The Red Sox have a problem.
It's a problem that many other organizations - their arch-rivals, the New York Yankees, for one -- would love to have, too. But it's a problem nonetheless.
It's this: the Red Sox have to decide how -- and when -- to assimilate several of their top prospects into their starting lineup.
If the Sox commit to some alluring free agents this winter at several key positions, they run the risk of "blocking" the development of many of their best young players.
On the other hand, they could pass up some attractive free agent options, only to find that one (or more) of their own players aren't yet ready to handle the workload.
"It's the biggest challenge we face," confirmed one Red Sox official. "We have to find the point at which (the prospects) are ready to contribute and get the timing right."
The fact that the Sox have a number of internal options for the future is, in and of itself, a positive. While some big-market teams -- the Yankees and Angels, to name two -- have a barren farm system at the upper levels, forcing them to find solutions through free agency or trade.
The former is an inefficient way of addressing talent needs -- to say nothing of squandered compensatory draft picks -- while the latter comes at a cost of prospects or current major league talent.
The Red Sox, by contrast, have a farm system that is rich with talent and considered one of the Top Five developments systems in the game. The Sox are viewed to be extremely deep in starting pitching and the left side of the infield,
and nearly as deep in catching.
That reservoir of young talent could, in theory, help the Sox fill their handful of positional needs internally. Or, the Sox could find some relatively short-term solutions via free agency, while allowing more time for their prospects to further develop.
What they must avoid is blocking each of their prospects, since injecting quality, young -- to say nothing of inexpensive -- players into the mix is the surest way to remain contenders year after year.
A look at three key open positions and the Red Sox' options:
PROSPECTS: Christian Vazquez, Blake Swihart.
Vazquez had something of a breakout season at the plate last year (.289/.376/.395) while at Double A Portland. Most scouts believe that the strong-armed receiver, who's drawn some comparisons to Pudge Rodriguez for his build, arm strength and Puerto Rican heritage, could handle the defensive responsibilities of catching at the big league level right now.
Vazquez probably needs close to a full season at Triple A to continue to improve with the bat, but could be ready by the end of 2014, and certainly for 2015.
Swihart, the team's first-round pick out of high school in 2011, has played just two full seasons of pro ball and will probably spend much of 2014 at Portland. Swihart has a higher offensive ceiling than that of Vazquez. He's projected to be ready for the big leagues in the latter half of 2015.
FREE AGENT OPTIONS: Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, A.J. Pierzynski, Dionner Navarro,
McCann is, arguably, the third-best free agent on the market behind Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury. He provides elite offensive production for a catcher and is an above-average catcher with strong leadership skills.
Accordingly, he's going to cost a lot of money. It's widely assumed that McCann will get more than Yadier Molina (five years, $75 million). Think: five years, $90 million.
McCann will turn 30 in February and can be counted on to catch for several more seasons. The thinking is that, for the final two years of the deal, he could transition to first base or DH duties. At the the front end of the deal, teams will be paying for well above-average from the catching position; by the end, they may be overpaying for average production from a DH or first baseman. And remember: McCann has never played first. It can't naturally be assumed that he can make the switch and play the position well.
Saltalamacchia offers offense from the left side (he set a franchise record with 40 doubles as a catcher last year) and though he's improved defensively -- especially in his game-calling -- he still has shortcomings behind the plate, as evidenced by his play in the World Series.
Pierzynski and Navarro are older and thus, would require shorter commitments. The Sox prefer Pierzynski over Navarro because while Navarro is a switch-hitter, he's traditionally hit better righthanded. The Red Sox already have David Ross to hit against lefties and would prefer someone with some thump from the left side.
TRADE OPTIONS: Ryan Hanigan
Hanigan, a Massachusetts native, is arbitration-eligible and being priced out in Cincinnnati, where Devin Mesoraco is poised to become the starter. Hanigan could be non-tendered, but the Reds will try to move him before early December and get something for him, given the shortage of quality catching in the game.
