Thursday, September 27, 2012

Three Questions for the 2012 Red Sox Off-Season

A sweep of the Yankees next week might do a little to ease the pain of 2012 but I don't think there's much hope for that. If we can say one thing went well for the Sox this season, it was that they were ready to shed salary when the Dodgers were looking to spend money. If the Red Sox bounce back soon, we'll probably consider that trade one of the best in Sox history. But there are a few more steps between the Sox and World Series contention and a lot of questions ownership needs to answer. Here are the three most important.

Is this a 2-3 year plan or a 4-5 year plan? Spending big bucks on superstar saviors hasn't worked the last couple of years, regardless of the quality of the superstar. And though the Red Sox showed they've got a lot of young talent, I don't think it's fair to expect Middlebrooks, Nava, Ciriaco, and the like, to make the Sox a World Series contender next year. So the Sox will certainly be planning ahead, they just need to decide how far. Whether it's 2-3 years or 4-5 will decide much of their strategy this off-season; whether they spend it further developing their farm system, stay put to see another season from their young players, or begin putting missing pieces together. How they answer this question will also affect the contracts they offer to their veterans, specifically David Ortiz.

Ortiz showed this year he can still be an offensive force. Even with the growing health concerns that come with aging, Ortiz proved that, barring injury, he can contribute for another two or three years. But four or five? If the Sox are aiming for 2-3 years, they should offer Ortiz a three-year contract. Yes, I know how old he'll be in three years, but he was putting up MVP caliber numbers before his injury; (and I think we all know he'd be playing if the Sox had a shot at the playoffs) degrading from there will still be pretty good. And even if his decline suddenly increases (which it certainly could) he'd still be a valuable pinch hitter. And it would guarantee what I think everyone wants to see; Big Papi ending his career in a Sox uniform. If it's a five year plan, well, it'd be hard for me to ask David Ortiz to spend the last years of his career on a bad team. Offer him a one-year deal, commensurate with the one he got this year, with the understanding that he'll get that offer for as long as he can play, and with the understanding that if he wants to spend his last years on a team with an actual shot at the World Series (except for the Yankees) the organization would not hold any exploration against him in future negotiations. If he decides to stay, great. If not, who can blame him. Pedroia, Lester, and Ellsbury all could have close to a decade to win another title, Ortiz doesn't. Which brings me to question two.

Is Jacoby Ellsbury the future of the Red Sox? A healthy Jacoby Ellsbury will win an AL MVP. He might win several. He takes away hits. He steals bases. He creates runs. With his power blossoming last year, he is arguably the most complete baseball player in the league. But that doesn't mean he's the right player to build a franchise around or that he represents the strategy the team wants to pursue. Maybe the Sox decide to build from their pitching staff out, overhauling their starting rotation and bullpen. If so, they might not have the money to pay Ellsbury what he's worth. Maybe they want to try a power-hitting first baseman again, or save the salary costs for a future free agent market.

But if they do believe Ellsbury is the future, they should pay him a lot and now. And we should give him a contract that extends at least a year past whatever the goal for contending is. I know the Sox have had some problems with big contracts recently, but unlike Crawford, J.D. Drew, and Beckett's most recent, Ellsbury is home grown. When we think about his contract, we should think about it in terms of Dustin Pedroia. I think it's obvious the Red Sox won't be big spenders this off-season, but if they want Ellsbury to stay, if they want to demonstrate to every player in the league they're willing to pay for the players that are important, they'll have to open their pocketbooks for him. And finally.

Is John Lackey a legitimate number three starter? Even with the inconsistency, Lester and Bucholtz are still the top two starters in the Sox rotation. Felix Dubront pitched well enough to be a respectable number four, and given next year is a rebuilding year, I think it makes a lot of sense to have the number five spot decided in pre-season. But that still leaves the number three spot open. We're now being told that we actually never saw the real John Lackey, that every single one of his lackluster performances, when he struggled with the second-time through the order and made getting to the sixth inning an adventure every game, was because he was pitching injured, and that with the successful Tommy John surgery and a full season to recover we will finally see the whole rationale for signing him in the first place. It's an exciting possibility and would solve a lot of problems if true, but Matsuzaka was not an entirely new pitcher after his Tommy John surgery, so why should we assume John Lackey (who might also be clubhouse poison) is? Answering this question will determine a lot of what the Sox do this off-season. Even if they decide to not sign a number three quality starter this year, they'll still need to organize their contracts, drafts, and deals with that open spot in mind. And if Lackey isn't their number 3, what exactly are they going to do with him? (Dodgers?)

Unfortunately, the wrong answer to these questions could lead to a long time in the wilderness. Throw money at a super-star free agent before all the home-grown talent has matured and the Sox are right back where they were this year. Play it too safe and they might miss the free agent that is the missing piece. Sign Jacoby Ellsbury to a gillion dollars and he plateaus. Don't sign him and watch him tear up the league for somebody else. Go with John Lackey and find out, that, yes, in fact we did see the real John Lackey and also he is clubhouse poison. Spend our resources on another pitcher and get nothing of value in return, while missing other opportunities. Hedge bets all around and end up with a cobbled together roster no match for the American League East.

But even if the Sox do struggle for the foreseeable future, it's important to remember that Boston sports have had a pretty amazing last thirteen years or so. One or more titles in each of the four major sports. Consistent playoff appearances in each of the four major sports. Did you know we even won titles in BOTH professional lacrosse leagues? (Yes, there are two professional lacrosse leagues.) And this is before considering any college sports. Boston College might have the best college hockey program of all time. (Though it's not on TV, we've got some good rugby clubs too.) As we look back on these Red Sox and forward to what they will become, it's important to remember that we've lived a charmed sports life for a really, really long time. These things always come in cycles, some shorter, some longer. The Red Sox are just the first in Boston to begin their next down cycle. The Celtics will probably be next. Brady will retire. So will Bergeron. We might just have to relearn an old New England skill; losing and loving with class. (Except to the Yankees.)

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