Burning Questions

As Evan wrote, the book is now closed on the 2005 season. It was a season of disappointment and frustration, dulled somewhat by both the remaining glow of 2004 and by the understanding that this was a flawed and old team that perhaps overachieved in the regular season and didn’t have the ability to make any kind of postseason impact.
So now, we slowly turn our eyes toward 2006, a season with more pure hope than any I can remember. This will be a busy offseason; I’ve already written that I think it will be this administration’s defining moment, even more so than last winter. Though we lost stars last year, the support of this team remained; this year we face the loss of players like Bill Mueller, Johnny Damon, and an entire bullpen, and face openings at 1st base, 2nd base, 3rd base, and center field. Last year, the prospects we were starting to get to know were by no means ready; this year, several are knocking on the door. Last year, we entered spring training having watched a team with few damaging injuries; this year two key pitchers suffered major ones, and their continued rehab will play a major role in next year’s club. So, having said all that, I want to offer a few key questions for this offseason, in an attempt to get the conversation moving.
Whither Johnny Damon?
The Sox all-star rock star center fielder is a free agent; his tearful press conferences and goodbyes to teammates after Friday’s game certainly would suggest that he doesn’t expect to be back in Boston in 2006. Johnny Damon by all rights had an excellent year; despite drops in the most important offensive categories (OBP, SLG, SecA, etc) he was still one of the top leadoff men in baseball, and one of its better OF’s. His defense, however, is growing more suspect, his arm has become the stuff of nightclub comedy, and his health has been troubling at best. He will be 32 years old next year, and is seeking a deal of no fewer than 4 years. Baseball Reference lists his most comparable players at age 30 as Claudell Washington, Tim Raines and Gregg Jefferies, none of whom were particularly good after the age of 30. Damon would almost certainly decline arbitration, and is a clear Type A free agent who would net us two high draft picks. So, should we re-sign Damon? If we don’t, are we handing him to the Yankees(and do we care)? Where will he wind up, for how long and how much?
Who’s on First? And Second? Not to Mention Third?
As of right now, the only infield position that is locked down under contract for next year is shortstop. There are two backup infielders still under contract (not counting rookies and prospects): Alex Cora and Kevin Youkilis. Beyond that, the infield is wide open. Current in-house options for 3rd base include Youkilis and Hanley Ramirez (who started several games at third in 2005 for Portland); for 2nd base there is Cora, along with Dustin Pedroia and Alejandro Machado; for first, there is Roberto Petagine, along with recent Cuban signee Michael Abreu, an unknown quantity. Exiting vets Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Tony Graffanino, and John Olerud will all be seeking full-time jobs and could be re-signed, likely for low money in each case. Key free agent possibilities include Joe Randa and Jose Valentin at third, Craig Biggio, Mark Grudzielanek and Bret Boone at second, and Paul Konerko, Erubiel Durazo, and Travis Lee at first. How will this play out? Will the Sox hand the 3B job to Youkilis outright, or try to retain Mueller with the understanding that the two will share time? How much more preparation does Pedroia – who struggled to come back after a wrist injury, closing out his AAA campaign with numbers that fell short of expectations – need to become a shoe-in? Will the Sox give 2B to Cora until Pedroia is ready, or sign Graffanino or an FA in the interim leaving Cora as a utility man? Are the Sox willing to gamble on Petagine or Abreu at first, or will they go after Konerko for big money? Might they seek a cheap option in Lee, or in the trade market? Who will back the Sox up at each of these positions, and could that list include any of the above players?
To Trade or not to Trade?
In what could become the offseason’s biggest story, the Red Sox have made no secret of their willingness to unload Manny Ramirez’s contract. After the events of late June, perhaps more groundwork has been laid for a deal, with specific names being discussed in the media. Despite it all, Manny put up another excellent season, flirting with a 1.000 OPS, smacking over 40 homers for the second straight season, and driving in more runs than anyone in the majors not named David Ortiz or Mark Teixeira. He also ranked second in the AL – again behind Ortiz – in IsoP, and 5th in the AL in SecA. With Ortiz, he forms the greatest offensive duo in Red Sox history, and among the greatest ever in the sport. On the flip side, he is on the wrong side of 32, and did suffer a decline in production this season. He costs an exorbitant amount of money, and comes with (wildly overrated but still existent) off-the-field issues. Do we trade Manny Ramirez? Who are the possible takers, and who might they offer in return? How much salary are we willing to eat in order to rid ourselves of this prodigious slugger? Who plays left field if we do so? Are we willing to open up both center field and left field for this season, while also dealing a potentially crippling blow to the team’s greatest strength, its offense? Can we even begin to compete in ’06 without Manny Ramirez? Do we care?
