The job in front of Epstein is not an easy one, with question marks all over the place.
Here are the five we deem most pressing.
1. Whom do you re-sign?
At least one of this trio will be kept, but the sheer possibility that Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz and Victor Martinez — a group which accounted for 38 percent of the team’s home runs and 36 percent of its RBIs — could wind up in another town illustrates the potential shakeup in the everyday lineup.
Beltre and Martinez have earned the right to test the market. The former made it clear when signing a one-year deal (with a player option) that he was intent on landing one more major contract to carry him through the back half of his career. Martinez has never made more than $7 million, a big number to most but one that the All-Star will far surpass, either with the Sox or another team.
The club has a $12.5 million option on Ortiz.
The feeling in some circles is that Beltre is gone, Ortiz is brought back either via the option or in some form of a restructured multi-year deal and that Martinez is given four years or so, the back half of which may be used to transition him to replace Ortiz at designated hitter.
If such a scenario unfolds, then the next matter is filling third base, either by moving Kevin Youkilis across the diamond and signing a first baseman, or simply finding a Beltre replacement. The chance of bringing back all three sluggers is not good.
Catcher Jason Varitek is the other big name waiting to hit the negotiating table.
2. How do you fix the bullpen?
Although Jonathan Papelbon had his worst season as the Red Sox closer, it’s unlikely he is going anywhere this offseason. He becomes a free agent after the 2011 season, giving him a contract year to prove himself, a scenario which may yield positive returns for the club. After that, the talk of installing Daniel Bard into the closer’s role might become a bit more legit.
Beyond those two, it’s back to square one. While failing to import any help for the bullpen at either of the two trade deadlines this year, Epstein remained committed to promoting from within. Felix Doubront and Michael Bowden were at the top of a list of organizational arms that could continue to be developed as relievers.
The Minnesota Twins have established the blueprint by which it appears Epstein will follow. By placing an emphasis on developing relievers at lower levels the Twins have had a constant influx of help from within, posting a bullpen ERA ranked fifth or better in the American League in eight of the last nine years (the other year they were sixth).
While the organization still considers Doubront to be a starter, do not be shocked if he is getting outs in front of Bard next season. Others may follow since the starting rotation is as stable contract-wise as any in the game.
Elsewhere, Tim Wakefield has said he will be more prepared to be a long man/spot starter if he goes into the year knowing his role. He very quietly thrived out of the bullpen, posting a 3.60 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP in 13 games as a reliever.
Scott Atchison is under team control and dirt-cheap in 2011 (league minimum plus $40,000). Hideki Okajima may not be tendered a deal in December.
Expect the competition for that spot and others to be the focus in Fort Myers.
3. What is the plan for the outfield?
Epstein’s decision to shuffle the outfield in the wake of Jason Bay’s departure did not go as planned. Jacoby Ellsbury was injured in left field a week into the season and Mike Cameron’s season in center was essentially wiped away by abdominal issues.
Both should be healthy by the time spring training starts, but it’s unlikely their roles will be the same. Cameron, who will be 38 at that time, is trending toward a reserve outfielder. That puts Ellsbury as the likely starter in center.
The wild cards come in many forms. Is Ryan Kalish ready to be a regular? Does the organization throw everything it has at Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth? If Cameron is a backup, is Darnell McDonald involved in any way?
If a big-name free agent is brought aboard, there is potential that Ellsbury stays in center and Kalish takes over in right when J.D. Drew departs after 2011. A Crawford-Ellsbury-Kalish trio could be rather dynamic, if the club is OK with loading up on left-handed bats.
4. Who is your starting shortstop?
To answer a question with a question, or questions, we wonder: Do you give Marco Scutaro the starting job if he comes into camp with no shoulder issues or do you go nine years younger with Jed Lowrie, who is trending up while Scutaro is not.
Both can play multiple infield positions so whoever loses out will still be a valuable piece off the bench.
Either way, both are on the outs in year or two if hot prospect Jose Iglesias’s progress continues.
The shortstop shuffle could continue until then.
5. Is anyone for sale?
As Terry Francona said after the season ended, “We got a good look at a lot of young players.”
So, too, did the rest of the major leagues and as other teams begin their offseason pursuits will some of those cameos lead to deals down the road? Kalish would be the obvious prize if another team came calling, although it is extremely unlikely anything would ever emerge on that end. Doubront is appealing, and Lars Anderson remains an intriguing piece if the power ever fully develops.
Although older, McDonald and Daniel Nava at least showed they can help a team win ballgames.
The silver lining in the constant stream of injuries is that the club was able to showcase its organizational depth. That certainly benefits the Sox, but it could benefit others as well.
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