Theo Epstein took the money and ran to Chicago, where he'll try and revive the Cubs.
World Series front-runners? Not anymore.
Player-friendly manager? Gone.
Young, talented general manager? Gone.
As the 2011 season begins to race towards a close, things in Boston continue to undergo a face-lift. With Terry Francona and Theo Epstein both likely to be associated with other teams in 2012 (Theo is already with the Cubs), the Sox will have lost a huge piece of the braintrust that lifted the curse less than a decade ago.
What was once a driven, eccentric group of players has become a highly paid, oft-injured and oft-distracted group of superstars. But success has not followed.
With lots of money coming off the books and players talking about being open to moving to the Yankees, it's time for the Red Sox to really consider changing things up for the 2012 season. With just a few moves, the Sox could place themselves right back in the champions seat.
Hint: It's time to get back to bringing in lower cost, versatile players who play the game the right way.
Papelbon had a career year and proved to again be the most valuable reliever for the Sox
When last April started, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Red Sox would let Papelbon walk. Coming off career highs (on the wrong end) in losses, with seven, walks, with 28, and ERA with a 3.90 clip, it seemed like hitters had finally begun to catch up to Boston's enthusiastic closer.
With budding star Daniel Bard waiting in the wings, Papelbon was a luxury that the Red Sox couldn't afford and didn't need.
What a difference a year makes.
No only did Papelbon look better, notching 31 saves while lowering his ERA to 2.94, his walks to 10 and his WHIP to 0.93, but Daniel Bard imploded in September, seemingly giving up a run every time he toed the rubber.
There is no way the Red Sox can turn the ball over to Bard in the ninth inning next year and at 30 years old, Papelbon still has another four good years in him. However, he's also going to command a pretty high salary as one of the game's most recognizable closers. If Papelbon were to give the Red Sox some semblance of a hometown discount then his return would be far more likely.
However, with Papelbon figuring to ask for $12-15 million a year, the Red Sox might be be better off acquiring two late-inning relievers for the same salary.
Some cheaper potential closers are set to hit the market this year:
1. Ryan Madson
Available for potentially half of Papelbon's salary, Madson has had a similar, if not better, track record over the last couple of seasons. Closing this year for Philadelphia because of injuries, Madson saved 32 games. He's also posted a sub-3.00 ERA the last two seasons and a sub-4.00 ERA every year since 2007. He has an 8 K/9 ratio for his career and would make a killer trio with Bard and Papelbon.
2. Heath Bell
Also approximately half the cost of Papelbon, Bell has been one of baseball's most effective closers over the past three seasons. He's posted ERAs of 2.71, 1.93 and 2.44 and WHIPs of 1.12, 1.20 and 1.15. With a deadly changeup, instead of a blazing fastball, he could be a solid counterpart to Bard.
3. Francisco Cordero
The least explosive option of the three, Cordero is nothing if not steady. Since emerging with Milwaukee in 2007, Cordero has posted at least 34 saves in every season. This year, he was even more effective than usual, cutting down on his walk numbers and using fewer pitches to get out of innings. He has experience and wouldn't command a huge salary.
4. Brad Lidge
Then there is something of a gamble. Lidge was once one of the game's most dominant closers, and at 34 years old, still has a couple good seasons left in the tank. After a disastrous 2009, he bounced back in 2010 to the tune of a 2.96 ERA and 52 K's in 45 innings. He could be a bust or a huge success, but if the Red Sox can add quality relievers around him, he could be a great buy-low option.
5. Francisco Rodriguez
Another interesting option, K-Rod's value is lower than one might expect after his off-field issues and his demotion from a closer's role. But K-Rod is still only 29 years old and career 2.51 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and carries the same devastating stuff that he's always had. If the Red Sox can put off-field incentives into the contract, he could be a real value.
Madson could be an expensive, but important, addition to the Red Sox bullpen
Which leads directly to the next point. If the Red Sox save money with a cheaper closer, then they need to use the leftover cash to add another quality late-inning reliever.
Once Hideki Okajima lost effectiveness, the Red Sox lost a valuable asset in their bullpen: a quality seventh-inning reliever.
With Bard back, Franklin Morales proving to be a solid lefty option, Alfredo Aceves an emerging bridge guy and, hopefully, Papelbon to close games, the Sox need another quality arm out of their pen.
Matt Albers showed some life this season, until flaming out to the tune of a 4.73 ERA. Bobby Jenks was even more ineffective, posting a 6.32 ERA in limited duty. Dan Wheeler was effective enough to remain in the pen, finishing the season with a 4.17 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP, .272 BAA and a 7.1 K/BB walk.
Still, another solid, reliable option is a must for the 2012 Sox. Some options are:
1. Rafel Betancourt
A solid veteran with a career 3.18 ERA, Betancourt has really come on in the last few years. He's finished with an ERA above 3.00 only once since 2009, has walked double-digit batters only once and has posted a WHIP of under 1.00 every year but once during that span. He's reliable, is used to appearing in over 60 games a year and knows how to get the job done.
