For the first time since the Boston Red Sox won the team’s first two World Series since Woodrow Wilson inhabited the White House, the club is in a state of flux going into the Hot Stove League.
To recap: The Sox suffered an ignominious and record-breaking September collapse, and players later admitted to drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during the team’s slide out of playoff contention. Amidst reports of distractions in his personal life and allegations of prescription drug abuse (both of which he denied), beloved, longtime manager Terry Francona was fired after the season ended, despite having helmed both of the aforementioned World Series-winning clubs.
Then, as if all of this wasn’t enough, the Sox watched Theo Epstein, the local kid done good and boy wonder general manager, leave for Chicago to take over as President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs.
Now, as 2011 winds down, the Sox have some difficult decisions to make. First and foremost, they need to find Tito’s successor at manager. But they also need to address gaps at the back end of the starting rotation, the bullpen, and a handful of everyday positions, and to evaluate whether some supposed mainstays should stick around.
Here are five moves the Sox should make to help their chances of returning to form in 2012.
Those calling for David Ortiz to be cut loose point to his advancing age and supposed drop-off in production in recent years. But, the statistics tell a different story.
In each of the last three years, Papi has played at least 145 games. After his last monster season in 2007 (1.066 OPS, 35 HRs, 117 RBIs and 116 runs), he churned out three respectable seasons, but failed to reach his previous heights, likely missing the protection of Manny Ramirez who left for the Dodgers in 2008. Then, the team signed Adrian Gonzalez before the 2011 season, and Ortiz responded with a .935 OPS, 29 HRs, 96 RBIs, and 84 runs with his new teammate entrenched in the lineup.
This isn’t to say the Sox should sign Papi at any cost or no matter the length of the deal. According to a report by Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, he is looking for a three-year deal. Despite Ortiz’ wishes, it would seem that most teams would want no part of such a long, guaranteed deal for a career designated hitter. Let's not forget that Papi will be 36 years old entering the 2012 season and, at times, looks like he’s carrying a Mini Cooper on his back.
Two years with a club option for a third would seem to be a better fit. It would guarantee that Papi would get the protection of batting behind Gonzalez for at least two more years, and it would keep him in a town where he is idolized by kids, both young and old. These circumstances should allow him a chance at producing to a level that merits the club picking up its option for that elusive third year that he may not be able to find this winter.
Boston desperately needs two starters to round out its rotation, which already includes Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz.
With Buchholz coming back from from injury in 2012 and the glaring hole at the back end of the rotation resulting from both John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka undergoing Tommy John surgery, the Red Sox need to pursue a starter who could slip in behind Lester and Beckett in the three hole.
Earlier today, the Chicago White Sox offered arbitration to veteran lefthander Mark Buehrle, who has quietly amassed an impressive 12-year career, pitching a perfect game and a no-hitter, and posting a career 3.83 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. Should he not accept arbitration, Buehrle would provide a great second left-handed option for the Sox' starting rotation, as he has demonstrated success in the American League and has been one of the most consistent pitchers of his era.
With the departure of Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies, the Sox' already weak bullpen is now even weaker.
Righthander Daniel Bard played the role of setup man for the last two-plus seasons, registering 79 holds, a 2.88 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.06 with a repertoire including both a two- and four-seam fastball, as well as a nasty slider. As long as he can solve the late-season control issues he experienced in 2011, Bard should remain the Sox’ No. 1 option at closer in 2012.
Some writers are calling for Bard’s transition to starting pitcher due to the weak back end of the Sox’ rotation. But Bard’s history in pro ball suggests that such a move would be a major risk that would likely result in his relegation back to the bullpen and leave the team searching for another starter midseason. In 2007, his first year in the minors, he posted a 7.05 ERA and walked 78 batters in 75 1/3 innings.
Heath Bell has been mentioned as a candidate for Boston's open closer role, but it's unclear whether his success in the NL West will translate in the AL East.
