Part two of a two-part series on the first year of Chaim Bloom’s tenure as chief baseball officer of the Red Sox. Read part one, on the unimaginable first year of Chaim Bloom, here.
Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of Chaim Bloom’s hiring as Red Sox chief baseball officer, a period in which he presided over one of the most dismal seasons in modern franchise history.
The Red Sox finished with a 24-36 record. They traded a homegrown superstar. They saw their best pitcher lose the year to Tommy John surgery and their second-best pitcher, more frighteningly, sidelined by a heart condition related to coronavirus. The year won’t be recalled fondly in Red Sox annals.
But Bloom’s charge as the successor to former president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski wasn’t to channel all of the team’s resources into the year at hand in hopes of bolstering fringe postseason aspirations. His job was to start reshaping a roster that had grown rigid and perhaps a bit stagnant, with a long-term goal of reopening a window of championship hopes.
“We always want to contend. We did this year. I don’t think that will ever change,” said Bloom. “[But] sometimes, those moves can come at the cost of getting to where we want to go in the future. When that happens, we need to prioritize sustainability. We need to prioritize championship contention and that goal of doing it for multiple years."
On the field, the 2020 season was a complete failure. All the same, it offered insight into how Bloom and the Red Sox are now approaching roster construction in pursuit of their long-term goal, a sort of road map for what it means for the team to pursue sustainability.
Patience and pain tolerance
In all likelihood, the wound of the Mookie Betts trade won’t heal until the Red Sox win another championship — and maybe not even then. That Bloom was willing to trade one of the game’s best and most electrifying players demonstrates that the path to their goal can be uncomfortable.
“It can be painful at times," said Bloom. “It sometimes means that you have to do things that are not gratifying in the moment. It sometimes means you have to believe in your convictions and your process even in the face of a lot of criticism.”
The Red Sox could have taken other paths to acquire talent or gain financial flexibility. According to major league sources, they had identified deals last offseason that could have gotten them below the 2020 luxury-tax threshold without losing Betts.
But given their pessimism about re-signing the outfielder once he turned down their 10-year, $300 million offer in the spring of 2019, the Red Sox saw his final season before free agency as the means to both resetting their luxury-tax rates and getting young talent back.
As Betts dazzles on the World Series stage, how do the Sox now look at the trade?
“First and foremost, the most important thing with a deal of that nature is that you get the right talent back,” said Bloom, who noted that the challenge was made greater by the fact that the front office was still figuring out its working dynamics while preparing the deal. “Now that we’re almost a year removed from the deal itself, we’re really happy with how the talent panned out over the course of 2020.”
With his strong first season in Boston, outfielder Alex Verdugo emerged as someone whom assistant general manager Eddie Romero described as a “cornerstone.” Infielder Jeter Downs projects as an above-average everyday second baseman. Catcher Connor Wong is intriguing as a potentially versatile role player, capable of hitting for power while working both as a catcher and infielder.
The trade also yielded financial flexibility — something easily maligned given its lack of immediate impact. But there is evidence that financial flexibility for a big-market team can be immensely valuable.
In August 2012, the Red Sox shipped Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers, and used the resulting payroll freedom to sign several free agents and win a championship. That perfect storm of signings under Ben Cherington represents an outlier, but offers a precedent for how a team can give up top talent and still get better by upgrading several parts of the roster.
More recently, the Dodgers shaved more than $100 million off their payroll to get under the luxury-tax threshold in 2018-19, making moves that gave them the freedom to pursue their megadeal with Betts.
It remains to be seen what Bloom and the Sox do with the flexibility — something that ultimately will determine whether the trade of Betts set in motion a new era of success or a historic embarrassment. But they think it left them better positioned to address holes, both with the players they received and the money they have to spend.
This won’t be Tampa Bay North
After the Betts trade, it was easy to see Bloom’s arrival as an indicator that the Sox were entering a form of austerity that characterized his former franchise, the Rays. Several Red Sox moves this year were similar to ones that would have been entertained by Tampa Bay while Bloom was there. But that doesn’t mean the Red Sox will steer clear of high-end players forever.
