December 3, 2013

Tom Caron: Sox still waiting on free agents

BOSTON – They’re still out there. Four important members of the Red Sox championship run of 2013 are unsigned free agents. Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia could be wearing any of 30 uniforms next season.

The Sox could have all, some or none of them back when they open spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., in February. General Manager Ben Cherington has to prepare for life with or without each of those players.

Cherington made qualifying offers to three of the four players, all rejected. That means a team looking to sign Ellsbury, Napoli or Drew would have to give up a future prospect while ponying up serious money (and years) to sign any one of them.

What are the odds on these players returning to Boston for 2014? Let’s take a closer look: 

JACOBY ELLSBURY. Injuries are always a consideration with Ellsbury, but his 2013 season was a reminder of how important he can be at the top of the lineup when healthy. He hit .298 with a .355 on-base percentage and .426 slugging percentage while leading the Red Sox with 92 runs.

He led all of baseball with 52 stolen bases.

We now know the 32 home-run year of 2011 was an aberration, the only one of Ellsbury’s seven-year career in which he hit double-digit home runs.

Still, his agent expects him to get seven (or more) years at $20 million (or more) per season. If that’s the cost of keeping Ellsbury, look for Jackie Bradley Jr. and Shane Victorino to be your center fielders at Fenway next season.

If Scott Boras is overstating his client’s value, the Sox would gladly take him back for four or five years.

One thing is certain: Ellsbury won’t sign with anyone for a while.

Boras will let the market play out and let Shin-Soo Choo set the bar, which means we’ll be talking about Ellsbury’s future for weeks to come. 

MIKE NAPOLI. He hits. He plays a remarkably solid first base. He occasionally wears a shirt.

Napoli was one of Boston’s favorite players in October, and after playing out a one-year contract with the Sox he’s ready to cash in.

Will it be with Boston? Reports say he’s looking for three to four years now that he’s proven he can play with the hip ailment that scuttled the three-year deal offered him last December. That became a “let’s see what you can do” contract for 2013 only.

He’s shown everyone what he can do. Reports link him to Miami, Seattle and others. If someone’s willing to give him three years and $40 million (or more), he likely won’t return to the home dugout at Fenway despite his popularity. 

STEPHEN DREW. Many fans were afraid Drew would accept the qualifying offer. That’s because they want Xander Bogaerts to be the everyday shortstop in 2014.

Yet it’s clear the Sox value Drew’s veteran presence and solid defense at short.

While he struggled mightily at the plate in October (hitting .111 in the postseason) his regular-season offensive numbers were among the best of any shortstop in the game.

There doesn’t seem to be a huge market for him, especially after the Cardinals signed Jhonny Peralta, so it seems to make sense he would return to Boston.

That could mean Will Middlebrooks moves across the diamond to first base if Napoli leaves and Bogaerts slides over to third.

That would give the Sox a solid infield heading into the season, with youth at the corner infield spots. 

JARROD SALTALAMACCHIA. This one gets tricky. The Sox didn’t offer their catcher a qualifying offer, meaning they didn’t want to risk paying him $14.1 million for one season.

According to Saltalamacchia, the Sox didn’t offer him anything at the start of free agency. Feathers were ruffled, although it seems the sides have been in contact now.

Saltalamacchia had plenty to be thankful for last week, including the five-year, $85 million contract catcher Brian McCann signed with the Yankees.

McCann was the top free-agent catcher available, but Saltalamacchia (nine months younger than McCann) is second. He’ll sign with someone – maybe even the Sox – but it will cost a lot more than $14.1 million.

McCann was said to be Boston’s first choice. Now that he’s a Yankee, the Sox may have to take a closer look at the man who had the best offensive season of his career behind the plate for Boston this past season.

Tom Caron is studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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