The 2013 Boston Red Sox put the lie to every weary narrative the mainstream baseball media has tried to shove down the throats of baseball fans over the past few years. They won without an ace who could match up, pound-for-pound, with the ace of any of their playoff opponents. They won, in fact, with only average pitching and run-prevention across the board. They ran less than they had during the regular season. They won with free agents, guns for hire, their victory music drowning out dirges that columnists still won’t stop singing over the death of that medium.

If they try to rest on their laurels, though, this team will topple over, because the laurels are leaving via free agency. Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli could be back, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jacoby Ellsbury sure seem to be gone. Jackie Bradley, Jr. will stand in for Ellsbury, but the odds are that that will be at least a small downgrade. Replacing Saltalamacchia will be difficult, and failing a Brian mcCann signing, it might be impossible. Even a team with the rich depth and many rescources of the Red Sox (who also have Xander Bogaerts, a rookie shortstop who could take over for Drew, and whose lineup had no holes this season) can’t easily lose four regular position players and come back at full strength.

The only thing harder, in fact, may be coming back at full strength if the starting rotation does not roll over that way. The Red Sox have Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Ryan Dempster and Clay Buchholz under contract for 2014. They also have team control over Felix Doubront, Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Henry Owens, Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes. The depth is nice, but some of the latter group have never pitched above Double-A, and many in the former group are some blend of fragile, aging or simply ineffective.

Understand that I’m not belittling what the Red Sox have done, nor downplaying their prospects for remaining a powerhouse. I think they’re a very good team. Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams for a new generation, perhaps slightly watered down, but not unrecognizable. They give any team a chance to be good, because they’re very good players. Add in the pitching depth, the money the Sox should be able to spend, the likely return of at least a couple of these free agents and the surprising strength of their farm system, and you have a recipe for success. It just doesn’t have the feel of an old-fashioned dynasty.

How the Red Sox Score Runs

Ellsbury’s speed will be gone from the lineup next season, and it’s unlikely to be replaced. That’s not a huge deal. Stealing bases is a nice way to make the offense feel more nimble, and to stretch and pressure a defense, and to manufacture a run when only one is needed, but it shouldn’t be the centerpiece of an offense. In Boston, it isn’t. It’s simply a detail, a fringe benefit. Stealing bases, and for that matter, taking the extra base on hits and outs on balls in play, are just a means to the end of maximizing the offensive talent the Red Sox put on the field.

With Drew and Napoli in limbo and Saltalamacchia seemingly gone, though, the shape of the offense is sure to change. Those three guys combined for 1,549 plate appearances, 167 extra-base hits, 170 walks and 450 strikeouts in 2013. They were the all-or-nothing faction, the trio that gave the offense a certain part of its character. They worked the deepest counts, accepting the risk of striking out in nearly every at-bat, looking for a pitch to hammer.

Shane Victorino and Pedroia, along with Ellsbury, made really good contact, but didn’t walk or hit for power at nearly the same rate. The Boston offense was balanced overall, but it wasn’t filled with balanced hitters; it just had guys who canceled each other out on many fronts. That should make for some interesting changes in the way the Sox tick next year.

Predicting how that will shake out is tricky. We don’t know very much, really, about Xander Bogaerts as a big-league batter. He looked awfully good during the postseason, with a patient approach, power and a smooth swing. That’s just anecdote, though. It could be predictive, or not. It’s also clear that at least one spot, catcher, is completely unresolved for next season, so we’ll have to see how the Sox fill it. My guess, though, is that this will still be one of the two or three best offenses in baseball next Opening Day.

How They Prevent Runs

Quietly, despite non-elite numbers, the Red Sox play good defense. Their pitchers are fine, but they walked the third-highest percentage of opposing batters in baseball. The defense had to make plays, because when they didn’t, there were often runners on base to move up, or come around and score. It became clear during the playoffs that, despite few standout individuals and a below-average overall number, the defense was built to bend, but not break. In particular, they seemed to practice situational shifting, giving away a few singles (an against-the-grain strategy these days) in exchange for stopping extra-base hits, or hits to certain fields, at key times.

The pitching staff does put people on base, but it also generates its share of outs on its own. Boston hurlers fanned 21.1 percent of their opponents, the seventh-best number in baseball. As noted at the top of this piece, they’re a deep unit, not only in the rotation, but in the bullpen, assuming that some of the current starters can shift to relief when the rotation gets settled in the spring.

It will be interesting to see what kind of encore Koji Uehara can provide to what was a maestro performance. He was untouchable during the second half of the season, and on into October. Andrew Bailey could finally be healthy for a full season next year, but failing that, the Sox will need Uehara and Junichi Tazawa to stay atop their games in order to keep their bullpen from fraying and tearing at the seams.

Things to Watch and Possible Moves

If Drew and Napoli stay put, the Sox could almost simply stand pat. Ryan Lavarnway would be an awfully iffy starting catcher, especially with David Ross behind him, but it could work. If Drew leaves, not much changes, other than that Boston then needs a utility infielder. If Napoli leaves, it creates a greater need.

In any case, I wouldn’t be standing pat. It’s a defensible strategy, but I don’t think it would be the right one. There are four players the Red Sox should consider trading:

  • Ryan Dempster
  • Jake Peavy
  • Will Middlebrooks
  • Garin Cecchini

Dempster and Peavy wouldn’t net huge returns, but they’re good enough pitchers that their 2014 salaries could appeal to a team (like the recent Royals and Pirates) who would like to add a pitcher for the short term, but lack the ability to lure free agents. Either could also be a fit for the Angels, who don’t fit the former category but who are openly seeking pitching help.

Middlebrooks and Cecchini are kind of stuck. They’re good enough players to play every day in the big leagues, but probably not good enough to play in Boston. It doesn’t help that the Sox also have Bogaerts, and right now, Drew, so third base looks occupied.

I would move these little pieces around, ensuring some free money, and some roster flexibility. Then, I would make a run at McCann, and perhaps also Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka, a Japanese phenom in his mid-20s, profiles something like Yu Darvish. (While the posting system that brings most Japanese stars to the United States makes adding players like Tanaka cost-inefficient, the domestic free-agency rules force teams to give up draft picks to sign guys this good, so teams might be willing to pay cash to avoid giving up the ability to draft young, cheap talent. The Red Sox, who are assured of a World Series cash windfall, should be especially eager to make that trade.)

I would even dangle Bogaerts as a trade chip, with an eye on the Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton would hit 50 homers in every 600 plate appearances in Boston, and might also be better able to stay healthy if he could man their much cozier left field. Bogaerts has a very bright future, but Stanton would be a coup, a big step on the road to a repeat. He’s also under team control for a minimum of three more seasons, anyway, so while Bogaerts would basically get the deal done, the gap between them in terms of long-term value is likely to be small.

 

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