CARLSBAD, Calif. — Once again, it should be a very different offseason for the Red Sox.
Since the 2018 World Series, they have employed very different tactics in each of the subsequent winters. That pattern will continue.
After 2018, the Red Sox focused on maintenance, using financial flexibility to re-sign postseason heroes Nate Eovaldi and Steve Pearce, then reaching extensions in the spring with Chris Sale and Xander Bogaerts. Following the 2019 campaign, the signature transaction of chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s first winter was one of subtraction: the trade of Mookie Betts.
With holes across the roster after 2020, the Red Sox made a number of low- to mid-sized bets, adding several players — Kiké Hernández, Hunter Renfroe, Garrett Richards, Martín Pérez, Marwin Gonzalez, and Hirokazu Sawamura through free agency; Adam Ottavino and Franchy Cordero through trades; and Garrett Whitlock through Rule 5 — for roster depth. The largest commitment was to Hernández, a two-year, $14 million deal.
Bloom acknowledges that in his first year, the Sox were “scaling back from a really high level” of spending after leading the big leagues in spending and surpassing the luxury-tax threshold in both 2018 and 2019. They had a degree of flexibility in 2020 as they tried to take a step forward from a last-place embarrassment but so many needs — and so little pre-existing major league depth — that they chose to spread the board.
Now, they’re in a different spot. The success in 2021 — 92 wins and a surprising run to the ALCS — reframed the goals from building toward a championship to competing for one. The holes are less gaping than they were entering last year.
Though there are two rotation spots open, Tanner Houck and Whitlock at least provide options. Second base is viewed by Bloom as an area where “we could add” but where Christian Arroyo provides a capable option when healthy. The bullpen requires additions (especially depending on how they use Houck and Whitlock), but the market is always deep in relievers.
Meanwhile, the farm system has a growing group in the upper levels that can help provide internal depth. Pitchers Josh Winckowski, Connor Seabold, Kutter Crawford, Brayan Bello, and eventually Bryan Mata (when he recovers from Tommy John surgery) all have a chance to contribute in 2022. Jarren Duran will have a chance to forge a place on the team. Triston Casas and Jeter Downs will open in Triple A but could force their way up.
That suggests that the Red Sox can start considering more targeted upgrades — including more prominent names in the trade and free agent markets.
“The deeper you are, the more you can cover different possibilities with the players you have, the more it changes the range of possibilities you can look at to where you might be able to justify doing something that you couldn’t do if you had more holes at the same time,” said Bloom.
That is particularly true given that the payroll situation has changed considerably since Bloom took over.
In spending position
There is an immense element of the unknown to this offseason. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire Dec. 1, it’s hard for teams to set payrolls given the uncertainty about where the luxury-tax threshold will fall and what the penalties will be for spending beyond it.
Still, the Sox seem intent on moving to address their offseason needs.
“I think the nice thing about our ownership is that they never shied away from being opportunistic if it made sense,” said Bloom. “Even viewing it from the outside, I’ve never felt that they cared more about a specific number [for payroll] than they did about doing what was the right thing for the organization. I don’t expect that to change.
“We have some parameters that we’re planning around, but we know that this winter, that doesn’t get you as far as it usually does. The system is likely to change in some way. It could be small, it could be drastic change. So we have to take that into account as we plan but we don’t want to have it paralyze us.”
What does that mean? Right now, a look at the guaranteed contracts on the books, projected arbitration raises for players such as Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo, and Renfroe, and players who are not yet arbitration-eligible suggests that the Sox are on the hook for something in the vicinity of $180 million-$185 million for next year.
How much does that leave to spend? That’s not yet known, but it certainly could be a lot, based on past spending behavior and even greater financial flexibility moving forward. The Sox were just under the $210 million luxury-tax line in 2021. They spent upward of $240 million on payroll in 2018 and 2019.
If the penalties for teams that “reset” their luxury-tax rates for at least one year and then spend beyond the threshold in 2022 prove relatively modest (as they have been under the current CBA), then the Sox are in a strong position to spend.
After 2022, the Sox have more than $70 million coming off the books. With the end of David Price’s seven-year, $217 million deal, they no longer will be sending $16 million a year to the Dodgers for someone else’s player. J.D. Martinez ($19.375 million), Eovaldi ($17 million), Christian Vázquez ($6.75 million in 2022), and — assuming he opts out — Bogaerts ($20 million) will be off the books.
Those departures will create some glaring needs but also possibilities that the Sox can start considering this winter.
This year’s free agent class, for instance, features several elite middle infielders, among them Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Javy Báez, and Trevor Story. Next year’s class will feature Trea Turner, Dansby Swanson, and potentially Bogaerts.
When is the right time for the Sox to fortify their middle-infield future? They at least have the freedom to consider a high-end addition this winter who would complement Bogaerts in 2022 and potentially beyond, or who could offer a fallback plan should he depart after the season.
A note of caution
Bloom has yet to sign a free agent to a deal of more than two guaranteed years or $14 million. Does he expect to have more conversations about deals of three-plus years moving forward?
“I think that’s likelier than not,” Bloom said. “And even in the time that I’ve been here so far, there are things we explored that certainly could have taken that shape. For whatever reasons, for various reasons in each case, it just didn’t happen.
“It wasn’t something we were opposed to before. It’s just there wasn’t anything that made sense for both us and players we were negotiating with.
“So I would expect that that would change. Again, not because we were opposed to it before but just I think it’s likelier as we go on that we’ll line up for more of those types of things.”
Of course, while the Sox are positioned to pursue deals that they haven’t chased in recent years, they’re also mindful that the wrong move could not only backfire but also leave them ill-positioned to address future needs (see Sandoval, Pablo).
As much as they feel they are well-positioned to address their roster now, they don’t want to max out their payroll for several years in a single offseason — thus repeating the cycle of the last four offseasons.
“That’s a different challenge — there’s no question,” Bloom said of the balancing act of upgrading the roster without hamstringing the future. “We’re in a better and deeper position than where we were at this time last year. But that also isn’t something that you take for granted.
“We want to be in a position where you can always take advantage of opportunities. The more avenues you cut off, the likelier it is that there’s going to be a great opportunity you can’t really capitalize on. So it’s just something we have to balance.
“So I think it’s a great position at the end, but it is a different challenge.”
And with a different challenge will come a different kind of offseason — again.