The president and CEO of the Boston Red Sox admits the Sox are not “all-in” trying to win the World Series this year.
“I think it would be inaccurate to say we are going for it with an all-in approach that perhaps we did prior to the 2018 title,” Sam Kennedy acknowledged in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday.
“We cherish that title, and all of them, but the way we built that team came at a price, which included importantly a depleted farm system and some depleted draft picks along the way. So we are building back up, and as we do this hopefully the right way, we’ll have a chance to be competitive in the American League East in 2021, but also for the longer term.”
There you have it. After 20 years of pedal-to-the-metal, the Sox are downshifting in urgency and expectations. It’s been obvious to longtime fans and observers for a while — certainly since the salary-dump trade of Mookie Betts last year. The Sox finished in the basement in the COVID-shortened 2020 season and have been dormant this offseason while their rivals improve. Interest is plummeting and fans are restless.
“I understand the frustration associated with the fact that it’s been a slow offseason,” said Kennedy. “I understand the frustration when we have a very disappointing season like we had last year. The good news is that we have a lot of guys returning from health issues and we’re not done yet.”
Do the Sox take their fans for granted, hoping the goodwill of four championships in this century allows them to coast?
“That’s patently false,” said Kennedy. “Our ownership group wants a fifth, sixth, and seventh championship. We are in it to win and to deliver for our fans. This is an incredibly competitive front office and a highly experienced and successful ownership group, and we are in the baseball business to win. Period.”
The Sox are a big-market team, valued at $3.3 billion by Forbes. They’ve had one of MLB’s top four payrolls for each of the last 10 seasons, but in 2020, they traded their best player because of money — something we expect of the cash-poor Indians, who just dumped Francisco Lindor.
Now the Sox are looking to trade Andrew Benintendi, who makes $6.6 million. While the division rival Blue Jays just landed George Springer and the Yankees signed Corey Kluber and re-signed D.J. LeMahieu, the Sox answered with Matt Andriese and Hunter Renfroe.
Are the Sox operating like a middle-market team?
“No, I would not agree with that,” said Kennedy. “My guess is we’ll have a payroll somewhere in the top echelon of baseball.”
Perhaps. But that’s largely because of old contracts (Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi) signed by Dave Dombrowski. Some of us (me) believe that the 2021 Sox are operating in the spirit of Tampa Bay.
“That’s your obsession because it’s cute and easy and Chaim Bloom worked for the Tampa Bay Rays,” said Kennedy. “I don’t agree with it.”
So how does Kennedy otherwise explain the procession of anonymous 4-A players who’ve paraded through Fenway over the last year? Boston used 12 starting pitchers for 60 games last season.
“You’re pointing to the concept of a big offseason splash,” said Kennedy. “I understand that. This has been a general, slow-moving offseason. It’s been frustrating for fans and we understand that. I’m not going to debate that with you.”
The Red Sox are 108-114 over the last two years, while the Yankees and Rays both went 136-86 and combined to win 23 playoff games. The gap is widening.
“There’s not a change in the overarching baseball philosophy,” said Kennedy. “The philosophy is to do everything we can to be good now and into the future.
“In a great and sustainable baseball operation, you’re going to have success at the major league level, but you’re also going to have a stacked farm system. So you have a core group coming up through the farm system and guys you can use to acquire major league talent.
“So there was a price to be paid in 2018. We are proud of that championship, but we’re now building back up, and I think if we do the right thing, success will come more quickly than maybe people can imagine.
“Look at what happened in 2013. Everyone had us winning 85 games. We won 98 and a World Series. Well, it’s January of 2021. Let’s see where we are in a couple of weeks and a couple of months.”
The difference is that before the 2013 season, the Sox signed seven veteran players to short-term deals. Players like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Ryan Dempster. They were established players we had heard of. Nothing like what we are seeing now.
“I’m not going to respond to that,” said Kennedy.
“Take a step back. What are we doing? We are aggressively pursuing our fifth championship. We want to do it in a way where the sixth and seventh are not far behind.
“So we’re working to build a team that will contend for a championship year in and year out. We’re not prioritizing a short-term splash over getting to that goal. We’re looking to build this thing the right way, brick by brick.”
I told him I have a hard time buying this. It feels to me like the Red Sox have become a diminished priority in the Fenway Sports Group empire. Liverpool is king and FSG is eyeing new acquisitions while the Red Sox trudge toward irrelevance.
“There’s nothing further from the truth,” countered Kennedy. “The Red Sox are at the center of everything we do. I think that is an insult to the people that work here each and every day with the mission of building a championship team and offering a great experience at Fenway.
“We’re very fortunate to have an ownership that supplies resources to all of our Fenway Sports Group businesses to be successful. It’s incumbent on us to deliver. Just because you’ve got the resources doesn’t mean you’re always successful, but that would be an offensive mischaracterization.”
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.