The Red Sox will be able to consider more expensive roster-building strategies that weren’t available to the Rays. That said, Bloom isn’t going to ignore the strategies that helped get the Rays to the World Series this year.
"In a market like this one, the revenues that we have obviously in normal times — which we’ll return to hopefully sooner than later — I think allows you more avenues to build your team,” said Bloom. “But if you look around the game, this idea of mining every available avenue for talent, this idea of prioritizing depth, flexibility, and sustainability is not something that we’re inventing here on the fly.
"I think you could even argue that the beginning of this championship run that this team has had over a couple decades was really based on taking those principles of trying to dominate every area of the battlefield and applying them.”
Of the 46 players who entered at least one game for the Red Sox this year, 22 hadn’t been in the organization before Bloom’s arrival — the second-highest number of new players and the highest percentage of new players this decade.
That roster churn was a radical departure from what occurred during the four years under Dombrowski. From 2016-19, the major league roster had on average fewer than 10 players per season who were new to the organization.
The new players arrived via waiver claims (the Sox added eight players on waivers this year; in four years under Dombrowski, they added five), minor league and major league free agent signings, and trades.
Multiple factors drove those moves. First, the Sox had what their own decision-makers prior to Bloom’s hiring recognized as a talent deficiency at the back of the 40-man roster. There were a number of areas where upgrades were possible. Secondly, under Bloom, they view the 40-man as dynamic rather than static, with a view that the cumulative impact of making several small upgrades up and down the roster can be significant.
“It goes back to being more open-minded and willing to be more aggressive with the bottom end of our 40-man roster," said Romero. "The 40-man roster became more of a living document. It was a daily conversation. It required daily upkeep.”
Finally, the Sox were positioned to be more active than usual based on their poor big league performance. Their status as sellers at the trade deadline, high waiver-claim position (dictated by reverse order of standings), and weak 40-man depth created both the means and willingness to tinker.
The Red Sox will continue to have exhaustive conversations — with the analytics department having an increasingly prominent voice — about players on the waiver wire, minor league free agents, and castoffs from other organizations in hopes of unlocking potential that may not have been seen in past performance.
The Sox saw some initial potential in the strategy this year with second baseman Christian Arroyo, utilityman Yairo Munoz, and reliever Phillips Valdez. They also gave opportunities to players who didn’t capitalize, particularly pitchers.
“When you are taking calculated gambles to try to improve depth, you don’t expect every one to pay off,” said Bloom. “But we would like moving forward to have a higher hit rate than we had this year.”
How long will it take?
Nearly every Red Sox move under Bloom has been to acquire a player with more than one year of control. The Sox had three major league free agent signings last winter. Martin Perez signed for one year with an option for 2021. Jose Peraza and Kevin Plawecki signed one-year deals, but both had one or more additional years of club control through salary arbitration. Virtually all of the players claimed on waivers had several remaining years of team control.
The Sox added players who required only short-term commitments but who, if they performed well, could be retained for one or more additional seasons. Given that the Sox are looking to add long-term pieces without sacrificing roster or financial flexibility, that approach wasn’t an accident — and it seems likely to be a central part of how they operate.
“When we’re looking at acquiring players, we want to go out and get players that, if we hit on them, are going to be around and be with us when we reach that point [of being a contender],” said Bloom.
Sustainable title contention is the organization’s North Star. Despite their horrendous on-field performance, the Sox believe they made progress in 2020. But how long will it take to open their next window of true championship contention?
One evaluator described the Sox as being a bit beyond midfield, but not much. Another thought that perhaps the team could compete by 2022, with a chance that a perfect alignment of 2012-13 circumstances this winter could accelerate that.
Bloom has been through the transition process before. The Rays were annual American League East contenders from 2008-13, then went through four years of losing records before returning to contention. But he won’t say whether that’s a reasonable — or even acceptable — standard for the Sox.
At this stage, his focus is on the destination, with little regard for the ETA.
“If there’s one thing that really let us hit another gear with the Rays with respect to how it timed up, it was to stop putting timetables on things and focus on doing the right thing,” said Bloom.
“If you do the right thing for your bigger-picture goals enough and relentlessly enough, and you’re disciplined doing that, you don’t take your eyes off of that, you may see the rewards sooner than you thought.”