A glacial baseball offseason appears to be thawing, evidenced by a flurry of free agent agreements across the sport over the past week. But even as the Red Sox enter what team officials expect to be a busy period of team-building in the next couple of weeks, two questions linger: What’s taken so long? And what, exactly, are the Red Sox doing?
To date, the Sox have added depth by signing three free agents, agreeing to terms to re-sign Martín Pérez on Saturday following earlier deals for righthander Matt Andriese and outfielder Hunter Renfroe. Still, the team has not addressed its most pronounced holes, including a mid-rotation starter, a primary center fielder, and a second base upgrade.
The absence to date of solutions has created understandable agitation in the fan base. So what’s the holdup?
No one in baseball relishes the slow drip of this offseason.
“It’s excruciating for the fans,” acknowledged one Red Sox official.
A few factors have combined to create a brutal pace to the offseason across baseball in general and with the Red Sox specifically. First, there’s been very little free agent movement across the sport, particularly at the top end of the market.
The best free agent starter, Trevor Bauer, has yet to sign, creating little rush for potential mid-rotation fallback options such as Jake Odorizzi to reach their own deals. Center fielder George Springer hasn’t signed, so Jackie Bradley Jr. likewise can wait. Until Friday, D.J. LeMahieu hadn’t signed, leaving the second base and middle infield markets in neutral.
Secondly, while the Red Sox expect to be much better than they were during an awful 24-36 campaign, the team isn’t in an “all-in” phase. The Sox don’t believe that their dreadful performance of 2020 represents their true talent base — they should be better with a healthy Eduardo Rodríguez and eventually Chris Sale in 2021, their starting depth is improved from when Ryan Weber was their No. 3 starter, and the lineup should improve with bounce-backs — but realistically, they’re more than one player from contention.
They aren’t in the spot they were after 2015, when they saw David Price as the one missing piece on their roster — to the point where they bid against themselves to sign him for $217 million. Nor are they in the same spot they were after 2017, when J.D. Martinez represented the final piece of the puzzle. They’re probably closer to where they were after 2014, when the swift signings of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramírez proved a poor response to widespread roster shortcomings.
While the Red Sox have what one major league source described as “dry powder” at their disposal — they still could spend $20 million to $30 million while staying under the $210 million luxury tax threshold in 2021 — their front office is taking an opportunity to upgrade a number of areas of their roster instead of focusing on one or two high-end options.
The intended approach is more in line with what the team did in 2012-13 — looking to build depth and solidify the team’s floor by adding several players but no stars — than the offseasons of 2015-16 (Price), 2016-17 (Chris Sale), or 2017-18 (Martinez).
Teams behave and spend differently when they believe they’ve entered a window of title contention, as evidenced by what the White Sox and Padres are doing or even how the Yankees resolved to cross the finish line with LeMahieu. While the Red Sox believe they can build a team with playoff ambitions in 2021, they aren’t in the finishing touches stage, so the contracts and deals they’re pursuing are more conservative.
Case in point: Pérez. While the team appreciated his rotation contributions in 2020, it didn’t exercise his $6.85 million option for 2021, believing that it could identify a less expensive, reliable back-of-the-rotation starter from a group that includes pitchers such as Pérez and José Quintana.
Pérez loved pitching in Boston and ultimately circled back on Saturday to quickly close a deal that guaranteed him $5 million. He and Andriese are guaranteed a combined $7.1 million for 2021 — slightly more than what Pérez’s option would have cost. The Sox thus improved their depth for next year, and with 2022 options on both pitchers, the team also now has more long-term flexibility and added depth on their pitching staff.
Such moves aren’t going to move the needle of public perception, but do represent the sort of roster-building that chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom has seen as essential in an organization whose depth had been severely depleted by the end of 2019.
Even so, the Sox were ready to move on Corey Kluber after the two-time Cy Young winner held a workout for interested teams on Wednesday. The team, according to major league sources, believed that the one-year, $11 million agreement the veteran reached with the Yankees was a reasonable one.
However, at a time when the Sox are trying to upgrade not just for 2021 but also the longer term, the team may have preferred a different contract structure — perhaps one with an option for 2022. Kluber seemed most interested in a clean one-year deal, and the Yankees represented a fit given that the person overseeing his offseason and rehab, Eric Cressey, works for the Yankees. Moreover, the fact that the Yankees are in “all-in” mode likely appealed to a 34-year-old looking for a ring.
Could the Sox have outbid the Yankees on Kluber? In theory, certainly — though within the offseason budget available to the front office, doing so would have meant lowering the bar at other areas of need. For better or worse, that’s not the approach the team is taking this winter; it will look elsewhere for a mid-rotation upgrade (Jake Odorizzi? Rich Hill? Masahiro Tanaka? James Paxton?).
Still, against the backdrop of the team’s efforts to upgrade in the short term but without compromising the long term, it’s worth asking: Why is the team widely discussing Andrew Benintendi trade possibilities with other teams?
Benintendi has two years left until free agency, with a $6.4 million salary for 2021 and another year of arbitration eligibility in 2022. As much as there’s a question of “selling low” on the 26-year-old after his poor — and injury-abbreviated — 2020 season, the fact that Benintendi has multiple years of team control may give him greater value now than he would have after 2021 even with a bounce-back season.
Meanwhile, because Benintendi is now two years from free agency, the team wants to see if he can be dealt for one or more players who could contribute over a longer time horizon — particularly given that, if the Sox dealt Benintendi, they’d almost certainly look to solidify their 2021 team by adding a left fielder from a strong pool (Marcell Ozuna, Michael Brantley, Joc Pederson) that remains. (The availability of such options, however, also likely limits what teams appear willing to trade for Benintendi.)
According to multiple major league sources throughout last week, the team hadn’t reached a point of no return in trade talks; there’s a solid chance, though not a guarantee, that Benintendi will remain in Boston.
And so, the Red Sox continue their efforts to determine the shape of their 2021 team — a process that has taken this long because, quite frankly, it can. With a month until the anticipated start of spring training, the team has holes — but remaining options for filling them.
“Little by little, we’re building this puzzle,” manager Alex Cora said Sunday on MLB Network Radio. “This puzzle is not completed. We have to be patient.”
That’s not a particularly satisfying undertaking, and that charge has contributed to a perception of diminished Red Sox relevance in the local sports landscape. But there aren’t any prizes for filling out offseason checklists by mid-January. The merits and faults of this deliberate approach will come into sharper view in the coming months.