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Expect roster-building chaos when baseball’s lockout ends

Carlos Correa is among the prominent players who will be sought-after and in search of homes when the lockout ends.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Think the pace of activity in the days leading up to the decision by MLB owners to lock out players Dec. 2 was hectic? Just wait for what might come on the other side of the work stoppage.

Yes, the pace of activity in late November proved atypically frenzied. A total of 55 free agents signed major league deals in the four weeks between the conclusion of the World Series and the start of the lockout — a startling jump over the eight deals that got done in November 2020. Another dozen players signed minor league deals.

Still, more than 200 players remain unsigned with the transaction freeze in place. And given the lack of progress — or urgency — in talks between owners and players, it doesn’t appear there will be additional signings any time soon.


If the lockout drifts into February or later — pushing against the scheduled starting date of spring training — its conclusion when there is a new collective bargaining agreement will unleash a torrent of activity. Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Trevor Story, Clayton Kershaw, and Kyle Schwarber are among the most prominent players who will be both sought-after and in search of homes. Roster-building could be compressed into a few weeks, if that — a possibility that likely informed the rush of buzzer-beating contracts before the lockout.

What might that look like? Former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette has some idea.

“You just prepare for a number of different scenarios,” he said, “because you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

Former Sox GM Dan Duquette knows all about post-lockout roster chaos.Patrick Semansky

Duquette’s lesson was gleaned from more than a quarter-century ago. He became Sox GM in 1994, a disappointing year on multiple levels. The team went just 54-61 under Butch Hobson, and the season ended in August because of a strike.

That winter, as the strike dragged on and owners and players made little headway, the Sox envisioned a massive makeover that seemed possible when owners imposed a new economic structure that included a salary cap and modified rules for free agency — with players becoming eligible after accruing five years of service time rather than six. Duquette saw an opportunity to transform the Sox, quickly reaching agreements with three of the most prominent new free agents.


“We actually had three-year deals with Kevin Appier, who was a No. 2 starter with Kansas City; John Wetteland, who was a closer for the Expos; and then Sammy Sosa. We had agreed to terms with all three on three-year deals, essentially around $15 million for each,” said Duquette. “Pretty good long-term signings for the Sox.”

But the strike persisted, and owners decided to assemble teams of replacement players for spring training. In March, with the strike still going, the National Labor Relations Board sought an injunction against the owner-imposed system and the plan to open the season with replacement players.

That injunction was granted by then-US District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, resulting in a reinstatement of the rules of the prior CBA. The decision ended the strike but also meant that all of the Sox’ free agent signings would be nullified.

Duquette had to go back to work in rebuilding his team, with gaping holes all over the roster at the outset of a return by players for a rushed three-week spring training.

“You had to put together the team on the fly that year like everybody else,” said Duquette.


Every team dived into the pool. The Sox added depth rather than glamorous names, reaching deals with starters Erik Hanson and Zane Smith, catcher Mike MacFarlane, DH Reggie Jefferson, and reliever Stan Belinda, while trading for another reliever, Rheal Cormier. The team continued adding depth, claiming outfielder Troy O’Leary off waivers and jumping at the chance at the end of spring training to sign a recently released knuckleballer — Tim Wakefield — to a minor league deal.

Over roughly three weeks in April, more than 100 major league free agent deals were signed on the doorstep to the 1995 season (one shortened to 144 games in order to permit a few weeks of spring training for the returning players). The Sox emphasized depth, mindful that they’d been unable to monitor their players’ offseason workout regimens, and that the abbreviated spring training could lead to a rash of injuries. (The Sox lost Roger Clemens for the first five weeks of the season.)

In a year when injuries were widespread, the Sox benefited from exceptional performances by prime-age, homegrown talents Mo Vaughn, John Valentin, and Tim Naehring that were complemented by a depth-driven approach (a 1.026 OPS for waiver claim Dwayne Hosey?!). The team emerged a surprising 86-58 to win the American League East.

“We were just hustling, trying to put together as good a team as we could,” said Duquette. “We were scrambling.”

With baseball amid its first work stoppage since 1994-95, teams and players may experience a similarly frantic lead-in to the season this year. Agents, players, and front office members are getting their sleep now in anticipation of the chaos that may arrive on the other side of the lockout.



Paxton’s contract a bit different

James Paxton's deal with the Sox isn't the most straightforward one.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

With lefthander James Paxton working back from Tommy John surgery, he became an unsurprising target for the Red Sox.

