Last time, I posted some of the pie-in-the-sky stuff (Trade Papelbon! Get Fielder!), so let's look at some more realistic steps the Red Sox can take that could significantly improve their team. As Theo Epstein said, it's a weak free agent class, but I see at least four that the Sox should be at least making offers on. We'll get there in a second.
First, the Sox do not need an "elite hitter," whatever that is, because they already have one.
Kevin Youkilis finished second in the league and sixth in the game in OPS, ahead of Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez.
We shouldn't forget the Sox finished third in the league in offense, and that their offensive core includes three of the Top 10 hitters in the AL (by OPS) this season. The biggest offensive problem was hitting on the road, and that was arguably confined to three hitters, one of whom (Varitek) lost his starting job in August. Another (Ortiz) is not really someone the Sox can do anything about. The third (Lowell) encapsulates the problem the Sox face this offseason — a pressing need with a lot of money already tied up in the position.
Far more than the offense, the Sox' defense cost them the series with the Angels, particularly in Game 3, and throughout the season. Some of that is also entrenched. Ellsbury, one hopes, will start reading the ball better as he gains experience. Unless the Sox are willing to spend a mint to outbid the Yankees for Matt Holliday, they'll have to make do with Bay in left for another year before sliding him to DH and clearing space for Ryan Kalish or Josh Reddick.
But the left side of the infield was a mess offensively and defensively all year long, and that's where any overhaul really needs to take place. And that includes Alex Gonzalez, whose great hands and arm make him look so good but cover up for his mediocre-and-declining range (Derek Jeter would be proud).
If I were GM of the Red Sox, here's what I would do after the jump.
1. Re-sign Bay. Sure, I'd prefer Holliday, which might not be a huge step up on offense, but would be a significant improvement defensively. But with two other big-pocket teams in need, it ain't happening. Though the Sox should certainly make an effort.
2. Trade for J.J. Hardy. Hardy had such a terrible year he was demoted, and now finds himself behind a hot Brewers SS prospect on the depth chart. He could probably be had fairly cheaply, is a solid defender, and is only a year removed from a pair of great seasons. The fact is, he's not going to be any worse with a bat than Lugo/Green/Gonzo, and could in fact be much better, while we know he is going to be a good deal better with the glove (1.4 WAR last year despite the horrible year at the plate because of his solid defense).
3. Sign Chone Figgins. The Sox need a big boost defensively, and Figgins together with Hardy would (with Pedroia and Youkilis) give the Sox one of the best defensive infields in the game. He may not replicate his 2009 at the plate, but he doesn't need to. He's a good bet to provide league-average offense (and, really, that's all we can expect from Lowell after four years with the following OPS+: 104, 124, 103, 104), and his speed and new-found ability to walk (.395 OBP!) mean OPS/OPS+ are likely significantly underestimating Figgins' value. Could mean some other GMs will, as well.
Can't get Figgins? Adrian Beltre is coming off a bad season but is still just 30 years old, and his defense at third is even better than Figgins'. He's also a free agent, and coming as he is off a bad year, may be quite a bit cheaper.
4. For the annual pitching reclamation project, sign Rich Harden, who is a good bet not to provide a full season's worth of starts, but is a great bet to provide good value in however many starts he does make. Brandon Webb is also a good choice if the D-backs don't exercise their option.
The Sox are limited in the ways they can remake their offense. In fact, none of these options is a sure thing to improve the offensive production from shortstop or third base. But that really wasn't the problem this season. Limiting the plate appearances given to Lowell and Ortiz may be addition by subtraction, especially on the road, but 2009 was the year the Sox ceded their usual superiority with their gloves. This would be a way to get that back while still fielding a top-3 pitching staff and top-5 offense.