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10/11/09 8:48 PM EST

After heartbreaking end, Sox look ahead

Core to return, decisions loom on Bay, Varitek, Gonzalez

BOSTON -- Without a doubt, Sunday's 7-6 loss to the Angels in Game 3 of the American League Division Series was a crushing way for the Red Sox's largely successful 2009 season to end.

Once they can digest it -- and it might take a few days considering how this one finished -- the Red Sox will probably feel pretty good about their chances of being a top contender again in 2010.

The Red Sox have qualified for the postseason in six of the past seven years, and have most of their core players under contract for next season and beyond.

As is the case entering every winter, however, there are issues for general manager Theo Epstein and his staff to sort out.

The big question going into the offseason will be what transpires with free-agent left fielder Jason Bay. The right-handed slugger made a seamless transition for Boston after being traded for Manny Ramirez on July 31, 2008. This season, Bay belted 36 homers and drove in 119 runs.

"I'd love to come back here, but also having gotten to this point now, I'm a little interested in going through the whole process and seeing what it's like and what's out there," said Bay. "That isn't really going to sink in for a while. I'm still kind of sitting on this one for a bit."

Left-hander Billy Wagner is also a free agent, and likely to either seek a closing job elsewhere or retire.

"You never want it to end. It's been great," said Wagner. "I love playing here. It's been great getting to the postseason, and having to pack up, it's tough."

And what becomes of shortstop Alex Gonzalez? The defensive standout did exactly what the Red Sox had hoped after being reacquired on Aug. 14. Now, Gonzalez and the club have a mutual $6 million option for 2010.

"Oh man, we'll see what happens," Gonzalez said. "I enjoy it here. I was so glad when they brought me back in the middle of the race. We'll see. I was happy to be back."

Catcher and captain Jason Varitek, who has had to adapt to a reduced role since the July 31 arrival of Victor Martinez, also faces uncertainty for the second winter in a row. The Red Sox hold a $5 million option for Varitek. But if they don't exercise it, Varitek has a $3 million player option.

As a whole, the Red Sox enter the offseason from a position of strength.

Co-aces Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are both scheduled to return, along with blossoming right-hander Clay Buchholz. Daisuke Matsuzaka could be primed for a rebound season, considering the way he reshaped his right shoulder and body and turned in a strong September.

Veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield will soon have what is considered to be minor back surgery, and hopes to return for a 16th season in Boston. Assuming he is healthy, the Red Sox likely will have little hesitation in exercising his $4 million option.

Though closer Jonathan Papelbon had a tough blown save on Sunday, three times being one strike away from victory only to lose, the Red Sox control the right-hander's rights for two more years. Despite what occurred on Sunday, Papelbon remains one of the best closers in the game, an All-Star in his first four seasons.

The setup crew will again have Daniel Bard, who showed his poise on Sunday by rescuing Buchholz from a bases-loaded, nobody out situation.

Manager Terry Francona has most of his starting lineup slated for a return. Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, both All-Stars for the second consecutive year, signed extensions last winter. Mike Lowell, the gritty third baseman, has one more year left on his contract. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and right fielder J.D. Drew, both solid contributors, should be back.

And designated hitter David Ortiz, who endured a horrific two-month slump but still managed to have 28 homers and 99 RBIs, has a year left on his contract, and then a 2011 club option.

Though the Red Sox fell short of qualifying for the American League Championship Series for what would have been the fifth time in the past seven years, Epstein wasn't going to make any rash decisions based on what occurred against the Angels.

"I think you can't make decisions based on any three games," Epstein said. "I don't think anything that occurred in this series came completely out of the blue, either. There were times we struggled hitting on the road this series. There were times we struggled hitting on the road during the season. There were certain things that went down this series that were foreshadowed in the regular season as well. With that said, I think we were a team capable of winning the World Series and had we played better, we'd still be playing right now."

Epstein and Co. will now start the process of trying to build another championship-caliber team for 2010.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.