Yes, he has recorded some impressive numbers in San Diego, but he's had the benefit of facing some of the weakest offenses in the league on a regular basis and only saw DHs in interleague play. If his career numbers against AL East opponents are any indication, he's not the guy.
The rest of the Sox’ 2011 bullpen featured a cast of no-names and helped expedite the team’s late-season slide from contention.
Other than Bard and Papelbon, only three relievers posted sub-4.00 ERAs—Alfredo Aceves, Franklin Morales and Scott Atchison. The team declined Atchison's option and Morales' history indicates his success may not carry over to 2012. The rest—Bobby Jenks, Rich Hill and Andrew Miller amongst others—have given no indication that they will be reliable this coming season.
Most importantly, the Sox need a strong lefthander out of the pen. As of right now, their only southpaw is Felix Doubront whose 6.00-plus ERA and WHIP closing in on 2.00 are cause for concern.
Unfortunately, there are not many marquee lefthanded relievers on the market.
Darren Oliver is truly the only option with Jeremy Affeldt re-signing with the Giants and Arthur Rhodes looking like he may not have another full season in him, posting an ERA over 4.00.
Like Rhodes, Oliver is over 40, but he has experienced more success in recent years. Since 2006, Oliver has posted a 2.97 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 73 holds. He could bring a much needed lefty presence to the Sox’ bullpen in 2012, and would likely also be a great innings eater, a role that would be necessary if and when the Sox part with club stalwart Tim Wakefield.
Right now, all signs point to Boston signing Bobby Valentine as their manager. This would be a monumental mistake.
Valentine is a retread, having spent a total of 15 years managing the Texas Rangers and New York Mets, and not having managed in America in a decade. His career managerial record is barely over .500, and his teams had an average finish of fourth place, never won their division and only made the playoffs twice. In 1999, his Mets lost to the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS and, in 2000, those same Metropolitans lost the World Series to the crosstown rival Yankees.
Sure, he had a (briefly) successful stint across the Pacific, winning the Japan Series with the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2005. But the Marines never approached those heights again during his tenure, finishing under .500 twice in four years and eventually Valentine was fired after the 2009 season.
Simply put, Valentine isn't the right guy for the job of Sox manager because he's never been consistently successful. His record is well documented and the Sox have no reason to be his next stop at mediocrity.
This leaves the Sox with an interesting question: Who's next in line?
There are many coaches out there clamoring for a shot at a managerial job, but the real answer is right under GM Ben Cherington's nose—longtime catcher and captain Jason Varitek.
'Tek has been with the Sox for 15 years, anchoring the team behind the plate for the bulk of that period. Due to his advancing age and declining production, he has played second fiddle at catcher since the Sox acquired Victor Martinez from the Cleveland Indians at the 2009 trade deadline, first to Martinez and then to Jarrod Saltalamacchia in 2011.
Truth be told, he's of little use to the team as a player beside letting Salty take a break every so often. But, as a manager, he would be of great utility.
Varitek is renowned for his leadership and his ability to handle a pitching staff.
After the Sox' 2004 World Series championship, the team designated him as its first captain since Jim Rice from 1985 through 1989, and he has held that title ever since. He squatted behind the dish in both 2004 and then again in 2007 when the Sox won their second ring in four years, and he has caught a record four no-hitters.
The list of pitchers 'Tek has handled is awe-inspiring: Pedro, Schilling, Beckett and Lester amongst others. By all accounts, his ability to command the attention of his teammates, and especially his pitching staff, was a large part in the Sox' success last decade.
With Salty entrenched as the starter, Varitek could still use himself as the backup catcher. Or, if he's not inclined to be the first player/manager in nearly 30 years, the Sox have catching prospect Ryan Lavarnway waiting in the wings in Pawtucket.
Varitek's mastery of the game and ability to lead this team are unquestioned, and therefore he may be just what they need coming out of a terribly disappointing 2011 and a bumpy offseason—someone from within to remind the team that they belong competing amongst the best of the best and to lead them back to the pinnacle of their sport.