This offseason, Sports on Earth is asking baseball writers what they would do if they ran the front office.
On the face of it, the Red Sox offseason is effectively finished. Those who think the Red Sox are done might be right, but while the roster is, at minimum, very close to a finished product, opportunity for improvement exists.
Boston's offseason began with a mostly finished roster. The 2013 World Series champions lost just one major piece when centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury decamped to New York. Ellsbury's loss is mitigated by the ascension of Jackie Bradley Jr. to the starting lineup. Bradley isn't yet the offensive force Ellsbury is, but he's already his predecessor's equal in the outfield. Bradley struggled in limited time at the major league level last season, but his age and minor league track record indicate he'll be at least serviceable at the plate, and likely more. At similar ages and minor league levels, Bradley has bettered Ellsbury's numbers each year, so there is upside potential as well.
The one player the Red Sox could not afford to lose was first baseman Mike Napoli, who was re-signed. With no legitimate first basemen in the pipeline and a large dropoff in expected production from other potential targets, Boston did well to ink Napoli to a two-year deal. The return on investment should be in line with the slugger's new contract, and Napoli's patience and power matchup with Boston's offensive philosophy. Napoli also posted a surprisingly good year defensively last season, so even if his offensive numbers fall off a bit, there is value still to be had.
Shortstop Stephen Drew is Boston's only remaining unsigned starter. Drew posted well above average numbers at the plate and in the field last season, and is looking to be compensated on a multi-year deal like the top tier shortstop he is. Boston won't give Drew the deal he's looking for, but Drew's market has failed to develop, making his return a possibility. Boston could offer Drew a one- or two-year deal, and move shortstop and super-prospect Xander Bogaerts to third base. Alternatively, they could let Drew sign elsewhere, take the compensatory draft pick (Drew was offered arbitration and turned it down), keep Bogaerts at short and begin the season with Will Middlebrooks as the starting third baseman.
There is an argument to be made for re-signing Drew and reassigning Middlebrooks, and a counter argument for starting Middlebrooks and taking the draft pick when Drew signs elsewhere. Both have merit, but for a big-market team like Boston, coming off a championship season, taking a chance on the still-unproven Middlebrooks seems unnecessary. If Drew fails or gets hurt, the team can call up Middlebrooks, but if Middlebrooks fails or gets hurt (the more likely of the two possibilities), acquiring a player of Drew's quality midseason would be prohibitively expensive.
The one downside to re-signing Drew is the financial commitment necessary would put the Red Sox over the luxury tax limit. One way to get back under $189 million is to dump salary, and luckily the Red Sox happen to have six starters under contract. Dealing Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront or John Lackey is unlikely, but Ryan Dempster and Jake Peavy could be made available. Peavy and Dempster will make $14.5 and $13.25 million, respectively, next season so removing either salary will likely offset that of Drew and push Boston below the luxury tax threshold.
With Drew re-signed and Bogaerts at third, Middlebrooks becomes expendable, should the right deal arise. Further, the Red Sox have a plethora of young talent in their minor league system. The names Garin Cecchini, Henry Owens, Blake Swihart and Matt Barnes are all over top-100 prospect lists. This all gives Boston the wherewithal to accomplish a big trade. In this era of signing young players to long-term deals, trading for young stars is difficult. Names like Giancarlo Stanton, Chris Sale and Domonic Brown have been rumored to be available from time to time, but acquiring any one of them would cost a ton. The Red Sox have the ability to pay what it costs, should the right deal come along. They also have the luxury of waiting around to see if something falls into their laps.
While keeping the door open to a deal, I'd focus on re-signing Lester, whose contract will expire after this season. Lester is a homegrown, high-character player, but more important, he is a top of the rotation starter. He ranks sixth in FanGraphs WAR among pitchers since 2007 and fifth since 2008, not counting his rookie year. His 2.11 postseason ERA and remarkable 0.43 ERA in World Series games add up to an extremely good postseason track record. He's averaged more than 200 innings per season since overcoming cancer in 2007 and has indicated a desire to stay in Boston. The Red Sox should accommodate him. He won't be cheap, but something in the five year, $100-110 million range could get it done. It's certainly worth exploring, but if Lester's demands aren't reasonable or he isn't interested in staying in Boston long-term, the Red Sox have the minor league depth to replace him.
In the meantime, the Red Sox are set for the 2014 season. They'll return the entire starting rotation, and the majority of the bullpen from the World Series winning roster of 2013. The lineup will be younger without Ellsbury and possibly Drew, and could see a dropoff from their loss as well as that of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but Boston led baseball in runs scored last season, so a dropoff wouldn't be anything catastrophic.
The Red Sox are in a good position, maybe the best of positions. They're the defending champs; they have a stacked farm system; they have starting pitching to deal but don't need to deal it; they can re-sign Drew, but don't need to and they can keep their eyes open should a franchise player become available. Still, (re-)adding Drew, extending Lester and dealing Peavy or Dempster gives Boston its best shot at repeating and staying at or close to the top of the heap in seasons to come.