Baseball officials typically contort themselves to sidestep the “R-word.” The suggestion that a team is “rebuilding” is almost too painful to acknowledge.
What does it mean to rebuild?
“Ooooooh boy,” said Pirates general manager Ben Cherington.
“It was a landmine I tried to avoid,” said former Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. “I didn’t want to concede and say we’re going to be terrible. I didn’t care for it very much.”
No one cares for the term. Yet a look at what the Red Sox have done in the 17 months since the arrival of Chaim Bloom from Tampa Bay as chief baseball officer suggests an extreme organizational pivot that is consistent with the notion of a rebuild.
The Red Sox disassembled a massive chunk of their major league roster so they could reconstruct it in a way meant to be stronger. They chose to ship out superstar Mookie Betts and another cornerstone in Andrew Benintendi while waving goodbye as Jackie Bradley Jr. headed to Milwaukee as a free agent. Familiar faces David Price, Mitch Moreland, and Brandon Workman were traded, too.
Of the players on the current 40-man roster, 23 are new to the organization since Bloom’s introduction, tying the Sox with the Padres for the most imports during that time. Nine of the newcomers were added via trade, primarily moves designed to replenish a farm system and young talent base that had eroded in recent years. Free agents have been brought aboard but on short-term deals suggesting transience.
The splashy, all-in blockbuster deals of recent offseasons have been replaced for now by moves meant to give the Red Sox a chance to at least tread water in a ferocious AL East, and perhaps to swim. Yet as they attempt to rebound from a last-place season in 2020 (“It felt like gut punch after gut punch,” said outfielder Alex Verdugo), all the moves seem governed by a mandate: Do no harm to the future.
What is that if not a rebuild?
“The way we see it is that we’re constantly building,” said Red Sox president/CEO Sam Kennedy. “Building a minor league system, building a competitive major league team, building by adding international signings.
“I think we always need to be building towards that next championship. For us, that’s number five in this incredible era. I’ll let others select the terminology.”
Speeding up the process
The decision to fire former president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski less than one year after a World Series title came in response to foreboding circumstances. Bloom took over a team that had carried the largest payroll in baseball for the second straight year but had slipped behind the Yankees and Rays in the standings with a big league roster and minor league system that were worse than both teams’.
“When I came here,” said Bloom, “I felt really strongly that we were not at the top of the division and we were not positioned to get there unless we started making some difficult decisions and thinking more long-term.”
The notion of “sustainability” — a vision of a team with not only a loaded major league roster but a farm system rich enough to fill big league gaps due to injuries and departures — became the organization’s North Star.
‘“The way we see it is that we’re constantly building. ... I think we always need to be building towards that next championship.”’
Sam Kennedy, Red Sox president/CEO
Beyond Rafael Devers, the team inherited by Bloom lacked the sort of elite young major league-ready talent featured in other organizations. He faced a forking road.
The Red Sox could try to paper over emerging holes on the big league roster while slowly rebuilding the farm system through the draft and international signings. Yet such an organic approach, even when picking at the top of the draft, typically takes years, with the potential for hitting a valley like the one endured by the Phillies for much of the last decade.
Trading established players and even stars is a way to shorten the timetable, particularly given that players with big league and even minor league track records can be evaluated with much greater accuracy than amateurs. In that sense, what is typically thought of as rebuilding represents a desire, in Cherington’s words, to “hit the gas pedal” to build a young talent base and move as quickly as possible through the most painful stage.
“You can have a great draft, but it’s still going to take you five years,” said Amaro. “If you trade properly and target the right players, you can shorten that window pretty quickly.”
But doing so comes at a price. In the case of the Red Sox, it was a brutal season in 2020 and skepticism about their position relative to their AL East peers in 2021, along with something of an identity crisis.
They still are projected to carry a payroll in excess of $200 million as calculated for luxury-tax purposes, behind only the Dodgers in investment in the coming season. Despite their continued willingness to spend near the top of the league, much of that money is tied into contracts signed years ago, including those for the departed Dustin Pedroia and Price as well as the injured Chris Sale.
The familiar outfield of Betts, Benintendi, and Bradley is gone. The fact that Betts was dealt one year shy of free agency and Benintendi was traded two years before a potential foray onto the open market is unsettling for fans who’d seen those players grow.
“It’s hard to part with beloved players,” said Kennedy. “It’s hard for the organization. It’s hard for the fan base. But sometimes it’s necessary to do as you’re building towards championships.
