BOSTON — The turmoil surrounding the Red Sox is fading. The focus on the future is sharpening.
The team that made headlines the past two months for collapsing in September, drinking in the clubhouse and waiting for their general manager to leave can devote itself to building for next season.
Despite those issues, new GM Ben Cherington said “We’re going to have a very good team in 2012.”
Biased though he might be, there is evidence to support that.
At the end of August, the Red Sox had the best record in the AL, 83-52. At the end of the season, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz were among the league’s top hitters.
Starters Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, until they struggled along with the rest of the rotation throughout September, had solid years. Closer Jonathan Papelbon blew just one save opportunity before failing twice in the last nine days of the season.
Another plus: John Lackey will miss the 2012 season recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery after posting a 6.41 ERA, the worst of any pitcher with at least 160 innings in 2011.
Still, the excitement of the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park next year will be diminished by Boston’s 7-20 record in the final month that left them out of the playoffs for the second straight season.
“I know that we have the players in our clubhouse who have the talent to win, who are committed to it and who are motivated to put 2011 behind them and prove to everyone that they’re worthy of the fans’ trust,” Cherington said.
His immediate task is finding a manager to replace Terry Francona, who left after eight seasons. Francona and former GM Theo Epstein, now president of baseball operations of the Chicago Cubs, helped lead the Red Sox to World Series championships in 2004 and 2007, their first since 1918.
“We’re not looking for the next star manager,” Cherington said. “We’re looking for the right fit for the Red Sox in 2012.”
Hiring someone with managerial experience would be a “benefit,” but not a necessity, he said.
And he doesn’t plan to rush into a decision. Cherington noted that Francona wasn’t hired until after Thanksgiving, being named manager on Dec. 4, 2003 after serving as Ken Macha’s bench coach with the Oakland Athletics.
The next manager must improve the atmosphere in the clubhouse where some players showed a greater commitment than others.
“We have work to do this offseason to restore the culture that we expect in the clubhouse, to restore the level of accountability,” Cherington said. “I don’t believe that there’s a silver bullet that will be the answer to that.
“I know from talking to players there’s a great motivation to clean up whatever does need to be cleaned up in the clubhouse.”
But which players will still be around?
Ortiz and Papelbon can become free agents.
“We’d love to have them both,” Cherington said. “We’re going to have to see if there’s a contract that makes sense for them and for us.”
Right-fielder J.D. Drew’s five-year, $70 million deal, one of Epstein’s low points, is expiring. Cherington said youngsters Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick will have a chance to compete for the right-field job.
The Red Sox must decide whether to pick up their option on shortstop Marco Scutaro, made more likely by his career-high .299 batting average in 2011, or, perhaps, go with Jose Iglesias, an outstanding fielder who has struggled at the plate.
Carl Crawford hit just .255 after signing a seven-year, $142 million contract to move from Tampa Bay to Boston with its passionate fans and pervasive media attention.
“When he’s comfortable and feeling good, this is one of the best players in the league,” Cherington said, “and it’s our job to help him do that.”
The top of the rotation — Beckett, Lester and Clay Buchholz — is strong with Cherington expecting Buchholz to be healthy after missing the last 3 1/2 months of the season with a stress fracture in his back. Beyond that, the pitching staff needs help.
“We potentially have an opening at closer,” Cherington said. “We have a couple people, players in-house, that we think are capable of filling that role if needed. But we need to add some pitching depth. I think most likely we’ll do that through some good, creative, perhaps buy-low acquisitions.”
The top of the farm system is weak, although Cherington is optimistic about the lower levels.
But the Red Sox can’t wait for those players. Boston began the 2011 season by losing its first six games and ended with just seven wins in its last 27.
Then came the Boston Globe report of Beckett, Lester and Lackey drinking beer and eating chicken in the clubhouse during games in which they were not scheduled to pitch — rather than being in the dugout to support their teammates.
“If there are things that happened in the clubhouse this year that we feel need to be addressed, we’re going to do that directly with the players. We’re going to talk to them privately about it,” Cherington told reporters at his introductory news conference Tuesday. “I don’t believe that anybody — player, coach, front office, any of you — should be judged on one moment, one episode, one piece of behavior.
“We need to judge people on the body of work. And I believe we have a lot of players in our clubhouse whose body of work is really good and are going to be a part of really good Red Sox teams.”