Red Sox Mailbag: Jonathan Papelbon Makes Sense for Sox, But Cheaper Options Wouldn't Hurt TeamThe free-agent season is here. As of 12:01 a.m. Thursday morning, more than 150 players flooded the market as the period of exclusive negotiations ended for their 2011 teams. David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon are the two biggest names that could be slipping through Boston's fingers as we speak.

In other news, J.D. Drew is also a free agent.

Teams (and their fans) around baseball are already salivating over the prospect of Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder becoming their new first baseman. Boston won't be part of those discussions, not with Gold Glove/Silver Slugger first baseman Adrian Gonzalez just one year into his stay in town.

Instead, keep your eyes on slightly lesser-known players who could come in and play a role for the Sox. Outfielder Michael Cuddyer, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, pitcher Roy Oswalt and pitcher Bruce Chen are the type of players who could come to Boston and round out a roster. 

Yet, for most Sox fans, the bigger question is who won't be back. The Sox face some very difficult decisions on some of the players who played major roles in some of the greatest seasons in team history. 

In other news, J.D. Drew is also a free agent.

Will the Sox keep Jason Varitek? Will Tim Wakefield be back for an 18th season? Those were the most-asked questions in this week's mailbag, so let's get right to it.

Hey Tom! First timer here! What do you think the chances are of the Red Sox bringing Jason Varitek back for 2012, as a player or a coach? I feel like the pitching staff would be lost without him, especially Josh Beckett. I know they have Ryan Lavarnway waiting in the wings but do you honestly think Lavarnway is ready? I know Tek will be 40 this year but he seems really comfortable in his new role as backup catcher and seemed to have some good production at the plate over the past two seasons in his reduced role. I love the Captain! He's been such an important part of this team the past 15 years and I really hate to see him go.
–Julie, Binghamton, N.Y.

Welcome aboard. It's a very tough question. Varitek has played in only 107 games over the past two seasons, and stepped up to the plate just 373 times since 2009. His offensive numbers have been anything but robust — last year he hit .221 with the second-lowest on-base percentage of his career (.300). 

The case for Varitek centers around intangibles — what he does to help a pitching staff, how he helps starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia prepare for a game, his leadership as captain. Yet those attributes have to be questioned now in the light of September's collapse. We've all heard the stories about what was going on in the clubhouse in those ugly final weeks. How much responsibility for a lack of clubhouse leadership goes to the captain? Varitek certainly wasn't part of the problem behind closed doors … but it's pretty clear he wasn't part of the solution, either.

Varitek wouldn't cost a ton, so it may make sense to sign him and see how he does this spring. Ryan Lavarnway may not be ready just yet, and 'Tek would give them some insurance behind the plate. In that scenario, the team could put off the decision until the end of March. 

Everyone knows Tek is a leader, why not make him the pitching coach? He has the experience with these guys, they respect him … . Seems low risk.
–Thomas, Kingsport, Tenn.

Certainly, Varitek would make a great coach or manager. It's hard to imagine that coaching career starting in the cauldron of Boston baseball. He'd probably have to spend some time doing it in the minors, as so many other former players have. He's earned more than $65 million as a player — does he really want to climb back on the minor league bus to start a new career at the age of 39?

Hi Tom, I know I'm in the minority here, but I'd love to see Tim Wakefield come back for one more year, perhaps as a spot starter or as a long reliever. If the Sox don't sign him, do you think Wake may finish his career in Tampa? Joe Maddon obviously respects Wake as evidenced by having selected him to the All-Star team a couple of years ago and I know he makes his offseason home in Florida. Your thoughts please.
–Christopher, Fair Oaks, Calif.

You're probably right about being in the minority. Wakefield threw 154.2 innings last year, his most since 2008. He wound up making 23 starts, fourth-most on the team and just five fewer than John Lackey. None of that was in the team's plans; the Sox kept Wakefield on the roster as insurance. They certainly needed him.

