Vin Sylvia: After Ellsbury: Give the kids a chance
SO, now what?
With Jacoby Ellsbury having followed the Johnny Damon Trail to New York, Jarrod Saltalamacchia back in his native Florida and A.J. Pierzynski set to antagonize Red Sox opponents as Salty's successor, what's next for Sox general manager Ben Cherington, aka the Pride of Plainfield?
Not much, I hope.
As he prepares for next week's Winter Meetings, Cherington's to-do list should be short: Sign Mike Napoli, and that's pretty much it.
Big bucks for the power-hitting right-hand first baseman aside, the GM should maintain fiscal discipline, make a couple of minor deals to enhance depth and show some faith in that player-development machine he's refurbished so handsomely. Beyond that: Enjoy the holidays and get ready for spring training.
Signing Pierzynski to a one-year deal as a bridge to prospects Christian Vazquez and/or Blake Swihart was in keeping with the philosophy behind building the 2013 World Series championship team: Over-pay a bit on short-term deals that allow for long-term roster flexibility and free up room for homegrown talent.
Vazquez and Swihart aren't yet ready for prime time — hence the Pierzynski signing — and there's no one waiting in the minor-league wings to succeed Napoli at first base — hence the priority on signing him — but there's no need to go out-of-house to replace Boston's other two free agents, Ellsbury and Stephen Drew.
Give Jackie Bradley Jr. the center-field job, safe in the knowledge that he'll provide excellent defense, and allow him time to adjust to big-league pitching, the way Dustin Pedroia did after struggling at the plate in the first couple of months of his major-league career.
Don't go to three years on an offer to Carlos Beltran, place him in one of the corner outfield positions and move Shane Victorino to center. Don't give up prospects for an injury-plagued and overpaid Matt Kemp. If we get to mid-June and Bradley's mired below the Mendoza line and showing signs of regression, then send him down to Pawtucket and move Victorino to center or see if there's a trade to be made. But first give the kid the chance to fail.
See if Xander Bogaerts' future really is at shortstop, as the organization has said all along. We've already witnessed the advanced plate approach and preternatural maturity he exhibited in the postseason; now let's see a bigger sample size at short. If that's where his future lies, let's get to it.
And while we're at it, let's give Will Middlebrooks one last crack at being this team's starting third baseman.
From the promising rookie of 2012 to the undisciplined mess of first-half 2013 to the encouraging turnaround in August to the backsliding from mid-September on, Middlebrooks has been maddeningly inconsistent. But when he's on, he's a productive hitter with devastating power, and he seems dedicated to fixing the problems that have led to his troubling slumps.
Give Middlebrooks one more chance — if you dealt him now, you'd be trading low anyway — and if it doesn't work out, you'll have hot prospect Garin Cecchini working his way up at Triple-A.
The Red Sox have the pitching to remain in contention even if their young position players struggle. They have the recaptured goodwill of their fans to carry them through the season even if it stops short of the playoffs. And they have the prospects in their farm system to merit patience in the short term.
As for seeing Ellsbury in pinstripes? That's going to make Sox fans a little crazy (crazier?), no doubt, especially when he succeeds.
And he will succeed.
If you're upset about him going to New York, don't try to comfort yourself by recalling all the games he missed as a member of the Red Sox and telling yourself he'll miss just as many as a Yankee. Ellsbury is an exceptionally hard-working, well-conditioned athlete whose stints on the disabled list were the result of violent physical contact rather than chronic health woes or sloth. Moreover, his performance in September and the postseason showed he's learned how to play hurt.
Ellsbury's going to be a helluva player in the Bronx — if not for the entire length of the contract, then at least for the better part. Best just to accept that he's going to average 50 stolen bases and 20 to 25 homers over the next four or five seasons and deal with it.
Assuming the Yankees re-sign Robinson Cano and acquire free-agent infielder Omar Infante to fill in for A-Rod (or replace Cano in the unlikely event he signs elsewhere), they'll once again have a formidable lineup — with Ellsbury at the top of the order.
But they'll also have a starting shortstop with the range of the monuments beyond center field, a pitching staff with a rapidly declining ace in CC Sabathia and no proven closer to succeed Mariano Rivera, and a farm system ranked only 16th by Baseball America (the Red Sox, by the way, are ranked No. 1).
So enjoy the afterglow of the third World Series victory in 10 years, look forward to what should be another entertaining — if not ultimately fulfilling — season, and, in the words of a song favored by a certain Boston outfielder, "Don't worry 'bout a thing ... "
Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at email@example.com.