two young catchers ahead of him.
Possibly the biggest move the Red Sox may make is with general manager Theo Epstein.
That would prove promising to the legacy of Epstein; if he went to Chicago and was able to lead that team to a World Series title he may go down as the best GM ever. Killing two of the biggest curses in baseball would launch him into the Hall of Fame.
There is still time left on his contract with Boston, and I think he'll come back to the Sox. It has been said he won't die with this job in Boston; I just don't see him moving just yet.
There is no doubt about the anger, disappointment and broken hearts in the city of Boston. One thing is for sure: You know this organization will not just sit around.
The Sox will make moves in the offseason, including testing the free-agency market. They will fill holes in the bullpen and make sure the starting rotation is strong to prevent the pitching collapse that happened in September from happening again.
The offense will be as strong as ever, and you will more than likely see some new faces in that as well.
One thing is for sure: Come April, the Sox will be ready to contend again and as soon as the first pitch is thrown by Jon Lester, Red Sox Nation will be cheering again.