Yet the stretch of eight Wakefield starts from July 29 to Sep. 7 was one of the most frustrating things to watch for Sox fans in 2011. Wakefield was sitting on 199 career wins, and couldn't nail down No. 200 until he finally beat the Blue Jays on Set. 13. And he gave up five earned runs in six innings that night.  In the final two months of the season, Wakefield allowed 46 runs in 75 innings and went 1-4. The Sox went 3-7 in those 10 starts.

Wakefield is seven wins away from tying Cy Young and Roger Clemens for most wins in Red Sox history. Yet he turned many fans away when he said, "I think the fans deserve an opportunity to watch me chase that record," after his final start of the year. His feelings are understandable, but the timing of his comments (during the final hours of an historic collapse) are regrettable.

The difficulty with signing Wakefield is figuring out where to put him. At this stage of his career, he's not going to start the year in the starting rotation. And what would his role really be in the bullpen? In his first 11 appearances of 2011, he pitched in nine Red Sox losses.

Like Varitek, Wakefield has had a distinguished career in Boston. But, like Varitek, Wakefield may be a victim of the housecleaning that is already under way on Yawkey Way.

I wonder if anyone else is as nervous — or concerned may be the better word — at the prospect of Jonathan Papelbon being re-signed? Most games, when he came on to pitch, I left the room because, for one of his "stature," he got into too many jams the last couple of years. And he blew too many games.
–Donna Corliss, Hatfield, Mass.

During the season, I heard plenty from fans who thought Papelbon's best days were behind him. I disagree. Papelbon was outstanding in 2011. He lowered his ERA from 2010 by nearly a full run, and his WHIP was the lowest he's posted since his dominating 2007 season. His strikeouts were up, his walks were down, and he was one of the most accountable men in that clubhouse while things fell apart in September. He has clearly earned himself a major contract.

Will it be with the Red Sox? I don't think there's any question they'd like to have him back. He's a proven closer who can handle the pressures of Boston and the AL East, but I think it's clear Ben Cherington won't overspend (or overextend) for a long-term deal. Heath Bell and Papelbon will set the market for relief pitchers, and there's a pretty good chance one of them will cash in big with the Phillies, whose closer, Ryan Madson, is also a free agent.

There are plenty of other closers out there — Joe Nathan, Madson, Francisco Rodriguez, Frank Francisco, David Aardsma and others are on the market. I could certainly see the Sox going in another direction despite Papelbon's unparalleled six years of success as a closer in Boston.    

Working on the assumption that the new GM sees pitching as a priority and the Red Sox don't trade their few quality prospects, which current position player would be good enough to get you a quality No. 2 or similar starting pitcher. Who would you dangle out there?
–Montana Pete, Missoula, Mont.

That's a great question. When they picked up Marco Scutaro's option this week, the Sox said they have a surplus at shortstop. That would mean Jed Lowrie could be available. Trouble is, Lowrie has had a frustrating history of injuries and has trouble staying on the field. Obviously, that would lower his trade value, but he could be part of a package that could help the Sox land a starter. I'm not sure, though, if it would land a quality No. 2, but more likely a middle- to back-of-the-rotation arm. Remember, the Sox should be OK at the top of their rotation with Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and a healthy Clay Buchholz.

Tom, what are the chances of Tony La Russa being the Sox manager?
Steve Bateman, Leomenster, Mass.

Sadly, very little. He was the guy I wanted from the start. I also wanted pitching coach Dave Duncan to come along with him. Then again, I never thought the Cardinals would win a playoff series. Or three. Or that La Russa would retire and ride off into the sunset, which he has.

Out here in Albuquerque we are excited about our hometown product Kyle Weiland. We recognize that circumstances led to him being asked to step up to the major league level ahead of schedule this past season. Given the circumstances, do you think the Sox are happy with his performance and do you think he has a shot to be in the mix for a starting slot in 2012?
–Graeme, Albuquerque, N.M.

Your hometown boy certainly grabbed some attention this season despite going winless in five starts. Weiland will almost certainly begin the season in the Pawtucket rotation, but I'd be stunned if he doesn't spend some of 2012 in Boston. In fact, depending on what the Sox do on the free-agent market, I could see him pitching out of the bullpen with the big club as he continues to develop — much like Justin Masterson did for the Sox before being traded to Cleveland.