The Red Sox’s demise this season was a heartbreaker. It shouldn’t have been, though. From mid-September, it was obvious that the club had glaring issues that were too big to fix. In the final month, Boston’s pitching staff imploded on itself and cost the team their probable playoff berth. Sportswriters and fans are using GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona as scapegoats, but in reality, the Red Sox’s hurlers are the only people to blame. Epstein is taking flack for not acquiring a better starter than Erik Bedard at the deadline and not making a deal sooner than four p.m., July 31, while Francona is accused of mismanaging the bullpen. Sox fans, however, should be grateful to Epstein for not making a rash move like acquiring Ubaldo Jimenez. The fact is that there weren’t any worthwhile starters on the market, and Epstein traded for the best one available. Firing him would only make matters worse.
Francona, on the other hand, is expendable. Since 2004, Tito has been an adequate, serviceable on-field manager who the front office could easily control. As noted previously, he didn’t actively contribute to the epic 2011 collapse. Additionally, he didn’t do anything to prevent it, either. $4.25 million is a lot of dough for just average. Declining his club option would appease the fans by showing them that the team is in store for a major offseason renovation and breathe new life into a ballclub that seemed stagnant for all of September.
But that’s just the start. The sportswriters who hailed the 2011 Red Sox as the best ballclub in decades failed to predict the debilitating problems that would arise with an unlucky combination of injury and poor performance. The front office needs to realize that John Lackey isn’t getting any better, and putting him on the mound for more than four innings is destroying the team. Regardless of how much he makes, Lackey needs to be moved to the bullpen. Whether he’s the long reliever or Boston’s next closer, transferring Lackey to the ‘pen could revitalize his career, or at least make his painful trips to the mound shorter. Either Alfredo Aceves or a free agent could fill the open rotation spot. Veteran Roy Oswalt will most likely have his $16 million club option declined by Philadelphia, so expect Epstein to be interested. Long-term free agent contracts for pitchers don’t usually work out well (Example: John Lackluster), and with all the money Boston has tied up in aging players, anything more than a two-year deal would be stupid. Chien Ming-Wang, Rich Harden, Bedard, and Jeff Francis could all be signed on one-year pacts.
Regarding the ‘pen, Epstein simply needs to take the Andrew Friedman (GM of the Rays) approach, and sign a slew of over-the-hill/under performing pitchers to minor league deals and see who sticks. Why pay Jonathan Papelblown $15 million when the same production can be had from a Kyle Farnsworth type?
For now, we have to assume that Carl Crawford is going to return to form. If he doesn’t, the Sox are in big trouble. Regardless, his elite defense is being wasted on the smallest left field in baseball, and that’s why he has to move to center. But if Crawford moves to center, where will Jacoby Ellsbury play? I don’t know, maybe the Nationals, maybe the Reds.
Trading Ellsbury isn’t that outlandish of an idea, really. He has two more years left of team control, with Scott Boras representing him. Not only does that mean they’ll be paying him like a top-tier free agent in 2013, his final season of arbitration, it’s also a sign that they won’t be paying him at all come 2014. Trading him now would be a preemptive strike and a sell-high option. If Epstein did in fact put his centerfielder on the block, teams would be lining up to hand over their prospects. What would Boston do with prospects if they want to win in 2011, though? For one thing, they could trade for an elite pitcher, say Felix Hernandez. The Mariners’ stance on moving their superstar hasn’t changed, but once the threat of finishing last in the West again while paying a single player $20 million sinks in, they’ll change their tune. The Yankees will undoubtedly put up a strong offer too, possibly containing stud prospects Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances.
Disgruntled Marlin Logan Morrison is a trade candidate because of the grievance he filed against his team earlier this month, and the left fielder fits the Epstein mold perfectly. High walk rates combined with steady power point to a Kevin Youkilis-type player, and every team needs one of those. David DeJesus is an interesting option for right field, too, because of the poor season he had with Oakland. A cheap, one-year contract would be worth the risk, considering the Sox had interest in him throughout July 2010.
Preliminary ideas are all that’s floating around in Boston today. Epstein will have to change the direction of his team if he wants to stay relevant. Signing a high-class free agent just isn’t enough this year.