“It sounds counterintuitive obviously when you trade away one of the greatest players ever and one of the greatest people [in Betts]. But we feel it’s in the best interests of the longer-term goal of playing baseball in October on a more frequent basis.”
Every move made by the Red Sox, even if it is to bolster the 2021 club, reflects their determination to safeguard or improve the future. In some respects, they view their mission this year as developing the core of a sustainable contender — and taking a step away from the uncomfortable middle ground they occupy.
Spring has offered glimpses of hope for coming years, perhaps even this one. You can squint and imagine a lineup with Xander Bogaerts, Devers, and Alex Verdugo complemented by the prodigious power of Bobby Dalbec and Triston Casas, Jarren Duran’s game-changing dynamism, and a well-rounded talent in Jeter Downs. Daydreams about who might be available to the Red Sox with the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft add more light on the horizon.
Yet while building toward the future, they are trying to operate on a parallel path to field a team that, if not the on-paper equal of the Yankees and other elite AL teams, has enough talent to enter 2021 with some sense of possibility.
“Every year that we’re here trying to do this is sacred,” said Red Sox GM Brian O’Halloran. “It’s an opportunity for us and for our fans to watch a Red Sox team compete for a championship. We have to take that seriously.”
That outlook distinguishes the notion of this Red Sox rebuild from the more shameless practice of “tanking” — a willing acceptance of losing at the big league level in an effort to improve draft position.
Still, the Sox built cautiously for the coming year. Seven players (Marwin Gonzalez, Garrett Richards, Martín Pérez, Hunter Renfroe, Matt Andriese, Kiké Hernández, and Hirokazu Sawamura) signed big league deals, none guaranteed for more than two years or $14 million. The emphasis on short-term deals prompted suspicions among multiple agents.
“Some players are like, ‘I’m not even really interested in going to Boston right now,’ ” said one agent. “What every agent says is, ‘Let’s be careful about running the deal [as a one-year deal with an option], because Chaim is just going to trade him.’ There’s a feeling among agents [that] if the deal is structured this way, it just doubles the value for Chaim to flip him in July.”
If the Sox aren’t within reach of a wild-card berth by the July 31 trade deadline, it would be unsurprising to see another round of veterans traded. But if they outperform expectations (officials of three teams project them with a low-to-mid-80s win total), team officials suggest they’d be open to trading and taking on payroll in pursuit of a postseason spot, potentially even surpassing the $210 million luxury-tax threshold.
Wait till 2023?
Kennedy points to the offseason of 2012-13 — when the Red Sox followed a last-place finish and a midyear, salary-shedding blockbuster deal with the Dodgers by firing Bobby Valentine, hiring John Farrell, and signing several free agents to short-term deals — as one that harbors similarities to the team’s current position.
“We were seeking to hold onto really important pieces in our minor league system and building a roster that gave us more flexibility,” said Kennedy. “[And] we’ve got Alex Cora coming back now. That’s a huge lift for everyone.”
Cora’s energy and ability to draw the best out of his players offer hope. But in 2021, the division is better, and the odds of a rabbit-from-a-hat 2013-style championship are steeper.
How long might it take to achieve perennial contention? When might the Red Sox return to big-splash acquisitions?
Executives and agents believe that Bloom and the Sox will achieve sustainability — but describe them as being in the middle of a years-long process that started with the trade of Betts. The 2023 season is commonly identified as a reasonable projection for the Sox to reestablish themselves as an industry heavyweight.
“The same reason Andrew Friedman went out to LA and succeeded, Chaim is going to succeed,” said one agent. “Everyone thought Andrew was going to go out and spend left and right. He didn’t. I think that’s the same thing Chaim is doing.
“There’s going to be a two- or three-year period where they’re not very good. Maybe they’re in the second year of a three- or four-year stretch. I think they’re a much, much better team in ’22, but everything would have to go perfectly for them to be a playoff-caliber team in ’22. I think it will be ’23, but we’ll see.”
The Sox hope to defy such conservative predictions. Yet they do not dismiss them. In their current building — or, perhaps more accurately, rebuilding — goals and ambitions do not come with a fixed date.
“The goal of having a sustainable, championship team means that you want to look up and say you have an elite major league roster and also a development pipeline,” said Bloom. “I think we’ve taken steps towards that, but I don’t think we can look in the mirror and say we’re there yet.
“But I think we have a lot of things moving in the right direction.”
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