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    Red Sox will face challenge keeping that old gang together

    ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Indians manager Terry Francona recently said that what he’d like to see for next season is to keep all of his players, but go deeper into the postseason. Good luck on either front.

    Looking at the Red Sox warming up before Tuesday night’s Game 4 of the American League Divisional Series against the Rays, it was interesting to imagine how different the team could look next season.

    The same challenges that will face the Indians will face the Red Sox — trying to keep a good team from disintegrating. That’s because players become free agents, or they get hurt, or they don’t perform as well as they did the previous year. Every team has the same problem.


    The Giants won the World Series in 2012 and then fell back badly the next season with virtually the same personnel.

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    When one looks at this very good Red Sox roster, there may be some key departures next season.

    As time goes by, one realizes what Jacoby Ellsbury means to this team. Oh, some of his hits in this ALDS have been bloopers and bleeders, but Ellsbury’s a game-changer. And the game-changer may be changing addresses. If so, the Red Sox will do the best they can to replace him, but they may not succeed.

    The center fielder has a unique skill set. Oh sure, he’s not a five-tool player because he doesn’t have a strong arm. But he’s a four-tool player, for sure, and before you whittle him down to three because he hasn’t shown the power of two years ago, he does have power.

    Other than David Ortiz, nobody hits the ball with more authority on this team than Ellsbury.


    So Ellsbury could be major loss No. 1.

    Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia has come a long way. His defense has improved. While his throwing percentage isn’t great, it’s a lot better than it used to be. Saltalamacchia is an asset as a catcher. A switch-hitter who can mash 40 doubles and 14 homers is valuable. How valuable? Perhaps enough for the Red Sox to make him a qualifying offer of $14 million.

    Saltalamacchia, 28, is actually in position not to take it. He and Brian McCann will be the premier catchers on the market and he should be able to get a multiyear deal rather than a one-year contract — though $14 million is pretty good for one year.

    Replacing Salty? There’s David Ross, but he won’t be a full-time player. There’s Ryan Lavarnway and Christian Vazquez. We’ll see if the Red Sox will be at the point at which they would commit to either of those backstops.

    Then there’s the shortstop situation. Stephen Drew is a player Red Sox management and manager John Farrell have grown fond of. It would be easy to say, “Thanks for the year, Stephen,” and let him go, especially with Xander Bogaerts waiting in the wings. But here again, the Red Sox could make a qualifying offer, one that Drew would gladly accept at $14 million. Drew will have suitors in the offseason, and the Yankees could be one of them.


    There’s also the story of Mike Napoli.

    We know his negatives — the team-record-setting number of strikeouts, the disappearing act in July and August. But we also see the 90-plus RBIs and surprisingly good defense at first base. Napoli made himself a legitimate Gold Glove candidate and led all major league first basemen with a 9.4 UZR.

    Infield coach Brian Butterfield believes Napoli made great strides as a first baseman. Butterfield thought that as a catcher, Napoli’s natural instincts were to stay low to the ground, and that transferred over to first base.

    “I feel very natural over there,” Napoli said. “My body has never felt fresher. I’ve had the plantar [fasciitis] thing, but the rest of me feels fresh and stronger than I’ve ever felt this time of the year. I don’t miss catching. I miss the interaction with the pitcher and the game-planning and all of that, but being a full-time first baseman definitely leaves me with more strength.”

    All told, several key elements of this team could be gone. But the Red Sox will have Mike Carp, Daniel Nava, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Jackie Bradley Jr., Will Middlebooks, Dustin Pedroia, and Ortiz under their control.

    The pitching staff will be largely intact. Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester (after the team picks up a $13 million option year), John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Andrew Miller, Andrew Bailey, Brandon Workman, Drake Britton, and Franklin Morales remain under their control.

    The Red Sox likely will buy out lefthander Matt Thornton rather than pay him $6 million.

    They may even deal one of their veteran starters to make room for youngsters such as Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and Workman. Down the road a bit, the Red Sox will have to make room for Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, etc.

    The Red Sox hit it perfectly last offseason.

    Every move they made was the right move. Continuing that rate of success is unrealistic.

    However, the keys to sustaining the success are 1) integrate players from the farm system into the mix; 2) make sure if you lose key players that you have a reasonable facsimile to replace them; 3) never stop trying to upgrade talent; and 4) don’t mess with your chemistry too much.

    The team the Red Sox are playing this week, Tampa Bay, has been able to do those things as well as anyone. The good news for the Red Sox is that their pitching will be in place. Now all they have to do is find a way to get Buchholz and Doubront pitching 200 innings every year.

    Who knows which members of the coaching staff could get rewarded with managerial and/or upgrades to their current roles? Bench coach Torey Lovullo could be in demand for a managing job because of his successful association with Farrell.

    There’s no doubt Lovullo’s dream is to manage in the majors, but he also feels a sense of loyalty to Farrell, whom he considers one of his best friends, and the Red Sox front office, which he’s very fond of.

    A successful team never stays the same as much as everybody wants it to.

    The goal is keep as much of it in place as possible.

    General manager Ben Cherington and his assistants, Mike Hazen and Brian O’Halloran, will be challenged to figure out the Year After.

    The Year After Much Success.

    Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.