The champagne is barely dry at Fenway Park, but the Red Sox already are well into the process of assembling a roster capable of winning another World Series.
In doing so, they plan to rely on a few rookies.
Having allowed free agent Jacoby Ellsbury to bolt for a seven-year, $153 million contract from the rival New York Yankees, the Sox are banking on touted Jackie Bradley Jr. to take over in center field. Moreover, they expect 21-year-old phenom Xander Bogaerts to be in the lineup every day, either at shortstop or third base depending on whether they are able to retain free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew.
And it's possible that the Red Sox could also count on a bounce-back performance from young third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who followed a promising rookie year in 2012 with a disappointing season in which he posted a .271 on-base percentage that was the worst among 30 major league third basemen with at least 350 plate appearances.
Is manager John Farrell comfortable with putting so much trust in so many inexperienced players?
"Playing at their capabilities?" he said. "Yes."
Indeed. The Red Sox have high hopes for the trio. Bogaerts, in particular, is a coveted prospect who was labeled by agent Scott Boras as someone who is "going to be one of the top five players in baseball." In fact, Bogaerts took over for slumping Middlebrooks during the AL Championship Series and started all six World Series games at third base.
If Drew isn't re-signed, Bogaerts figures to be the everyday shortstop, which represents his natural position. Otherwise, he will remain at third base, where he impressed Farrell by making a smooth transition despite having never played the position until this season.
"In his case, learning a new position or getting familiar with third base at the most visible time of the year speaks to his calmness and presence on the field," Farrell said. "I don't know that you can necessarily count postseason games as two-for-one for regular season, but he responded very well. I think we're completely comfortable with him playing either position."
Bradley also gained experience at the major league level last season. But unlike Bogaerts, he didn't make a particularly favorable impression, struggling at the plate during four separate call-ups.
The Red Sox have no doubts that Bradley is a major league-caliber defender, and Farrell suggested the club isn't expecting him to replace Ellsbury offensively. Not yet, at least.
"Defensively, no question, he showed us he's ready each time he was on the field," Farrell said. "And I think through this past year, the challenges he faced and the way he faced major league pitching, he swung the bat with a little more productivity late in the season in September. And if that's the way we go, we're more than willing to have him in center field. He's a good player."
--C A.J. Pierzynski has started at least 100 games behind the plate in 13 consecutive seasons, a testament to the durability that Red Sox GM Ben Cherington labeled "his calling card." But the Sox want backup C David Ross to play a decent chunk of games, too, something they explained to Pierzynski before signing him to a one-year, $8.5 million contract. "We talked about that. We were on the same page," Pierzynski said. "There wasn't a specific number thrown out there. I'm all for what we talked about, and what we talked about -- I'm sorry, I'm not going to tell you because it's none of your business -- but we talked about it. (Manager) John (Farrell) and I had a long talk with Ben, and it was a good conversation and that's one of the reasons why I came here."
--LHP Jon Lester isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2014 season. But the Red Sox don't want to wait that long to offer him a contract extension. GM Ben Cherington said the club likely will broach the subject of a new deal for Lester later in the offseason or during spring training. Lester, who turns 30 in January, is coming off a postseason for the ages, having gone 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA in five starts, and figures to seek a five- or six-year contract worth at least $20 million per year. One comparable deal is the six-year, $144 million extension signed by Phillies LHP Cole Hamels midway through the 2012 season. "He's a key guy," Cherington said of Lester. "He's been a horse for us for a long time and didn't show any signs of slowing down this October. Obviously, he's a guy we would like to keep. I think there will certainly be a willingness to have a conversation, so we'll see where it goes."
--CF Jackie Bradley Jr. batted only .189 with a .280 on-base percentage and 31 strikeouts in 95 at-bats in his first exposure to the majors last season. But he insists he's poised to take over in center field for the Red Sox, who need a replacement for departed free agent Jacoby Ellsbury. "I'm ready to take that next step," Bradley told the Boston Herald. "I definitely don't feel like what I showed this year is what I'm capable of. I showed some glimpses, but I know that wasn't me. You can look at my track record. I've hit at every level. I was able to go through that, take my lumps and bumps, as (manager John) Farrell said. I definitely feel like I got better in the bigger picture." The Red Sox are confident in Bradley's ability to play stellar defense in center field, which has made him the leading candidate to take over for Ellsbury.
