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Defending a Title: The Red Sox and Their Free Agents

After winning the World Series the Red Sox have some tough choices to make with their top free agents.

Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury
Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury

Oct 28, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (2) reacts after striking out against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning of game five of the MLB baseball World Series at Busch Stadium. Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Just over a week ago, the Boston Red Sox wrapped up their third World Series title in 10 seasons. But the time for celebrating is over for management, as Ben Cherington and company are already hard at work building next year’s team.

The majority of the Red Sox roster is under contract to return next season, though there are four significant players who present them with some dilemmas: Stephen Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

While it may defy logic to mess too much with a winning team, the right course of action may not be to bring them all back. Firstly, the contracts required to keep them in Boston may not make the most financial sense for the organization and could conflict with their future plans.

Secondly, there is still a sense that this team overachieved in 2013. They were never going to be a bad team, but it’s hard to argue they were the best on paper. Everything just seemed to go their way.

At 37-years-old, David Ortiz managed to play in 137 games and was again one of the best designated hitters in the game. Koji Uehara, Boston’s fourth ninth-inning option, turned in one of the best single-season performances as a closer in baseball history. The players grew beards and rallied around the city and each other, becoming one of the most cohesive teams in any sport over the last decade.

So, if the Red Sox were to field the same team in 2014, could they expect the same results? It’s hard to say they would. They were very lucky to have avoided any major injuries that would have crippled them this year, and several players had career years. The camaraderie of the 2013 squad would also be difficult to manufacture for another year. So with that in mind, Cherington will surely give his roster a facelift of some kind.

So where will their free agents fit in? Of those four key players, the Red Sox issued qualifying offers to all but Saltalamacchia. On the surface, that would at least indicate they would like to bring them back, and Cherington has said as much. While that may be true, to an extent, he would also be more than happy to get the compensatory draft pick now attached to them if they sign elsewhere.

For Ellsbury, at least, that is a real possibility. With Scott Boras as his agent, there is no way he will accept the one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer, especially after he re-established his value after missing more than half the year in two of the previous three seasons.

While he didn’t, and probably won’t ever, match his MVP-caliber numbers from 2011, he was the leadoff man for the majors’ best offense. He hit .298/.355/.426 with 31 doubles, eight triples, and 92 runs. His 52 stolen bases led all of baseball.

So he is in for a big pay day. Chances are it won’t be in Boston. The Red Sox would love for him to stay, but it’s going to take a lot of money and years for him to do that. And that’s a price Cherington won’t pay.

Someone will give Ellsbury a six or seven-year deal that could top $20 million per season. At 30-years-old, that will be a rich contract for a player with an injury history that will take him past his prime. After ridding themselves of three bad contracts that saddled them last year, they won’t be in a rush to put themselves in that position again.

If the Red Sox can get him back for a three-year deal, that’s something they would probably do. But there is no way Boras will have Ellsbury accept something that short in length. And with Victorino available to take over center field if need be and Jackie Bradley, Jr. waiting in the wings, Boston won’t extend itself. And rightly so.

Of the four free agents, Napoli is the most likely to return to Boston. When the Red Sox reached an agreement with him last offseason, it was originally on a three-year deal. But when hip concerns arose, that became a one-year deal, eventually worth $13 million after incentives.

Keeping him should be Boston’s priority. Organizationally, first base might be their weakest position, so there is no real help on the immediate horizon internally. There are also no better first basemen on the free agent market. On top of it all, Napoli wants to stay.

So the writing seems to be on the wall that Napoli will be back, it’s just a matter of for how long. If he accepts the qualifying offer, it would be for about the same money he played for this year, and right in line with the three-year, $39 million contract he and the Red Sox initially agreed to.

Committing to him past one year in this price range was something the team was already prepared to do, and he didn’t do anything this season to show that he isn’t worth it. While he did set the Red Sox’s single-season strikeout record, he hit .259/.360/.482. His 92 RBI, 38 doubles, and 23 home runs all ranked in the top three on the team. He also proved more than adequate defensively in his first full season at first base. He will, and should, be back on a two or three-year deal.

The situations of the other two players are less cut-and-dry than those of Ellsbury and Napoli. For Drew, he has a very tempting option staring him in the face with the qualifying offer. He is an above-average shortstop, but is not worth the $14 million of the offer.

That offer from Cherington was more strategic than anything. Drew, another Boras client, will likely be able to get a multi-year deal on the market, even if it’s less than $14 million per year. And it is the exact opposite of the Boras M.O. to settle for something like that one-year offer. So, even though it would be a more lucrative short-term contract than he’s probably worth, odds are Drew will turn it down.

That will be just fine with Cherington, who really just wants that draft pick more than Drew’s return. It makes no sense for the Red Sox to keep him for more than a year because Xander Bogaerts proved in October that he is ready to be an everyday player, and it should be at shortstop, not third base. It is possible the Red Sox will talk to him about staying, but they won’t want to do it for a significant amount of money or length. He was never the long-term answer at the position, anyway, and with Bogaerts ready, it’s best for the two sides to part ways now.

Saltalamacchia presents the most difficult situation for the Red Sox. While he enjoyed the best offensive season of his career, and was one of the best hitting catchers in the league, his skills behind the plate leave plenty to be desired. His 21.2 percent caught stealing rate was the second-worst in baseball among qualified catchers. For a team with an offense as good as Boston’s, they could afford to go with a better defender there.

He was the only high-profile Red Sox free agent who was not given a qualifying offer, which was wise. One could make the argument that Cherington should have given one to him, too, but there’s a good chance he would have accepted it, and he is not a $14 million-a-year player.

There is a possibility that he could stay in Boston on a two or three-year contract, but he will probably get a better offer elsewhere. The Red Sox could look at short-term alternatives like A.J. Pierzynski or Carlos Ruiz to bide time until Christian Vazquez and/or Blake Swihart are ready in the not-too-distant future. They could chase Brian McCann, but that will likely take a hefty five-year deal, and committing that to a 30-year-old catcher who could end up transitioning to a marginal DH is a risky proposition. Either way, look for the Red Sox to thank Saltalamacchia for his service and wish him well.

In the end, Boston would be best served to let Ellsbury, Drew, and Saltalamacchia walk, and make Napoli their first baseman for the next couple of years. That would prevent their top prospects from being held back and keep a proven player in their biggest position of need, while allowing the team to stay away from any big contracts. It’s now only a matter of time before we find out which way they all go.

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