With few fixes, Sox can go deeper in '10

With few fixes, Sox can go deeper in '10

BOSTON -- They firmly expect to be there again in 2010, fighting for a chance to go deep into October. The Red Sox have been to the postseason six times in the last seven years, but this year's team didn't last long, getting swept in three straight by the Angels in the American League Division Series.

So as general manager Theo Epstein gets set to retool his roster for the upcoming season, he will try to build one with more weapons for a six-month season, and more staying power in the month of October.

"There are a lot of different ways to get better," said Epstein. "You probably start with your weaknesses because there's the greatest room for improvement there. And if you look back at this year's club, we weren't the defensive club that we wanted to be. So I think there's room for improvement with overall team defense and defensive efficiency. And then offense on the road, we didn't really hit on the road at all this year. We'll take a look where we'll improve that a little bit, those are probably the two things that stick out to me."

There are some pressing decisions ahead. Will left fielder Jason Bay re-sign with Boston or utilize his free-agent rights to go elsewhere? There is a mutual option for shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who stabilized the infield upon his return in August. Will Gonzalez be back or will the Red Sox once again be in transition at shortstop?

"Regardless of who's on this team next year, the Red Sox are going to put nine guys out there that can win and take it to the postseason," said right-hander Clay Buchholz. "That's the goal every Spring Training -- to have a team that has the potential to win a World Series and be [in the] postseason. I think that's a good outlook for us."

Though the Red Sox have most of their core players under contract for next season, there's always a chance Epstein could make a blockbuster deal if the opportunity presents itself.

"There are 29 other teams so there are 29 other opportunities to makes trades and maybe address mutual needs," Epstein said. "The foundation of the organization is still strong, we have a pretty good core of prime players, there are probably 10 guys in their mid-20s or right around 30 who we can build around and a strong farm system, with tremendous payroll flexibility going forward."

There's also the chance this group could mostly stay together, getting another chance to win a World Series, something they last did in 2007.

"I think it could go a number of different directions. I think we're always open to change because I think you need change to improve as part of the natural cycle in baseball and in life," Epstein said. "Sometimes the market doesn't bear that out. Sometimes there aren't the right fits, sometimes it's not the right free-agent market and sometimes you end up with more status quo than you want.

"If that's the case, if we look back three or four months from now and say, 'Wow, there weren't major changes,' then I think next year will be perhaps the last year of this main group of players. We have a lot of players going into contract years next year. I think it might be one more chance with this group to go out and win the whole thing."

Contract issues
Free agents: Jason Bay, LF; Billy Wagner, LHP; Rocco Baldelli, OF; Paul Byrd, RHP.
Eligible for arbitration: Jonathan Papelbon, RHP; Hideki Okajima, LHP; Manny Delcarmen, RHP; Casey Kotchman, 1B; Nick Green, SS; Ramon Ramirez, RHP.
Player options: Jason Varitek, C , $3 million (if club option is not exercised).
Club options: Victor Martinez, C, $7 million; Varitek, C, $5 million; Tim Wakefield, RHP, $4 million; Takashi Saito, RHP, $6 million.
Mutual options: Alex Gonzalez, SS, $6 million.

Catchers
• Victor Martinez, .336 BA, 8 HRs, 41 RBIs in 56 games
• Jason Varitek, .209 BA, 14 HRs, 51 RBIs
• George Kottaras, .237 BA, 1 HR, 10 RBIs

Martinez's option is the biggest no-brainer the Red Sox have this winter, and will be picked up in short order. The switch-hitting slugger gives the club an impact bat at a position where it is hard to find them. While Varitek has always loved playing in Boston, there's at least a chance he will seek a chance to get more playing time elsewhere. Otherwise, he will be a backup on the team he has been captain of since 2005. The Red Sox like what Kottaras offers behind the plate, so he will get a chance to get the backup job in Spring Training.

First base
• Kevin Youkilis, .305 BA, 27 HRs, 94 RBIs
• Casey Kotchman, .218 BA, 1 HR, 7 RBIs in 39 games

Youkilis is a force at the plate and a Gold Glove-caliber player in the field. Martinez will presumably see some time at first as well, to give his legs a break. The Red Sox like Kotchman's professionalism off the bench, and will likely bring him back.