--2B Dustin Pedroia underwent surgery in November to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, and although the Red Sox expect him to be ready for Opening Day, it's possible he may lag behind the other everyday players in the early days of spring training. Regardless, manager John Farrell said he expects that Pedroia will be "getting ample at-bats" in Grapefruit League games. Pedroia was injured in the season's first game when he slid headfirst into first base. In all likelihood, it caused him to be unable to hit for as much power as usual. He had only nine homers, his lowest total since 2007, and a .415 slugging percentage that ranked as his worst in a full major league season. "Maybe we saw him turn on the ball a little bit more frequently later in the year, when either he was getting comfortable with what he was dealing with or felt he wasn't going to do further damage," Farrell said. "That's probably where we saw it more particularly in the early months and midseason was his willingness to go the other way a little bit more regularly."
--RHP Edward Mujica began last season as a setup man for the St. Louis Cardinals, but by mid-April, he was installed as the closer and went 37-for-41 in save situations. He's expected to play a similar role for the Red Sox, who signed the 29-year-old to a two-year, $9.5 million contract and will rely on him as closer insurance for Koji Uehara. "The one thing I was thinking about being with the Red Sox was having more opportunities to pitch," Mujica said. "I had a chance to talk to (GM) Ben Cherington, and he told me, 'We've got Koji, we've got (setup man Junichi) Tazawa, but you did a pretty good job during the season. We need a guy like you to back them up.' I'm going to be ready to go to be in that situation or whatever situation they want to put me in."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Every time we think about potentially moving a starter, something in the back of our head reminds us, don't do it unless it really makes sense. We know we're going to need probably need more than six starters to get through the season." -- GM Ben Cherington, on Boston's surplus of six veteran starting pitchers.
The champagne was barely dry after Boston's World Series-winning celebration when six players became free agents. The Red Sox have some difficult decisions to make, but with a strong farm system, a surplus of starting pitching and their usual financial might, they're well-positioned to endure losses, including that of CF Jacoby Ellsbury, who signed with the Yankees.
General manager Ben Cherington vowed last winter to build "the next great Red Sox team," and while an unexpected World Series championship certainly puts the 2013 club in that category, Cherington continues to insist the work isn't done.
BIGGEST NEEDS: The Red Sox won 108 games, including 11 in the postseason, by virtue of having a deep roster that was able to withstand injuries. They will look to maintain that depth by protecting the assets in their farm system. With six veteran starting pitchers and several top prospects closing in, Cherington has the flexibility to make a trade to strengthen other areas, and a center fielder is needed to replace Ellsbury. The team also needs to decide the future of 3B Will Middlebrooks, who faltered after a promising rookie season and wound up on the bench during the World Series.
ARRIVALS: RHP Burke Badenhop (trade with Brewers), C A.J. Pierzynski (free agent from Rangers), RHP Edward Mujica (free agent from Cardinals), RHP Edward Mujica (free agent from Cardinals), 1B Mike Napoli (re-signed)
DEPARTURES: CF Jacoby Ellsbury (free agent, signed with Yankees), C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (free agent, signed with Marlins)
FREE AGENTS: SS Stephen Drew, RHP Joel Hanrahan, INF John McDonald, LHP Matt Thornton, RHP Andrew Bailey, OF Ryan Kalish
Drew was a perfect fit, but he might not return.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: LHP Andrew Miller, LHP Franklin Morales, 1B/OF Mike Carp, RHP Junichi Tazawa, RHP Burke Badenhop
Tazawa emerged as the primary setup man, especially once both Miller and Bailey were lost to season-ending injuries, and is a lock to come back. Miller also figures to be retained and is expected to be ready by spring training. Carp was a valuable player off the bench and therefore a likely candidate to return.
IN LIMBO: 3B Will Middlebrooks
Contractually, Middlebrooks remains under the Red Sox's control for four more years. But after a poor second season in the majors, which concluded with a seat on the bench during the World Series, it's worth wondering how much he factors into their future plans.
--2B Dustin Pedroia (left thumb surgery in November 2013) had a torn ulnar collateral ligament repaired. He might be slowed at the start of spring training, but he is expected to be ready for Opening Day.
--LHP Andrew Miller (left foot surgery in July 2013) is expected to be ready for Opening Day.
--RHP Joel Hanrahan (Tommy John surgery in May 2013) is a free agent.
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