Before health woes limited him to six starts and 21⅔ innings in 2020-21, he forged a 3.50 ERA with 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 131 starts with the Mariners and Yankees from 2013-19. He’d succeeded in the AL East, going 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA in 150 innings for the Yankees in 2019. And, because of his health, he was open to a one-year deal with a modest guarantee to reestablish his value.

All of those factors made him a natural Red Sox target. Meanwhile, the Sox appealed to Paxton based on the team’s ability to compete and how it has handled pitcher workloads. (Neither the fact that the team kept all of its starters healthy last year nor the careful course followed with Chris Sale in his return from Tommy John was lost on Paxton.)

But the framework was a bit less straightforward than that.

Since Chaim Bloom’s arrival as chief baseball officer in 2019, the Sox have frequently pursued one-year free agent deals that included a one-year team option (a structure used with José Peraza, Martín Pérez, Garrett Richards, and Mitch Moreland, and in the pursuit of Corey Kluber). But Paxton’s agent, Scott Boras, is not a fan of the one-plus-one deal.


“I don’t do those,” he said.

And so, Boras and the Sox hammered out the framework of what the agent calls a “swellopt” deal: A one-year, $6 million deal that includes a two-year, $26 million team option for 2023-24 — reasonable numbers for both player and team should Paxton return midseason and, over the final months of the season, show mid-rotation potential by the end of 2022.

“The contract swells,” said Boras, who previously negotiated “swellopt” deals for free agent clients Zack Britton and Yusei Kikuchi. “He’s going to have to show durability for it to happen. He does it with the idea that he has an evaluation of what he’s worth without throwing [the $6 million salary for 2023]. Now if he goes out and throws well and he’s durable, that evaluation [of what he’s worth] is going to go up no matter what.

“For the player, in the back of his mind, he knows, ‘The key to me is not going out and throwing all these innings. The key for me is to throw optimally, efficiently, and healthily, so I can do one of two things — stay here for two years or go elsewhere.’ I don’t want the club to say, ‘I get to keep a guy for another year without a major commitment.’ ”

If the Sox decline the two-year option, Paxton would have a one-year, $4 million player option for 2023.


Corsi never gave up on his dream

Jim Corsi did everything he could to fashion a major league career for himself.O'Brien,FRANK Globe Staff Photo

The baseball world mourned the passing of Jim Corsi this past week, remembering a pitcher and person who exuded joy in his baseball career and beyond. Yet the 60-year-old, who died of colon and liver cancer, was also remembered as someone whose dogged determination allowed him to realize a dream.

In 1996, late in Corsi’s third stint with the A’s, the 34-year-old from Newton was amid a strong two-year run in the Oakland bullpen (3.34 ERA from 1995-96). But he had a clear vision for the next step of his career.

Corsi, a 25th-round draft pick of the Yankees in 1982, had been released twice by the Red Sox early in his minor league career. He refused to be deterred, reaching the big leagues with the A’s in 1988 and winning a World Series ring in 1989.

But he did not find an organizational home, bouncing between franchises, including the Astros and Marlins.

“He stopped me outside the ballpark one night in ‘96. He was with Oakland,” recalled former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette. “He said, ‘I want to come back here and pitch for the Red Sox, so when my agent calls you this offseason, remember that. I want to play here.’ ”

Corsi signed a one-year deal with the Sox that offseason and pitched well before returning to the open market. While other teams expressed interest in Corsi that winter, he didn’t reciprocate. He wanted to do anything he could to continue his career while living at home, re-signing with the Sox on a one-year deal with an option. Ultimately, the righthander pitched in 134 games with the Red Sox and, over parts of 10 big league seasons, 368 in his career.

“He had to fight and scratch and claw for every single inch of his major league career,” said Duquette. “He did get a chance to pitch for the Red Sox. That’s what he wanted. He loved the Red Sox. His family was so proud to see him play for the Red Sox.”

A two-way player

The top draft prospect out of New England this year, Reggie Crawford of UConn, underwent Tommy John surgery in November and is not expected to play this season. While that may prevent him from ascending to top-five status, Crawford is still widely expected to go in the first round.

Crawford is a standout two-way talent, a lefthanded pitcher and first baseman could potentially play the outfield. He hit .295/.349/.543 with 13 homers while striking out 17 batters in 7⅔ innings for UConn in 2021. He then went to the Cape League, where he touched 102 miles per hour, before playing for Team USA. He’s also blasted tape-measure homers of more than 450 feet.

