With the exception of the postseason, hot stove is my favorite time of the baseball year. This off-season is particularly important to the Red Sox, after the Valentine debacle and the great salary purge. This year has a very weak free agency class, so the Sox will likely have to be creative with solutions. Here's the positions they need to address.
Jason Varitek's loss most directly impacted the pitching staff--which felt increases of over a run a game across the board. Couple this with Salty's apparent deficiency behind the plate, and you've got a great need at catcher. They just signed David Ross, who is solid behind the plate and mediocre against both right and left handed pitching. I've read that the Sox are still interested in Napoli and are actively trading Salty. There's really nothing on the market outside of Napoli that could impact the roster. Minor league wonder kid Ryan Lavarnway had a terrible showing in September, but he could factor into the mix at first base or catcher (.295/.382/.511 in 2 AAA seasons).
This could be the biggest whole to fill--or the place where the Red Sox make the biggest mistake. The free agent market is quite thin this year, and only mediocre players like Swisher or LaRoche topping the list. If the Sox are able to get Napoli, then I'd prefer them to give Mauro Gomez the at bats in a platoon. His minor league numbers (.307/.363/.551) suggest he'd at least provide replacement level production, and his small MLB sample size last fall supports that projection (.275/.324/.422).
Left Field & Right Field
This will rest on Ross's asking price; he is a serviceable offensive player with a proven track record. But let's not get crazy--this contract shouldn't be more than 3 years, 30 million dollars. Given the shallow pool in free agency this year, Ross could see his offer sheets growing to Jason Werth territory. Buyer beware.
What puts the Sox in a bind with their outfield is the loss of Josh Reddick last season. Granted, I was a huge Reddick fan (he is the king of Spring Training, after all), and we don't know yet how effective a healthy Andrew Bailey could be in Boston. But the minor league cupboard seems pretty bare at the moment--Daniel Nava is clearly just a replacement player and Ryan Kalish hasn't returned to the form that anointed him the next coming of Trot Nixon in 2010. Kalish figures to get a chance here, but he's probably competing for Nava's job, not the starting right fielder position.
I've heard the Justin Upton rumors, too. I am torn. On the one hand, Upton is a proven hitter, with a manageable contract. But, while 2 of Upton's last 4 seasons have been incredible, the other two have been merely good (respective war: 4.8, 3.0, 6.4, 2.5--would you pay 20+ million a year for 2 and a half wins?). I won't cry if we acquire him, but its not like he's the second coming of Man-Ram.
I'm hoping that the Sox bring in Torii Hunter on a 2 year deal. They've got the money to over pay a bit, without locking into the kind of 5 year deal that Nick Swisher will command. I also wouldn't be too surprised to see the Sox throw a bid at Michael Bourn. We all know Ellsbury is out of Boston after this year, so they could move him to right field next season and have an elite defensive center fielder in place for the future.
I thought the only bright spot about Epstein's departure was that I wouldn't have to hear about Jose Igelsias any more. Seriously. I realize he is (supposedly) the greatest glove since Ozzie Smith. But he hit .118 last season. Oh, that was only 77 at bats you tell me? Fine. he split .266/.318/.306 at AAA, and .235/.285/.269 at AAA the year before. Again: .235/.285/.269. At AAA.
Losing Aviles to acquire Farrell means shortstop becomes a central area of concern. Stephen Drew is the only "name" out there, but he comes with some injury question marks, and is a Scott Boras client, so the price in years might be too steep for the Sox to commit.
There's the possibility of Japanese import Hiroyuki Nakajima, although the track record on offensive Japanese infielders is very, very bad. Given how weak the market is this season, I might say roll the dice. Otherwise, give the job to Pedro Ciriaco (and recognize that he will never hit .293 again).
The good news here is that the Sox's best prospect, Xander Bogaerts, is only a year away. So, starting in 2014, the position should be locked down for the foreseeable future.
On paper, Zach Grienke seems a must. But there's questions as to whether his personality and psyche would match up to Boston. I would roll the dice. He's the lone All-Star calibre pitcher available this season and the cost will be high--but the Sox desperately need someone else at the top of this rotation; assuming:
3. Free Agent
Grienke could slide into the 2 spot, giving the Sox at least hope of competing in the now ridiculously strong AL East. Morales was a pleasant surprise last seasons; a .262 BABIP suggests he should regress a bit next year (his xFIP was 4.19, only slightly higher than his 3.77 ERA).
There's also 3 very strong prospects in the Sox's system--but I don't know if any project to have "top of the rotation stuff." There's Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, and Rubby De La Rosa. De la Rosa is 23 and likely ready for the majors, Barnes and Webster, who pitched in A and AA respectively last season, likely need more minor league experience. De La Rosa was the only asset the Sox acquired in the mega-deal with the Dodgers. He spent most of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery; he threw 60 MLB innings in 2011--striking out 60 but walking 31. He could make strides and develop control, but, then again, he could be heading to the bullpen.
In reality, however, the Sox's immediate future rests on John Farrell's relationship with Lester and Buchholz. They are the core of this franchise; their best seasons came under Farrell's leadership. If anyone can make up for Varitek's departure, it is Farrell (I hope). If the once young wonder twins are merely mediocre, as they were last year, then the Sox cannot compete for wild card spots, let alone championships.
The Sox are set at second base, third base, dh, and center field, but virtually every other position is in play. I'd love to say that I'm optimistic about next year--but I don't see this pitching staff returning to form. If they do, then I'll readily admit I was wrong. I know that the clubhouse was a disaster last year, and the change in atmosphere could lead to a change in performance. Comparing our pitching staff to the rest of the league, it better.