Second base
• Dustin Pedroia, .296 BA, 15 HRs, 72 RBIs

Pedroia will own this spot for the next several years, barring injuries. He didn't quite duplicate his Most Valuable Player Award season of 2008, but the little second baseman was once again an infectious presence no matter where he was on the field. Pedroia should be in his prime for the next four to five years.

Shortstop
• Jed Lowrie, .147 BA, 2 HRs, 11 RBIs
• Nick Green, .236 BA, 6 HRs, 35 RBIs

The return of Gonzalez is certainly an option, but there are decisions to be made on both sides. Epstein would like to see how his club stacks up offensively before determining if Gonzalez is the right fit to be the No. 9 hitter. The Red Sox still think Lowrie can be a starting-caliber player, but can't count on it for 2010 after his last two seasons were hindered by left wrist woes. Green gave the Red Sox a lot more than they expected when he came into Spring Training as a non-roster invitee. He could be back if the fit is right.

Third base
• Mike Lowell, .290 BA, 17 HRs, 75 RBIs
• Youkilis, .305 BA, 27 HRs, 94 RBIs
• Lowrie, .147 BA, 2 HRs, 11 RBIs

Lowell's playing time could be determined by two things: how much his mobility improves a second year recovered from right hip surgery, and other moves the Red Sox make this winter. Lowell's name seems to pop up in trade rumors every winter, and with the veteran entering the last year of his contract, that could again be the case. The ability of Youkilis to play third when need be is an invaluable resource for Red Sox manager Terry Francona.

Outfield
• Jacoby Ellsbury, .301, 8 HRs, 60 RBIs
• J.D. Drew, .279 BA, 24 HRs, 68 RBIs

The big question, of course, is Bay, and whether he returns to left field. If not, Epstein will be on the prowl for another bat with similar impact. One of the unheralded stories of the season was the improvement of Ellsbury, who should keep getting better for the next couple of years. The Red Sox still feel that Drew is more valuable than people realize, thanks to his consistent ability to get on base and his plus defense in right field, a very tough position to play at Fenway. It's too early to tell if Baldelli will return as a backup outfielder. His health uncertainty has been well documented.

Designated hitter
• David Ortiz, .238 BA, 28 HRs, 99 RBIs

It was an odd year, to say the least, for the big slugger. Ortiz essentially disappeared off the map for the first two months of the season. But he had a couple of prolonged hot streaks after that to bring his overall power numbers to a place not much lower than would have been projected before the season. Epstein has already said the Red Sox need Ortiz to be a "force" if he is going to remain as the team's primary designated hitter.

Rotation
• Jon Lester, 15-8, 3.41 ERA, 225 K's
• Josh Beckett, 17-6, 3.86 ERA, 199 K's
• Clay Buchholz, 7-4, 4.21 ERA
• Daisuke Matsuzaka, 4-6, 5.76 ERA
• Tim Wakefield, 11-5, 4.58 ERA

On paper, this is a clear strength going into the offseason. Lester has emerged into an elite left-hander. Beckett didn't quite reach his 2007 form, but he was far better and healthier than in '08. He is going into the last year of his contract. Perhaps the pitcher that excites the Red Sox the most is Buchholz, who took about three steps forward in '09. Matsuzaka needs to maintain the terrific shape he got himself into during an extended summer rehab. Wakefield will be coming off back surgery, but should be good to go for his 16th season in Boston.

Bullpen
• Jonathan Papelbon, 1-1, 1.85 ERA, 38 saves
• Hideki Okajima, 6-0, 3.39 ERA
• Daniel Bard, 2-2, 3.65 ERA
• Ramon Ramirez, 7-4, 2.84 ERA
• Manny Delcarmen, 5-2, 4.53 ERA

This was the clear strength of the team in 2009, Papelbon's season-ending mishap in Game 3 of the ALDS not withstanding. While it is true Papelbon wasn't quite as dominant this year as in years past, he was still one of the best closers in the game. Okajima continues to be underrated, even after three solid seasons. Bard should be a closer in the making, backed by triple-digit heat. Ramirez made the trade of Coco Crisp worthwhile, though his second half wasn't as strong as his first. Delcarmen's second half slide was one of the most perplexing elements of the 2009 season.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.