There are 185 free agents at last count. That number will climb even further on Dec. 2, the deadline for teams to offer contracts to their arbitration-eligible players.
There are approximately 250 such players and a higher percentage than usual will be released as teams look for ways to carve even smaller salaries off their payroll given the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
For all but the upper class of free agents, it will be a stressful period as teams use a flooded market to their advantage.
Several agents said this past week that teams are saying they’re still working on what their payroll budget will be for 2021 and aren’t yet engaging free agents.
Agents also won’t have the usual opportunities to make a case in person for their clients with the GM meetings and winter meetings having been canceled because of the pandemic.
Both events typically helped facilitate transactions, with the GM meetings often serving as an information-gathering session for deals made at the winter meetings.
The GM meetings were to be Nov. 17-19 and the winter meetings Dec. 7-10. Both were replaced by video conferences for whatever league business needs to be handled.
As free agents settle in for what could be a long winter, the hope is there will be some teams that seize the opportunity to enhance their rosters.
At a time when some clubs will retrench, an ambitious team could invest heavily in free agents, reasoning that any short-term financial pain will be offset by the long-term benefits of having a contending team.
Under new owner Steve Cohen, the Mets are a prime candidate to be aggressive. The Angels, who are searching for a general manager, also are in win-now mode given that Mike Trout hasn’t appeared in a playoff game since 2014.
The Blue Jays feel they are close to challenging for a division title after finishing only a game behind the Yankees. The White Sox are seen as a team willing to invest under 84-year-old owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
The Dodgers, who can be creative even after signing Mookie Betts, could chase a notable starter to bolster their rotation.
At a time when even big-market teams such as the Red Sox, Cubs, and Yankees have made deep staff cuts in baseball operations and the front office, the optics of signing a major free agent could be difficult. But business will get done.
Let’s take a look at the top free agents at each position, and where the Red Sox could fit in with these players:
Trevor Bauer: A 1.73 ERA in the regular season followed by a brilliant playoff start propelled him into free agency. It’s always about money in the end, but Bauer also will want an organization that will cater to his beliefs about pitching.
Marcus Stroman: The 29-year-old averaged 173 innings with a 3.86 ERA from 2016-19 before opting out of last season after recovering from a calf injury. It seems unlikely he’d take the $18.9 million qualifying offer from the Mets. But it might not be a bad idea given how that will dampen his value.
Kevin Gausman: He fit well with the Giants as a reclamation project, posting a 3.62 ERA. San Francisco is hopeful a deal can be made. Taking the qualifying offer would be a $9.9 million raise from last season.
Charlie Morton: The Rays took a pass on his $15 million option. Morton will be 37 this coming week and averaged 4⅓ innings in nine starts. Assuming he wants to pitch, a return to Tampa Bay is possible. Or maybe the Red Sox, given his relationship with Alex Cora.
Masahiro Tanaka: There’s a deal to be made to stay with the Yankees. Tanaka is relentlessly reliable, but not at $23 million a year anymore.
Jake Odorizzi: A big winner for the Twins in 2019, he was held to four starts because of (non-arm) injuries last season. He won’t lack for offers.
Red Sox outlook: For the moment, the Sox do not have a rotation beyond Nate Eovaldi. Chris Sale is not expected back until June; Eduardo Rodriguez is recovering from COVID-19; and Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck are unproven.
Finding low-cost, short-term options should be easy. Pitchers such as Chris Archer, Tyler Chatwood, Anthony DeSclafani, J.A. Happ, Corey Kluber, Mike Minor, Jose Quintana, Robbie Ray, Garrett Richards, and Taijuan Walker would help fill the gaps.
How well the Sox judge the starter market will likely determine their success next season.
Liam Hendriks: The righthander has dominated for two seasons with a 1.79 ERA and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings over 99 games and 110⅓ innings. He’ll be one of the few relievers who gets paid.
Brad Hand: A durable lefty closer with a high strikeout rate seems like a prize, but the Indians chose a $1 million buyout instead of his $10 million option.