OVERVIEW: If the Red Sox can get McCann at a reasonable price -- that is, $90 million or less -- they would be sorely tempted to make him their big move, giving them, arguably, the third-best overall catcher in the game behind Molina and Buster Posey. He could continue to be productive in the back end of the deal by splitting catching time with time at first and DH.
But McCann will be expensive and will cost the Sox' a first-round pick next June. A better option might be retaining Saltalamacchia if he'll accept a two-year deal, or going with Pierzynski for a year or two, giving time for Vazquez and Swihart to develop.
PROSPECTS: Xander Bogaerts, Deven Marrero
Bogaerts showed remarkable poise and maturity in the post-season, turning in great at-bats in the ALCS and World Series, while playing (mostly) third base. It would seem that the Sox have to create playing time for him somewhere in 2014, even if it's not on an everyday basis to start the season.
Bogaerts is considered one of the top half-dozen prospects in the game, and at 21, on the sport's biggest stage, showed a flash of his enormous potential.
Marrero, the Red Sox' top pick in 2012, finished 2013 in Portland, where he will likely start 2014. Before long, he should be promoted to Pawtucket and is expected to compete for a big league job by 2015.
FREE AGENT OPTIONS: Stephen Drew
To the surprise of some, the Sox gave Drew a qualifying offer and have indicated a willingness to bring him back on a two-year deal. Doing so would give the Sox a sure-handed, reliable defensive shortstop who delivered above-average for the position. His OPS was fifth among shortstops in 2013, and his .876 OPS against lefties was elite-level.
OVERVIEW: Drew's qualifying offer -- and thus, the compensation attached to him -- is likely to depress the market for him. Is Drew's value such that teams will willingly surrender a first- (or second-) round pick? That remains to be seen.
It's known that the Sox are worried about being too righthanded in 2014, with the projected loss of Jacoby Ellsbury and the potential loss of the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia. Were he to return, Drew would give the Sox their only lefthanded-hitting infielder, a fact that shouldn't be discounted.
On the other hand, signing Drew for two years would effectively block Bogaerts from what, until now, has been his natural position and effectively freeze out Will Middlebrooks from the picture.
If Drew signs elsewhere, the Sox could have Bogaerts at short, give Middlebrooks some time at third, and in a year or so, transition Bogaerts to third and introduce Marrero to short.
* CENTER FIELD
PROSPECT: Jackie Bradley Jr.
The belief is that Bradley could handle center defensively right now, with little worry of a significant dropoff from Ellsbury, whose poor arm strength and penchant for playing a deep center field detracts from his other defensive skills.
The question becomes whether Bradley can hit at the big league level. The small sample size (95 at-bats, .189/.280/.337) suggests, not, but Dustin Pedroia was similarly overmatched at the end of 2006 and start of 2007 before winning the A.L.'s Rookie of the Year.
Bradley might struggle for a bit and, now anyway, is almost certainly not the answer to replace Ellsbury in the leadoff spot.
FREE AGENT: Jacoby Ellsbury
Given his expectations -- at least seven years, with an average annual value of at least $20 million -- it seems highly unlikely that the Sox will extend themselves enough to re-sign Ellsbury.
Although he doesn't come with the same uncertainty that comes with free agents from outside the organization, the Sox have seen the perils of being locked into long-term deals. Moreover, as an athletic player who relies greatly on his speed to be effective, the Sox would be committing huge money to a player who is likely to experience a significant decline in his mid-30s.
OVERVIEW: Most people in baseball -- including many in the Red Sox' organization - assume that Ellsbury will land elsewhere.
There's been the suggestion that the Sox could move Shane Victorino from right to center for a year until Bradley is more established, but that ignores the points that 1) Victorino is probably better in right than in center, and undoubtedly, more valuable to the Sox and 2) his arm plays up better in right than in center.
If the Sox can be patient with Bradley's offensive development and hit him near the bottom of the lineup initially and can re-sign Mike Napoli at first while getting some offensive production at catcher, they can probably live with Bradley in center until such point when he becomes more of an offensive force.
The Red Sox have a problem.