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Planning a Boston bounce-back in 2013

11/23/2012

So, how about that AL East? We know the Blue Jays have been busy, and the Yankees will be. The Rays can't be counted out and the Orioles just proved nothing's certain. What's a fading former contender like the Boston Red Sox to do?

It would be easy to blast to the foundations and start dealing away everyone who might be a free agent after 2013 -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Jarrod Saltalamacchia among others -- but I doubt that's why they re-signed David Ortiz, and it probably wouldn't help them talk Dustin Pedroia into signing a contract extension. So instead, let's say the Red Sox make a real effort to contend again, shy of making any huge financial commitments, but shoring up the hand they've got and making a play to get back to October. Could they make that happen?

What do they need? I'd argue two big areas would have to be addressed: A front-end rotation starter who ranks up there with Lester at the very least, and offensive upgrades wherever possible, especially at first base and the outfield.

The rotation's fairly straightforward, because to keep up in the AL East's arms race, the Red Sox need to shore up a rotation that let them down in 2011, delivering only 72 quality starts last year. Hoping for rebound seasons from Lester and Clay Buchholz may be reasonable, and counting on John Lackey to come back and be a solid mid-rotation horse will help, but it isn't enough.

On offense, let's face it, an outfield blend of just-added Jonny Gomes plus Ryan Kalish, Daniel Nava and Ryan Sweeney doesn't add up to two well-stocked corners. And at first base, settling for some combination of Mauro Gomez and Jerry Sands also isn't going to get it done; outside of Albuquerque's extra-friendly confines, Sands hit a relatively unimpressive .278/.350/.510 in the hitter-friendly PCL in his second season in the circuit. Take that down a few pegs in the majors, and you won't get much O from an offense-first position.

General manager Ben Cherington's cupboard isn't bare. The Red Sox have a few young veterans who might fill people's needs at up-the-middle positions, notably Saltalamacchia and Kalish. In and of themselves they're not guys who will put Boston over the top, now or ever, but that's perhaps the Red Sox's area of surplus. As Salty heads into his age-28 season after belting 25 bombs in 2012, he's already as good as he's going to get, and while Kalish has had his moments at the lower levels over a long minor-league apprenticeship, he's no Ellsbury. Their value may never be higher, so better to shop them now and address the Red Sox's needs.

The first move will be at first, signing Lance Berkman to man first base for a one-year deal. The Big Puma should give the Red Sox power and OBP, and he has been willing to settle for short-term deals in the past. Given the lack of a franchise player at first base this winter, it's better for the Sox to go for something short and expensive than sign Adam LaRoche or the like. The other benefit is just like that which Berkman provided the Cardinals when he signed early with them: It advertises early on that you're willing to spend on a veteran bat associated with contenders, which might make it easier to convince your subsequent targets that Boston is no longer irradiated after the toxic Bobby V. experience.

The second move is to call up old friend Theo Epstein with the Cubs and make him an offer: Trade to get Alfonso Soriano's next two seasons and the last year that Matt Garza is under club control, sending Chicago a package of Kalish, Saltalamacchia and minor-league prospects Alex Wilson and Matt Barnes.

What the Sox get is plenty of power from Soriano as well as their everyday left fielder, while Garza gives them a single-season starter who wouldn't be the expensive mistake-chasing any of the available free-agent starters would be. Admittedly, it would first take getting Soriano to agree to the deal, but maybe he'd welcome a shot at something better than a fifth-place finish.

For the Cubs, Wilson and Barnes are the real prizes, the former a nearly-ready reliever with high-90s heat, while Barnes is promising but a long ways off after pitching in A-ball last season. He needs to polish his off-speed stuff to stick as a starter. This may look like a lot to give up for the Sox, but Salty's only under club control for one year and his OBP in his two-year “breakout” in Boston has been just .288, and Kalish is more filler than heir apparent to Ellsbury in center.

The ripple effect of this trade is our third move: Trust your better kids. Put Ryan Lavarnway on the spot in a job-sharing arrangement with David Ross behind the plate, and plug in Jose Iglesias at shortstop. Because Lavarnway is projected for a .771 OPS in 2013 by Bill James, I figure he'll be up for it, as well as being an upgrade on Salty. Starting Iglesias at short may be that much more needed because his D will help compensate for Berkman's limited mobility at first as well as the unavoidable effects of Soriano's gaffe-prone brand of defense in left.

We're not yet done in the outfield, though, because getting Soriano for left field means some even uglier defense from recently added Gomes in right. There are two ways to look at the Gomes deal: Either signing him for $10 million is a massive overvaluation on a short-side platoon DH considering his .223/.307/.425 career line versus right-handers, or this is a recognition that the best part-time assets cost serious money, especially early in the offseason market.

So why not take a chance to find Gomes a worthwhile platoon partner, someone with more power than Sweeney (admittedly setting that bar extra low), some value on defense and someone the Red Sox can still afford after these other moves? Move No. 4 involves taking on some risk, but also some upside: Let's sign Grady Sizemore to an incentive-laden one-year contract. Sizemore may never be durable enough to play every day, but if he has anything left in a part-time role, he could be a bargain as a matchups complement to Gomes.

Finally, let's touch on the bullpen with our fifth and last “move,” one from the blitheringly obvious category: Please leave Daniel Bard alone in a relief role. It doesn't matter whether Bard sets up Andrew Bailey or both of them set up Mark Melancon or Bailey and Melancon set up Bard -- that late-game trio should be more than capable of handling whatever responsibilities the Red Sox ask of them.

Would this team then contend for a wild-card slot or the AL East title? It would have a shot, and the impact beyond 2013 wouldn't be crippling. If the Red Sox are out of it by the end of July, they can start shopping their big-name free-agents-to-be at the deadline without having already punted this year's season-ticket sales, and they could then look at rebuilding instead of retooling with that money off the books. Either way, they would at least afford Red Sox fans some better measure of hope.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.