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How Will the Red Sox Strike Back in 2011?

I was listening to an interview with former Blue Jays' GM JP Ricciardi the other day. As he talked about the off-season ahead, he pointed out that the Red Sox can probably be expected to make a fairly big splash, as its always been the course of action after seasons where they can't make it to the playoffs (which seems to be the likely result this year).

It got me thinking about how the Red Sox could look to improve over the off-season, and the big splashes they could make, and frankly, it left me without much of an answer.

While most would think they retain David Ortiz on a reasonable short-term deal, The Red Sox have two key free agents that they'll have to make tough decisions on. Adrian Beltre has had an insanely good season for the Red Sox, and is now almost certain to decline his player option, as he figures to find good money and a multi-year offer somewhere. In a lot of ways, it makes sense for the Red Sox to be the ones to give that contract to Beltre. He certainly seemed to find big success at Fenway Park. He plays exceptional defense at third base, which is something crucial to GM Theo Epstein. Plus, should he leave, the Red Sox would likely have a hole at third base, unless they wanted to plug Kevin Youkilis over there, take a defensive hit, and have to look for a new first baseman. Of course, re-signing Beltre has considerable risks too, as he's made a name for himself by having monstrous contract seasons and then struggling to live up to his deal.

Likewise, Victor Martinez becomes a free agent when the season comes to a close. Since being acquired at the 2009 trade deadline, Martinez has performed pretty well as an offensive-minded catcher and first-base fill-in, though his numbers have dropped some this year. Still, there is no doubt that the Red Sox would struggle to find a player that brings more offense to the catcher's spot than Martinez. The main negative with bringing back Martinez long-term is that his defensive struggles have been brought to the forefront this season. Likely, his home down the road will be at first base, and in the AL East, he certainly doesn't provide the offensive numbers to be valuable there.

Long-term, the wisest decision would likely be to let Martinez go, but finding someone to put up respectable numbers behind the plate will be a big challenge. The Red Sox would need to look to the trade market in order to find a replacement, and while it's possible that someone like Chris Iannetta could be had, it's certainly no sure bet.

Of course, the Red Sox will get quite a boost from returning players who spent the majority of the season injured. Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron would certainly assist the team offensively and defensively. Added to the team the Red Sox fielded this year, having those players back would likely be enough to put them right in the battle with the Rays and Yankees. However, if Beltre and Martinez leave via free agency, there returns are likely just to cover the holes, and leave the team searching for some more fire power.

On the offensive side, however, the big free agents on the market this off-season are outfielders, like Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, as well as first-basemen like Adam Dunn and Carlos Pena. While all likely impact-players, they play positions that the Red Sox are likely not to be looking for help with. Ellsbury, Cameron and JD Drew are likely to comprise the outfield, and unless surprisingly moved back to third-base, Kevin Youkilis will keep his home at first-base.

What this suggests is that perhaps if looking to make a splash through free agency, the Red Sox best bet may be to go the pitching route. Any rotation in baseball can find room for Cliff Lee, after all. The question is, would it be a smart move financially? Assuming Lee can even be had for $20M, that would commit around $52M per year to just three pitchers in the rotation (Lee, Beckett and Lackey). While Jon Lester is held on a reasonable deal and Clay Buchholz can still be had at the Major League minimum, there is still the matter of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Even if it were possible for the team to out-bid the Yankees and grab Cliff Lee, clearing a spot for him would take some creative and expensive work from the Red Sox.

Ultimately, should the Red Sox see themselves as contenders in 2011 - which I'm sure they do - getting creative on the trade market is likely their best course of action. While Cliff Lee would be an exciting acquisition, starting pitching is probably not the area the team should get carried away on. A rotation of Lester, Buchholz, Beckett, Lackey and Matsuzaka is likely to be a force to be reckoned with, as in all likelihood, Beckett and Lackey will put up better numbers. 

With Daniel Bard ready to step into the closer's role, Jonathan Papelbon could be a very intriguing trade-piece. He's getting expensive, which means money freed up from him could go to a free agent acquisition. Plus, there are sure to be teams that over-value saves and are willing to part with a valuable piece in order to secure the back-end of their bullpen. Is he enough to find the team a catcher? If the rumors about the team being frustrated with Jacoby Ellsbury this year, perhaps he's an interesting trade candidate too, as dealing him away could bring back a nice prospect or two, while opening a door to acquire someone like Jayson Werth.

The Red Sox face a challenging off-season, but the key for them will be to avoid short-term thinking. The team will certainly get a boost simply from having all of their players (hopefully) healthy on opening day. While their hand may be forced with Adrian Beltre, who may simply be the best option available, and retaining David Ortiz likely makes more sense than picking up a different DH who provides the same profile, the team will have a chance to make moves at catcher, and perhaps the outfield that aid the team in gaining some well-needed youth.

Though the challenges exist, JP Ricciardi is probably right-on expecting a bunch of big splashes to be made by Theo Epstein. With the expected step back the Rays will take in the off-season, the Red Sox should be able to pull-off enough creative maneuvering to have themselves right back in the hunt in 2011.