Sox look to tweak East title team for '17 run

Pedroia assumes leadership mantle with strong core, rotation due to return

Sox look to tweak East title team for '17 run

BOSTON -- For Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, there are two major areas of focus in his quest to put together a team that can defend the American League East title and make a deep run next October.

The first is to try to replace David Ortiz's elite production. The second is to rebuild a bullpen that could lose free agents Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa.

In the big picture, the Red Sox are in solid shape heading into the winter. They have a strong lineup built around a young and emerging core -- one that will now be led by Dustin Pedroia -- and the entire 2016 starting rotation is under contract for next season. Just a year ago, Boston was trying to emerge from consecutive last-place finishes. Trying to maintain success seems like a less daunting task, particularly when you look at the roster.

2016 marked return to prominence for Red Sox

"It's a huge reason of why I came here," said Red Sox lefty David Price. "I didn't want to just have a chance to win in 2016. We obviously had a good chance to win here this year, but with all the young core we have, both in the big leagues and in the Minor League system, we can be good for a long time. That was something I wanted to be a part of."

As always, it should be an interesting winter for the Red Sox.

Arbitration-eligible: LHP Drew Pomeranz, LHP Fernando Abad, LHP Robbie Ross Jr., RHP Joe Kelly, RHP Brandon Workman, C Bryan Holaday, C Sandy Leon, INF Josh Rutledge, INF/OF Brock Holt, SS Xander Bogaerts, OF Jackie Bradley Jr.

Free agents: RHP Clay Buchholz (club option, $13.5 million); RHP Tazawa; RHP Uehara; RHP Ziegler; 3B Aaron Hill; C Ryan Hanigan (club option, $3.75 million).

Rotation: The front of the rotation is in good shape, with Rick Porcello and Price returning as foundation pieces. Porcello emerged into a Cy Young Award candidate and will be determined to prove that his excellent 2016 was no fluke. Price hopes to stay as durable as he was in '16 but with more consistent results. As for his October dilemma, the lefty and the Red Sox just hope he is in a position to conquer those demons at this time next year.

Porcello earns his 21st win

Knuckleballer Steven Wright blossomed into an All-Star and was one of the best stories of the season before a fluke baserunning injury ruined his final two months. He should be good to go again after getting some rest this winter.

Lefty Pomeranz hopes to erase any questions about his health and prove that his struggles down the stretch were simply due to fatigue. Eduardo Rodriguez, the rotation's third southpaw, just hopes to be healthy for a full season. He got into a groove late in the season.

It will be interesting to see if the Red Sox pick up Buchholz's option. He proved useful as a swingman, but is $13.5 million too high a price to pay for that role? The club could look at bringing him back at a lower cost as a free agent.

Buchholz's six shutout innings

Bullpen: The Red Sox have an anchor in the ninth inning in Craig Kimbrel. While things didn't go perfectly for the righty in his first season in Boston, he did convert 31 of his 33 save opportunities. The big question in the bullpen is this: What will the bridge look like to get to Kimbrel?

Kelly looks like he could be primed to be the lead setup man after dominating down the stretch. Uehara has been a key component of Boston's bullpen for the last four years, but he's a free agent and will be 42 at the start of next season. Tazawa was Boston's longest-tenured player after Ortiz, Pedroia and Buchholz, but he struggled this season and is a free agent. Ross, who was underrated from the left side, will be back. It's less certain if the Red Sox will tender a contract to Abad, who struggled after his acquisition and is due to make roughly $2 milion in arbitration.

Kimbrel fans side, earns save

Catcher: Leon likely goes into camp as a slight favorite to win the starter job, but there is clear competition for the position. Christian Vazquez will be another year removed from Tommy John surgery, and perhaps in better position to show he should be the team's No. 1 catcher going forward. Blake Swihart, coming off left ankle surgery, will also have a chance to move his way back up the depth chart. The Red Sox might ultimately decide Swihart -- who can also play in the outfield -- is more valuable roving between different positions. Veteran backups Holaday and Hanigan will probably both wind up somewhere else.

Leon goes 4-for-4 vs. Twins

First base: For all the questions about Hanley Ramirez heading into 2016, the veteran right-handed hitter answered them all on offense and defense. Ramirez was a positive in many different ways and will try to maintain that going forward. Will he still be the starting first baseman or will he wind up being used more at DH in Ortiz's absence? Prospect Sam Travis, who missed the final four months of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee, could play his way into the mix. Travis Shaw might also see more time at first if Pablo Sandoval can make a strong comeback at the hot corner.

Hanley's three-homer game

Second base: Now that Ortiz is gone, second base is the position of greatest certainty and stability for the Red Sox. Pedroia will enter his 11th season as Boston's starting second baseman, and you can be sure he'll again be at one of the top two spots in the batting order. Pedroia remains a positive factor at the plate, in the field, and perhaps as importantly - in the clubhouse. Pedroia had left knee surgery after the season, but 2016 was his healthiest year in a long time. Holt will continue to give the Red Sox depth at second in the event Pedroia misses any time.

Statcast: Pedroia's diving stop

Shortstop: Bogaerts essentially had two different seasons. From Opening Day through June 30, he was one of the best hitters in the game, slashing .342/.393/.491. From July 1 on, he was at .248/.321/.403. There were no physical ailments, which made it harder to put a finger on why Bogaerts would often slump for weeks at a time. His defense was stable, but there he didn't show as much range as in 2015. Remarkably, Bogaerts is just 24 years old, even though he's already played three full seasons. There's a lot to feel good about when it comes to the shortstop from Aruba. This is another position at which Holt can back up.

Must C: Bogaerts' Monster homer

Third base: For the second straight Spring Training, the dominant storyline could well be the competition between Shaw and Sandoval. Shaw is out to prove he can be consistent over a full season -- something he didn't show in '16. Sandoval is determined to win back his job and his reputation after missing nearly all of last season following left labrum surgery. All reports on Sandoval are that he's used the time down to improve his physical condition. He will try to keep that momentum going all winter and into the spring. Top-ranked prospect Yoan Moncada is expected to be the third baseman of the future in Boston, but he needs a little more seasoning in the Minors.

Shaw's lightning quick catch

Outfield: The Red Sox hope that the killer B's can patrol their outfield for a long time. In left field, Andrew Benintendi should be a top candidate for Rookie of the Year in '17. He maintains eligibility after getting 105 at-bats in his first season. The left-handed hitter continues to show amazing polish considering he was drafted in 2015. In center field, Bradley is as good as anyone in the game defensively. He also belted 26 homers and had an .835 OPS, but he remains too inconsistent at the plate.

The case can be made that Mookie Betts is one of the top five all-around players in the game. There's nothing he doesn't do well. The 24-year-old Betts could get better still, which is a scary thought for teams who regularly face the Red Sox. Chris Young was the perfect fit the club envisioned as a platoon starter against lefties, and he is under contract for another year. Holt can also chip in at all three outfield spots.

Statcast: Betts shows off arm

Designated hitter: For the first time since 2003, someone other than Ortiz will occupy the DH spot. Replacing Ortiz -- arguably the most productive DH in history -- remains a daunting task. Depending on how the winter shakes out, Ramirez could wind up receiving the most at-bats at DH. It could also be a revolving position, with players like Sandoval, Shaw and Swihart also getting at-bats there. Or maybe Dombrowski goes out and signs Edwin Encarnacion. Stay tuned.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.