From a Bullpen full of figurative holes to a Bullpen full of literal holes…
Our bullpen is officially empty. Only Keith Foulke – of the established vets – remains under contract for 2006, and his efficacy is yet to be determined. we saw this year that there is definite help available from the minor league system; this year alone we had contributions from 6 different rookie relievers (Papelbon, Delcarmen, Hansen, DiNardo, Alvarez, and Meredith; there are others making an impact in the system (Edgar Martinez and Randy Beam, to name two). There are also some names on the market, highlighted by Orioles closer BJ Ryan, who may be too expensive for the O’s this offseason. Will Jonathan Papelbon be moved to the rotation next year, or will he be back as a setup man? Do Hansen and Delcarmen need more conditioning time, or will they be in the pen to open the year? Do we try a bullpen on the cheap (Foulke, Hansen, Delcarmen, DiNardo, Alvarez, Myers) or do we acquire outside talent with price tags?
Are we ready for the kids?
It’s not inconceivable to envision a 2008 Sox roster entirely manned by system products. Don’t believe me? Here, I’ll do it right now, with a minimum of stretching:
C: Kelly Shoppach
1B: Jeremy West
2B: Dustin Pedroia
3B: Kevin Youkilis
SS: Hanley Ramirez
LF: David Murphy
CF: Jacoby Ellsbury
RF: Brandon Moss
DH: Michael Abreu
Bench: Jon Egan (C/1B), Alejandro Machado (2B/SS/3B), Jed Lowrie (2B/SS), Chris Durbin (corner OF), Jeff Corsaletti (CF)
SP: Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Anibal Sanchez, Clay Buchholz, Abe Alvarez
BP: Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen, Edgar Martinez, Lenny DiNardo, Randy Beam, David Pauley
There. All guys in the Sox system right now, a few with some MLB experience, most in the low or mid minors. Is it a stretch to say that all of these guys could see time at the major league level at some point in the next couple years? Not at all. But it certainly wouldn’t be a good lineup (though I’ll admit that rotation makes me drool a bit). The Sox are on the verge of a solid youth movement; much of it will begin in 2006, when we can expect early contributions from Youkilis, Papelbon, Hansen and Delcarmen, and possibly later season contributions from Pedroia, Lester, Sanchez, Martinez, and Moss. How many rookies is too many? Does it make sense for a team with the payroll of the Sox to hand over positions to younger players, or should most of these guys become trade bait? In other words, ho much of a youth movement should the Sox undertake, and how much of it should start in 2006? Could Boston fans tolerate a year or two of uncertain production from rookies?
Will our rotation be better, or just a year older?
With Curt Schilling, David Wells, and Time Wakefield all under contract for 2006, the Red Sox lead the majors in middle-aged starting pitching. The back end of the rotation, anchored by Arroyo and Clement, can no longer be called young, as Arroyo will enter his 29th year and Clement his 31st. Jonathan Papelbon waits in the wings, but as things stand there may not be room for him. On the plus side, should Schilling return to form after a full offseason of recovery, we will have an ace we lacked in 2005. On the other hand, with three starters at 39+, the potential for injuries is huge. How will the Sox rotation play out? David Wells has said the word ‘retirement’; will he be back this year? Which older Sox starter stands the best chance of making 30 starts in 2006? Will Curt Schilling return to prominence? Will Bronson Arroyo be traded while his value remains high? How do you see the Sox rotation shaping up in April? July? September? Will the Sox seek any additional starting arms on the free agent market?
There are a ton more questions to be asked here, but these seem the most pressing. All of them will be answered in one way or another in the next 6 months, but why wait? I’m sure Theo will appreciate any input we can provide. So, discuss below. I have my own ideas (and I’m sure a lot of them became obvious from the above) and am interested to see the responses from Firebrand readers. So, go to it in the comments thread, folks.