By Matt Straub
As I write this, it’s a year and a day since I was in Fenway Park with my brother watching the Red Sox and Tigers play in the ALCS. David Ortiz hit a grand slam which saved the Red Sox season, and you know what happened next. Boston recovered, fought off the Tigers, and went on to win the World Series against St. Louis.
But while Detroit and St. Louis went back to the playoffs this season, Boston’s title defense was anything but successful. In fact, in several ways it was the worst season by a team coming off a championship ever.
There were a multitude of problems. Boston struggled to rediscover its offensive magic from a year ago, especially with runners on base in close games. Their fans went from expecting them to get a big hit to wondering if they ever would again.
There were injuries. Shane Victorino never recovered from early-season problems, Dustin Pedroia was hurt (again) and Koji Uehara seemed to get old in a hurry late in the year.
There was also pitching problems. Boston traded away its three best arms as soon as they realized they were out of contention, a surprising move for a team which usually has a long-term focus. They turned to some young arms, many of whom struggled to adjust to life in the major leagues. Boston spent the second half of the regular season trying to decide which of its young players were part of the 2015 puzzle, which ruined any chance to a turnaround over the second half of 2014.
The bigger problem came during the process, when very few players emerged as clear parts of the future. Fortunately, I’m here to help them sort it out with a yearly game of Pay or Slay.
PAY DAVID ORTIZ: Another great year is only going to start him complaining about his next contract, but he continually proves to be worth the hassle. Whatever means you believe he uses, he continues to be productive year after year. More importantly, the Red Sox don’t have a ton of other offensive options these days. He has to stay until he can’t hit anymore. And considering what some other players make, $16 million doesn’t seem like such a big hit.
SLAY RYAN LAVARNWAY: The Red Sox have been waiting for him to deliver for what seems like forever. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen here and Christian Vasquez seems like the future.
PAY CHRISTIAN VASQUEZ: Young catching prospects don’t grow on trees. He’s far from a finished product, but he’s the best the Red Sox have right now and earned enough of my faith to think Boston has bigger offseason priorities than catching.
SLAY SHANE VICTORINO: He was a Godsend in 2013, but he’s injury prone and can’t be trusted. The Sox need more consistency in their lineup.
PAY MOOKIE BETTS: Sure the Sox have him under control for a while, but it might be a good idea to give him one of those big contracts which take away his arbitration years like the Rays did with Evan Longoria. If he’s playing as well midway through next year as he did this year, I'd lock him in. This kid appears to be a big piece of the future, especially since he can play second base and outfield. Which brings me to the hardest one of all.
SLAY DUSTIN PEDROIA: It won’t ever happen, but think about this for a minute. Pedroia is a yearly injury risk these days, will be 32 years old in August of next season and his salary jumps to $15 million in 2017. He’s on the books until 2022 when he’ll be pushing 40. This is the problem the Yankees run into too often, holding on to players past their prime until they turn unproductive. Now is the time to get something for him, while he’s still worth the risk. I wouldn’t just give him away by any means, but I’m no longer hanging up the phone on anyone who calls about him either.
PAY XANDER BOGAERTS: What this kid needs more than anything is the confidence which comes from knowing his team believes in him. Pick his position and let him stay there for the next 10 years. He has a chance to be part of the future, yet Boston moved him to add Stephen Drew in the mind numbing move of the year. He has proven himself a playoff contributor and a potential star. Let him grow, stop stunting his growth by messing with his mind and moving him around.
SLAY WILL MIDDLEBROOKS: He’s already all but gone after declining to play winter ball, so this is an easy one. He never blossomed the way he should have and doesn’t seem to be tough-minded. Also, he’s not very good at hitting baseballs thrown by professional pitchers. Cut your losses, move on and find a third baseman on the market.
SLAY MIKE NAPOLI: He’ll be a free agent after 2015 and seems to be on the decline. He’ll be in a contract year, so a team might be willing to take a flier on him. Better to get something for him from a team willing to take a chance than to have him struggle again and leave for nothing after next year. I think he’ll be in Boston, but I would look to move him.
PAY JACKIE BRADLEY JR.: I’m one of the few in Boston not ready to give up on a kid who won’t be 25 until early next season. He was awful at the plate this year and maybe will never be more than a fourth outfielder/defensive replacement, but there’s still a chance he turns into a good hitter. And Boston desperately needs someone to fill the leadoff role after failing to replace Jacoby Ellsbury last year.
PAY YOENIS CESPEDES: He was a clutch performer when the Sox had rare chances to win late in the year, provides Oritz with protection and is the haul for Jon Lester. He has one year left and you can’t lose him. Lester was worth too much to let the guy you got for him walk after a year and a half.
SLAY ALLEN CRAIG: Part of the haul for John Lackey, I was totally fine with the Sox taking a shot on him. But he no longer appears to be the guy he was a few years ago. Injuries may have done him in. Let him go.
PAY DANIEL NAVA: He’s iffy as far as being a candidate to return, but he’s a versatile player who seems to enjoy playing in the bright lights of Boston. He’s not Willie Mays, but he plays multiple spots and can hit and field. He’s useful enough to keep around.
PAY BURKE BADENHOP: An under the radar bullpen addition last year on a team which now needs bullpen help, I’d hate to see him leave.
SLAY CRAIG BRESLOW: He’s a potential free agent and not good anymore. Bye-bye.
SLAY CLAY BUCHHOLZ: There has to be a market for a fairly young pitcher who has had success in the past. He’s inconsistent, doesn’t have the ability to work through tough spots and isn’t the kind of guy you want leading a bunch of young pitchers. Find a taker this winter, whatever you get for him is gravy. Getting rid of his bloated contract will be enough of a reward. Someone get the Dodgers on the phone.
SLAY ALLEN WEBSTER: There’s still time for him to develop. Jon Lester couldn’t aim well when he first came up either. But I just don’t see the enough here to make me think he’s going to pan out. Let some other team who needs young pitching give him a shot and get a minor leaguer in return.
PAY BRANDON WORKMAN: This is just a feel, as most decisions about young players are. He is similar to Webster except I just feel better when he pitches. I think there’s enough raw talent there to believe he can develop into a good pitcher.
PAY RUBBY DE LA ROSA: Yes he tailed off late in the year, but the stuff is there. This kid is going to be good. Let him keep throwing hard and figuring the rest out.
PAY JOE KELLY: Because he’s still young, under team control, is decent and because someone has to pitch next year.
PAY KOJI UEHARA: Well, sort of. I don’t give him the ridiculous qualifying offer he has coming which would give the Sox a draft pick if he leaves, but I would try and bring him back at a reduced rate. I think he loves Boston and is willing to work something out. He’ll be back and should be.