2. Juan Cruz
Another pitcher who has figured it out later in his career, Cruz sports a 4.13 career ERA, but has only had one season with an ERA above 4.00 since 2007. He pitched in clutch situations for Tampa this year and shows an ability to get key outs. His only problem is that he often likes to make things interesting, posting very high WHIPs and not as many strikeouts as he used to.
3. Jason Frasor
A guy with experience at the end of games, Frasor could be a real asset in the seventh inning. He has a career 3.74 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. He's has double-digit holds in two of the last three seasons and has been effective in the American League East for years with Toronto.
4. Kyle Farnsworth
After closing this season in Tampa, Farnsworth might be looking for more closing opportunities, but he's worth a look. He's always had a powerful fastball and more talent than his results might indicate, but he finally put it together this season with a 2.18 ERA, a .99 WHIP and 25 saves.
5. Matt Capps
Capps has plenty of closing experience, with Pittsburgh, Washington and Minnesota, but struggled with the Twins this year. Coming off a poor (by his standards) season in a contract year, Capps could be a bargain. A reliever with a career 3.51 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, he could be a valuable end-of-game asset.
Mark Buehrle could be a perfect steady veteran for the Red Sox rotation
It seems easy to say "fix the entire rotation," but the truth is far less grim. For one, the top two spots in the Red Sox rotation are locked in with Lester and Beckett. Buchholz is pretty much a given at No. 3, since he appears to be recovering from the back injury that kept him out almost all of this season.
So that leaves two spots in the rotation. Whether fans like it or not, the Sox are stuck with Lackey. His salary is too high and his results have been too poor for them to find any trading partners. They have to slot him in at No. 5 and spend all winter working out every conceivable kink in his delivery just to make him a decent fifth arm.
Dice-K is still hanging around the roster as well for one more season, but after undergoing Tommy John in June, he won't see a mound until at least June or July of next season and the Red Sox could simply hold him out all year if they really wanted to.
With Andrew Miller still more of a spot-starter, Tim Wakefield set to head back to the bullpen and Erik Bedard likely being allowed to walk in free agency, the Red Sox need a fourth starter.
The smartest thing for the team to do is resist the temptation to overspend on another high-profile arm. Instead, knowing they are trying to fill the fourth spot, the team should go for steady over sexy. Bring in a guy who is durable and can get the job done, not one who might explode, good or bad.
Some of the best options out there are (in no order):
At 28 years old, with a solid season in St. Louis, Jackson seems to be putting all his talent to use. He could command a high price, so he might not be the best fit, but he certainly has high upside and hasn't really reached top-three standing yet.
A solid starter stuck on a sub-par team. Maholm has had an up-and-down career, but posts competitive WHIP numbers and forces batters to put the ball in play. That doesn't always work for him in Pittsburgh, but could be a recipe for success in Boston. Plus, he would add another lefty to the rotation.
Another left-handed option, Buehrle might be as unsexy as they come. He doesn't have electrifying stuff, but he gets the job done, to the tune of a 3.83 career ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. As solid and steady as they come, he could be a very calming influence on the staff.
A name that nobody is discussing, but could be a solid fall-back option. After having five (out of seven) solid seasons in CIN since 2005, Harang has again regained form in San Diego. He's compiled 14 wins while lowering his WHIP to 1.37 and his ERA to 3.64. Doesn't miss many bats anymore, but is cool and collected.
Cuddyer could be the perfect platoon partner in RF for Boston
Now that JD Drew's contract is off the books, the Red Sox can finally breathe a sigh of relief from a gigantic contract gone wrong. Only, the breath might be a short, quick one since the possibility looms that they may have just inherited another one last winter.
But fact remains that RF will be a new-look position for the Sox next season.
With Josh Reddick playing solid baseball in his major league stint and Ryan Kalish still a potentially impact prospect, the Red Sox should not shoot for the stars with this acquisition. A steady, platoon partner could be just as successful as adding another huge superstar. In fact, with the way this season turned out, it might be more successful.
Given that Ellsbury and Crawford are both speedy left-handers, and Reddick swings from the left side as well, finding a right-handed hitter seems to be the best option. Given the rest of the speed in the outfield, finding a guy who covers a massive amount of ground is not of the utmost importance, but the Red Sox do still place a premium on defense.
Within those restrictions, here are some guys the Red Sox could look at.
1. Michael Cuddyer
The Sox had success the last time they pilfered someone from the Twins, getting massive production out of Ortiz. Cuddyer might not have that level of impact, but he's perfect for what the Red Sox are looking for. A steady, .272 career hitter, who has some power from the right side, Cuddyer gets on base at a solid clip, is a versatile defender and a perfect RF fit and potential platoon partner with Reddick.