Trevor May: His 153 strikeouts over 113 innings the last three seasons, along with a 96-mile-per-hour fastball, will resonate with teams looking for a late-inning option.
Trevor Rosenthal: He missed 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery, then had a rough 2019. The idea that pitchers come back better the second year after Tommy John held true as Rosenthal had a 1.90 ERA for Kansas City and San Diego with 14.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
Alex Colome: He has been a reliable closer for five years despite a modest strikeout rate. He allows contact but it doesn’t do damage.
Red Sox outlook: It’s hardly out of the question the Sox could non-tender erratic Matt Barnes and rebuild their bullpen with free agents. They ran a tryout camp last season and came with some possibilities in Phillips Valdez, Robert Stock, and maybe a few others.
Spending big on relievers is not something in Chaim Bloom’s Tampa Bay DNA. But with so many notable players on the market — Pedro Baez, Shane Greene, Greg Holland, Brandon Kintzler, Jake McGee, Blake Treinen, etc. — they could find good values.
Carlos Santana: He’s entering his age-35 season and could be more of a designated hitter. But Santana can handle first and was a proven hitter before struggling last season.
Mitch Moreland: An .853 OPS the last two seasons as a platoon player makes him valuable. He took $3 million to stay with the Red Sox last season.
Red Sox outlook: Bobby Dalbec will get every chance to claim the position after putting up a .959 OPS in 23 games. Or maybe he ends up at third and Rafael Devers ends up at first. Either way, it’s not a position of need.
DJ LeMahieu: He will not lack suitors after crushing it for two years with the Yankees. LeMahieu was a devotee to all things pinstriped in New York and there’s a deal to be made for him to stay.
Kolten Wong: The Cardinals passed on a $12.5 million option for a Gold Glove winner. In an age where second base has become an offensive position, Wong’s career .384 slugging percentage hurts his value.
Cesar Hernandez: The Phillies non-tendered Hernandez last year and he had .763 OPS with stellar defense for the Indians for a modest $6.2 million.
Red Sox outlook: The Sox need a second baseman unless you believe Christian Arroyo is more than a bench player. Wong would be a great fit.
Justin Turner: This is one of the few thin positions in free agency unless you want to wedge a utility player in the spot.
Turner will be 36 later this month but has maintained his offensive profile. The Dodgers will want to retain him on the right deal.
Red Sox outlook: Devers, now arbitration eligible, will get increasingly expensive. A 24-year-old with two kids is a prime candidate for an extension. He’ll want to play for Cora, too.
Marcus Semien: His production plunged last season, but Semien is a year removed from finishing third in the MVP race. Being saddled with a qualifying offer hurts his value and increases the odds of staying in Oakland.
Didi Gregorius: A one-year, make-good deal in Philadelphia set Gregorius up for a good deal in free agency.
Andrelton Simmons: An elite defender who regressed a bit last season, Simmons is at best a league-average hitter.
Ha-Seong Kim: He’s only 25 but has played seven seasons in South Korea and hits for power. Kim is an interesting player, but the only former KBO player to play shortstop in the majors was Jung Ho Kang, who was with the Pirates from 2015-19.
Red Sox outlook: They would seem set with Xander Bogaerts, especially now with Cora back.
J.T. Realmuto: This is one player who will defy the economy. Realmuto is clearly the best catcher in the game given his defensive ability and .825 OPS the last three seasons. He’s in line for a nine-figure deal.
James McCann: He’s a step down from Realmuto but has enough all-around ability to merit a multiyear contract.
Yadier Molina: He’ll be 39 in July and at some point the Cardinals will have to gently prod him out the door, much like the Red Sox did with Jason Varitek. But another one-year deal seems likely.
Red Sox outlook: The Sox would appear set with Christian Vazquez and Kevin Plawecki. But Vazquez could be trade bait.
George Springer: An .899 OPS this past season eased any fears he’s a product of knowing the signs. Springer is an all-around talent who has primarily been a right fielder but is comfortable in center. He’ll land one of the best deals of the winter.