Multiple evaluators think Crawford could be developed as a two-way talent in the minors, with his play dictating whether he ends up on the mound, in the lineup, or both.

Crawford’s immense talents will invariably invite “Next Shohei” suggestions, and debates about whether reigning AL AVP Shohei Ohtani can ever be duplicated. But while Ohtani’s incredible 2021 season is often thought of as having had been one comparable — Babe Ruth — there is another extraordinary two-way season that shouldn’t get lost to history.

In 1955, Brooklyn Dodgers righthander Don Newcombe went 20-5 with a 3.20 ERA in 233⅓ innings. In 125 plate appearances, he also hit .359/.395/.632 with seven homers and 17 extra-base hits. Most of that damage was done as a pitcher, though he hit .381 with a .435 OBP in 23 pinch-hitting appearances.

“He was an outstanding hitter, and often was used as a pinch hitter,” recalled 95-year-old Carl Erskine, Newcombe’s teammate with the Dodgers. “That was kind of a rare thing for a pitcher to be that good of a hitter as well . . . He was blessed with exceptional ability both hitting and pitching.”

Newcombe had a 1.063 OPS on days he pitched that year — the highest in major league history for a pitcher who had at least 100 plate appearances. Wes Ferrell (.339/.395/.661 with a 1.056 OPS as a pitcher in 1931, when he went 22-12 with a 3.75 ERA for Cleveland) is the only other pitcher ever to post an OPS of 1.000 or above on the days he pitched. Not even Ruth or Ohtani can make such a claim.

Extra bases

Sox catcher Christian Vazquez played nine games in the Puerto Rican Winter League this offseason.Carmen Mandato/Getty

Beyond Crawford, the top New England prospect entering the 2022 draft is Adonys Garcia of the Brunswick School, an elite defensive catcher with a commitment to Boston College. He could go on the first day of the draft. Other names to note include Luke Gold of BC and pitchers Cam Schlittler and Sebastian Keane from Northeastern. Keane, a North Andover native, was drafted by the Sox in the 11th round in 2019 draft but declined the team’s above-slot offer to go to school . . . The Red Sox will resurrect their Rookie Development Program this year, but the format will be changed because of the ongoing lockout that prevents the team from working with (or contacting) members of its 40-man roster and logistical alterations necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past, the program took near-big-league-ready players and had them meet and work out with coaches and team officials in Boston. But with COVID infections raging, the team will instead assemble 25-30 minor leaguers in Fort Myers, Fla., in late January for on-field work with coaches. Unless the lockout ends, no one from the 40-man roster is allowed, meaning that Jeter Downs, Jay Groome, and Josh Winckowski, among others, would not participate. The invited group will include mostly players who finished last year in High A or above, though 2021 first-rounder Marcelo Mayer will join the likes of top prospects Triston Casas and Nick Yorke. The group is expected to stay in Fort Myers straight into the start of minor league camp in early March . . . The Puerto Rican Winter League concluded its regular season. Christian Vázquez appeared in nine games for Santurce, splitting his time between first base and DH. He hit .161/.212/.323. Vázquez’s Santurce squad is facing off against the Caguas Criollos in the playoff semifinals this weekend. The longtime Sox player is up against a team managed by Red Sox first base coach Ramón Vázquez, whose bench coach is Sox scout Edgar Perez . . . Righthander Thaddeus Ward, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery he underwent last June, is throwing at 90 feet as he continues his rehab . . . Among the handful of Red Sox minor league free agent signings this offseason, the team re-signed Michael Gettys, who was in big league camp last year as an outfielder. But his re-signing came as a pitcher, as Gettys converted to the mound late in 2021 . . . Happy 38th birthday, Jon Lester (Jan. 7). This year marks the 20th since the Red Sox nabbed him in the second round of the 2002 draft. In 16 big league seasons, Lester is 200-117 with a 3.66 ERA in 2,740 innings with five All-Star Game selections and three World Series rings. Only one active player has (or, more accurately, will have) more rings: Pablo Sandoval, who has three rings from his time with the Giants and should get one from Atlanta, with whom he spent the first half of the 2021 season before being dealt to Cleveland at the deadline for postseason hero Eddie Rosario.

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him @alexspeier.