2. Josh Willingham
A similarly steady, but less versatile option is Willingham. Never a great average hitter, Willingham has put up almost 20 home runs a year and plays a decent outfield. His OBP is also always considerably higher than his average, fitting into the Boston model of making pitchers work. Likely going to cost less money than Cuddyer, he's another good platoon option.
3. Ryan Ludwick
Always higher on potential than he has been on results, Ludwick is another option as a RH platoon partner. A career .261 hitter, Ludwick has struggled the last two years, but could benefit from the Green Monster. His OBP isn't great, but is nothing to scoff at and he averages 14 home runs a season, which could be solid production from a No. 7 hitter in the lineup.
Gerald Laird could be a strong defensive platoon to replace Varitek.
The captain is old and had a hard time throwing out runners when he was younger. Yes, his mind is still a valuable asset and his work with Salty has been impressive, but his skills have diminished enough that he can't be relied on as a major league catcher.
Salty has shown improvement and is a solid enough starter, but he could benefit from being in a straight platoon with another player. Perhaps a more defensive-minded partner who could fill some of the holes that Varitek's departure would leave, but with more offense and more arm strength.
Some options include:
1. Jose Molina
Although 36 years old, Molina is still an above-average defensive catcher. He calls a good game and handles his pitchers well. It's a plus that he put together a .281 batting average this season in Toronto. He can add enough of a stick to play versus lefties and can handle temperamental pitchers like Beckett.
2. Ramon Hernandez
Another solid veteran option is Hernandez. Not equal to Molina behind the plate, Hernandez is still an underrated catcher. He throws out runners at a 30 percent rate during his career and has allowed only two passed balls in over 1,000 innings with the Reds.
Plus, his bat is better. A .266 career hitter with a .330 on-base percentage, Hernandez could be a solid veteran presence and a good stick at the bottom of the order.
3. Gerald Laird
Another solid option as a defensive-minded player, Laird is one of the top defensive catchers in the game. Coming into the 2010 season (the last time he was a starting catcher) Laird threw out 42 percent of baserunners, was the top defensive catcher in runs saved (13.3 runs saved above average) and was a just above two wins better than his average replacement. He's not going to be a real offensive asset, but he can be a strong defensive force in a platoon.
Punto could provide solid value as a utility infielder for the Sox
With Jose Iglesias still a year away and Jed Lowrie unable to stay healthy, the Red Sox need to find an option in the infield. As much as it seems like a smart decision to exercise the option on Marco Scutaro, I think the Red Sox are better off by letting him go and finding an infielder who can also play third base.
Youkilis hasn't been healthy the past two seasons and thinking that he can play 3B all season long is a stretch. He needs to split time between 3B and DH. In order to do that, the Sox need to bring in somebody who can flash the glove at the hot corner.
Plus, by letting Scutaro leave, the Sox will be able to snag some extra draft picks.
I know some people want to turn attention to Jose Reyes, but I think that Iglesias can be a very solid major league shortstop. He just needs another year for his bat to develop. If Lowrie is healthy, he can hold down the position, but he needs insurance.
1. Ramon Santiago
A little-known option, but possibly the best for the Red Sox because of his ability to play strong defense at short and third. He's hit at least .260 every year since 2007 and while he isn't an on-base machine, also don't strike out much. He's more of a defensive option than offensive, but the Sox have enough offense in other places.
2. Nick Punto
Another non-flashy pick, there is something about Punto that allows him to always wind up on successful teams. He can play a multitude of positions and plays the game the right way. He's had a bit of an offensive resurgence this season, but is a career .250 hitter who gets on base, plays solid defense and puts the bat on the ball. That's valuable for a utility infielder.
3. Omar Infante
Another utility infielder, but one who has a little more of a bat. Infante is more of a 2B/3B, but he can play SS if needed. He's also a career .275 hitter, although he doesn't get on base as much as the Red Sox like from their players.
Letting Ortiz walk is the best solution for the Sox
I know he's a fan favorite and a powerful hitter, but the Red Sox need to let Ortiz walk.
For one, he's too much money for a player who can do nothing but hit and is reaching the point in his career where his production could drop at any second.
Secondly, the Red Sox need that DH spot to help Youkilis stay healthy over the next couple seasons. He's more valuable to the team than Ortiz and without the ability to DH, Youkilis will not last much longer. It also opens up a roster spot and some playing time for Ryan Lavarnway, who has crushed pitching in the minors and showed some power late this season.
Third, Ortiz signing somewhere else would net the Red Sox first-round draft picks, something very important given that they traded a lot of their best prospects in recent years.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Red Sox need the money they would save from letting Ortiz walk to sign their best player...
The Sox need to keep Ellsbury long-term
Sign Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Red Sox absolutely cannot let him leave. They have money coming off the books with Drew and Ortiz gone and they need to use that to lock up Ellsbury long-term.
There is no other option.