BOSTON — Jacoby Ellsbury, the leadoff man on the last two World Series championship teams of the Boston Red Sox, began the team’s first rally Wednesday night with a single. Mike Napoli, the thick-bearded first baseman, singled in a run an inning later. Stephen Drew, the sure-headed shortstop, broke out of an autumn-long funk with a home run, and the Red Sox overwhelmed the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6, setting off a Fenway Park celebration unlike any other.
In the haze from the fireworks on the field, players and coaches alike theorized about what it took to turn around a team that had finished in last place a year earlier. David Ortiz, the World Series MVP and October legend, credited John Farrell, the first-year manager. Farrell, in turn, credited General Manager Ben Cherington, who provided him with driven, like-minded players, many on reasonable, short-term contracts. It was a swift reversal, whoever gets the commendation.
But as much as the Red Sox players who embraced each other — and the city of Boston, battered by April’s marathon bombings — will be remembered in New England, the way the team was built could mean it needs to be rebuilt this winter. Ortiz, proven ace Jon Lester and surprise closer Koji Uehara are under contract through next year (Lester by virtue of an option in his contract that the team will all but certainly pick up).
Yet other key parts will have to be re-signed — or replaced.
“This is one of the best organizations, since I’ve been here,” said Ortiz, the only link to the 2004 World Series champion still in place this year. “You have those funky years that you put a really good team together and you don’t make it to the playoffs, and you have those other years that you let a big player go, and all of a sudden you’re in the playoffs. This organization, as long as I’ve been here, has been a box full of surprises.”
What will the surprises be this offseason?
The Red Sox, from the front office to the coaching staff to the clubhouse, said the camaraderie created contributed to their success, though that’s an impossible quality to quantify. But they also know that playing in Boston is not for everyone, and they need to find players who excel, not shrink, under the microscope.
“I think, in the eyes of some, Boston might present some specific challenges that might be intimidating for certain players,” Farrell said. “But I would hope what they’re witnessing would certainly become a place of destination for a number of guys that might have a choice.”
Internally, the Red Sox have discussions about what players might hold up well in the atmosphere.
“That’s tough to gauge,” said Zack Scott, the team’s director of baseball operations and one of Cherington’s top lieutenants. “We’ve brought in star players that haven’t thrived in this environment, this fishbowl environment.
“We have a good feel for the pressure that’s involved with playing for the Red Sox. It’s a big city, but it’s a small-town mentality. Pro sports are just so big here, so whether we think a guy can handle it is definitely a factor.”
And all of that will factor in considering their own players. Ellsbury, 30, is a free agent for the first time, and could be the prize of the class, other than Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. A career .297 hitter with a .350 on-base percentage, Ellsbury was successful on 52 of 56 stolen-base attempts this year. His agent is Scott Boras, so there will be no hometown discount, and the Red Sox have a center field prospect in Jackie Bradley Jr.
In some ways, the potential departure of Ellsbury will be easier for Boston to handle than other potential losses. In one season, Napoli became an important part of the middle of the lineup and their personality, driving in 92 runs while posting an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .842.
Originally, Napoli and the Red Sox agreed to a three-year, $39 million contract, a deal that fell apart because Boston’s doctors discovered a condition in his hip, avascular necrosis, that caused enough concern that the Red Sox offered instead a one-year, $13 million deal.
That makes Napoli, 32, a free agent again immediately. Given that he made a seamless transition from catcher to full-time first baseman, and his hip withstood a season in which he made a career-high 578 plate appearances, the Red Sox may wish, in hindsight, that they kept the original deal.
Drew, similarly, signed a one-year, $9.5 million contract, and though he played stellar defense throughout the postseason, his apparent replacement played alongside him from the middle of the American League Championship Series through the victory over the Cardinals. Xander Bogaerts, 21, started each World Series game at third base, but shortstop is his natural position. After he hit .296 with an .893 OPS in the postseason, Bogaerts did nothing to dissuade the Red Sox from thinking he’s ready.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who was benched in favor of backup David Ross for the final three games of the World Series, also is a free agent for the first time in his career. Each of those players, though, will head into free agency trying to find an environment like the one that was created at Fenway Park this year.
“This is a team that we have a lot of players with heart,” Ortiz said. “We probably don’t have the talent that we have in ’07 and ’04, but we have guys that are capable to stay focused and do the little things. And when you win with a ballclub like that, that’s special.”