Michael Brantley: Can a four-time All-Star be underrated? Brantley has hit .304 with an .820 OPS since 2012. He’ll be 34 in May, so a short-deal deal would fit. He’d be a great pickup as a left fielder for the Red Sox.
Jackie Bradley Jr.: Free agency will give everybody a good sense of his value. Bradley is the only true center fielder on the market, which will help. He’d fit with the Diamondbacks.
Red Sox outlook: Assuming Bradley departs, the Sox will need some outfield cover. Maybe somebody such as Robbie Grossman or Adam Eaton if they don’t want to invest heavily.
Alex Verdugo or Andrew Benintendi can slide into center. They could platoon in one of the corners. There’s well-placed optimism in Jarren Duran, but he had a .634 OPS in 82 games in Double A in 2019 and needs time in the minors.
Marcell Ozuna: He can play the outfield. But Ozuna should be a DH and let the fireworks happen. He has a .348/.447/.665 line in 41 career starts as a DH.
Nelson Cruz: He’s 40 but has a 1.020 OPS the last two seasons and is a leader with the Twins. Look for them to find a way to bring Cruz back.
Shin-Soo Choo: At 38, he can still hit (especially against righthanders) and even steal an occasional base.
Red Sox outlook: With J.D. Martinez around, the Sox are set at DH. Ozuna put on a show at Fenway Park last season, but two well-paid DH types in their 30s on the same roster doesn’t really work.
Enrique Hernandez: His offense has fallen off the table the last two years, but Hernandez started games at five positions last season.
Tommy La Stella: He’s bounded from the Cubs to the Angels and then the Athletics in the last three years while posting a .787 OPS.
Red Sox outlook: The Sox have Michael Chavis, Arroyo, and Yairo Munoz as utility types. Bloom values defensive versatility, but whatever bench additions they make figure to be budget signings.
What comes next for Cora?
The Red Sox need a bench coach and a bullpen coach now that Alex Cora is again the manager.
Carlos Febles or Ramon Vazquez moving up to bench coach would make a lot of sense. Febles has 904 games of minor league managerial experience and Vazquez will manage in Puerto Rico this winter. He has one season of minor league managing experience.
But you have to wonder if the Sox did all their legwork on Sam Fuld for no reason.
He has yet to take an on-field position since ending his playing career and a bench coach job would better position him for a managerial opening.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ The 2016 trade that sent Clay Buchholz to the Phillies for prospect infielder Josh Tobias saved the Sox $13.5 million. But it didn’t produce much on the field for either team.
Buchholz made two starts before a season-ending injury and Tobias never made it beyond Triple A.
But it still could pay off for the Sox in a different way. Tobias, who turns 28 later this month, has given up playing and taken a pro scouting position with the team.
The Sox are doing a nice job creating opportunities for former players. Kyri Washington, 26, became a pro scout in February.
▪ The Sox have posted a job opening in their analytics department.
The qualifications include: a bachelor’s degree in an analytical field such as statistics, predictive analytics, data science, engineering, applied math, physics, quantitative social sciences, computer science, computer vision, or operations research.
A master’s, PhD, or equivalent experience in one of the aforementioned fields is preferred along with advanced understanding of statistical methods or machine learning techniques, proficiency with modern database technologies including SQL, demonstrated experience with programming languages (e.g., R or Python).
That’s a baseball job these days.
▪ The Sox did not have a player selected for a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger. That had not happened since 2012, and before that 2000.
Former Red Sox officials Allard Baird and Jared Banner were among the executives cleaned out by the Mets on Friday when Steve Cohen became owner … Here’s how good the Dodgers are: They won the World Series after letting go of two of the three American League Cy Young Award finalists. They traded Kenta Maeda to the Twins and let Hyun-Jun Ryu sign with the Blue Jays … Happy birthday to Jerry Remy, who is 68. The former Somerset High star turned a 10-year career in the majors into 33 years of calling games for NESN. Remy had seven career home runs in 4,455 career at-bats. But three of them came off Hall of Famers as he connected against Fergie Jenkins, Catfish Hunter, and Jack Morris in 1977.