Houston should have a problem. For that matter, so should the Dodgers.
The Astros saw shortstop Carlos Correa depart this winter in free agency, leaving for Minnesota on a three-year, $105.3 million deal that included two opt-outs. Shortstop Corey Seager left Los Angeles for a 10-year, $325 million deal with the Rangers.
Yet at a time when Red Sox fans have already started a campaign to ensure that Xander Bogaerts doesn’t leave after the 2022 season — “re-sign Xan-der” chants echoed at Fenway just before the shortstop homered Monday — no one has blinked an eye in LA or Houston about the departure of homegrown shortstops who were key contributors to titles.
“If there has [been blowback], it is not something that I’ve experienced personally,” said Astros general manager James Click. “We have a great fan base here and they love their players. They loved Correa and they wanted to keep him. But we have tried to make it clear to our fans here that our priority is winning. We would love to win and keep everybody together. But sometimes you have to make a difficult decision to move on in order to try to keep that championship window open as long as you possibly can.”
The post-Seager Dodgers entered the weekend with the best record in the National League. The Astros likewise led the American League West, with hopes of sustaining a stretch that has seen them reach the ALCS in five straight seasons and advance to the World Series three times.
The top-end talent exodus from the Astros over the last three years is startling. Gerrit Cole (nine years, $324 million to the Yankees after 2019), George Springer (six years, $150 million to the Blue Jays after 2020), and Correa are all gone.
“This team has produced an amazing amount of talent,” said Click. “And a lot of it is not here in Houston anymore.”
For many organizations, that diaspora would mark the closing of a contention window and the start of a rebuild. For the Astros and Dodgers, turnover even of top-end talent has become common practice. How?
First, it’s worth noting that the Dodgers and Astros — both of whom perennially carry two of the largest payrolls in the game — tried to retain Seager and Correa, but were outbid once those players reached the open market. The departures of those shortstops underscore the difficulty of keeping franchise players once they reach free agency.
There have been 57 free agents to sign deals that came with guarantees of at least $100 million, according to the MLBTradeRumors.com transaction database. Of those, just six re-signed with the teams with whom they’d spent their walk year.
Each of the 12 free agents signed to deals of at least $100 million in the last two offseasons has gone to a new club. In other words, no matter how much the Red Sox say they would like to retain Bogaerts, if he reaches free agency, precedent suggests the odds of doing so are low. (Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman further underscores the point.)
The limits defined by the Dodgers and Astros in negotiations with their shortstops reflected the fact that both believed they had ready fallback options. The Dodgers added Trea Turner at last year’s trade deadline; Seager’s departure allowed him to move from second back to short, while committing to Gavin Lux at second. The Astros had Jeremy Peña, a 2018 third-rounder out of the University of Maine, ready to step in for Correa at short.
“You have to find players who were not first-round picks or top-of-the-first-round picks and develop them into quality major leaguers,” said Click. “We have been very fortunate that we have had players ready to step up at the positions that we needed them. Had we not, I think we would have been engaged in different parts of the market or trades.”
The Red Sox’ decision to sign Trevor Story provided some semblance of a fallback plan should Bogaerts depart, though there are questions about whether multiple elbow strains have made Story better suited for second base. Meanwhile, Sox top prospect Marcelo Mayer remains years away from the big leagues. There’s no Peña-like option available to replace Bogaerts.
It’s also worth noting that while the Dodgers and Astros have accepted partial core turnover as part of their way of doing business — unlike the Sox in the tenure of chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom — they’ve found ways of extending or re-signing some of their best players.
The Dodgers have re-signed Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner multiple times on relatively short-term deals. The Astros have extended José Altuve (five years, $151 million), Alex Bregman (five years, $100 million), Lance McCullers (five years, $85 million), and Justin Verlander (extending him once, then re-signing him as a free agent).
Perhaps most importantly, both franchises have hit on buy-low position players from other organizations who became stars — Chris Taylor and Max Muncy in LA, Yordan Alvarez for Houston — while building incredible homegrown pitching pipelines that have stabilized the team through times of change.
The ability to turn pitching into a low-cost, renewable resource driven by homegrown pitchers has not only allowed the teams to let some stars walk, but has afforded them the payroll freedom to make other commitments.
For the Dodgers, that’s meant adding players such as Mookie Betts and Freeman in addition to retaining Turner, Kershaw, and Taylor. For the Astros, it’s allowed for the retention of Altuve, Bregman, Verlander, and others to extend their core’s championship aspirations.
“A lot of good players have left,” said Astros outfielder Michael Brantley, “but a lot of players have stepped up. We’re still maturing as a team [in 2022]. I think that’s the scary part. I still think we can be better.”
MANAGING QUITE WELL
Baker adjusts to the times
Upon hearing that Red Sox manager Alex Cora foreswore the possibility of managing for 25 years, Astros manager Dusty Baker, who is helming a team for the 25th season, chuckled.
“I didn’t know I’d do it, either,” said the 72-year-old Baker. “I didn’t even want to do it in the first place. I was kind of chosen for this and this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Indeed. Baker recently surpassed 2,000 regular-season wins and ranks ninth all-time.
In the 29 years since the Giants hired him, Baker has seen the job description change considerably. As much as the competition and connections with players feel familiar, decision-making autonomy has evaporated.
“People ask me, ‘Do I have power?’ I have power, but I don’t have the authority to exert that power in decision-making,” said Baker. “There are a lot more people in the decision-making. But the same person still has to justify [an organizational decision] and talk about it. I don’t have the same autonomy I had, the same voice.”
The influence of data-driven decision-making is also radically different. Baker, who was planning to work as a stockbroker, said that he’s always welcomed statistics as part of his process but feels the game no longer adequately balances makeup considerations with numbers.
“I love equations. I love the math of baseball. I always have,” he said. “But the game’s become more dehumanized, run on numbers only. It should be a combination. Now, the numbers have taken over.”
Baker said that the media obligations — and the speed with which a verbal misstep can turn into a career-ending faux pas — are likewise aspects of the modern managerial job that he does not relish. But the chance to be in the dugout and compete with his players remains invigorating.
“I love it when I see the progress of the players and the fact that some of them are going to be economically independent for themselves and their families. [But] what I really like is once the national anthem is sung, those three hours of the game,” said Baker. “I’ve always loved the game. I love it a lot. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
When, what for Sale?
Chris Sale is again throwing on flat ground, starting his third build-up toward the season after having been stalled by a rib stress fracture in late February and a non-baseball, non-COVID medical issue this month.
Whereas Sale and the Red Sox had initially hoped for a return to the rotation at the beginning of June, a mid-July return now seems more likely. Is it possible that he could come back in a bullpen role, something that could accelerate his rehab timetable?
“I don’t have an answer . . . We haven’t gotten that far yet,” said Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush. “Once he is facing hitters and building up his innings, then we’ll have a deeper discussion about what role he can handle and what suits him and us best at that point in time. There’s a lot of factors that we still don’t know.”
That said, while that view doesn’t rule out a bullpen role for Sale, to date the team has only discussed a starting role as he progresses in his rehab.
Other Red Sox notes:
▪ Bush saw a bit of history repeating this past week when Nate Eovaldi allowed five homers in the second inning of his start against the Astros. On April 22, 2006, Bush was the beneficiary when five Brewers teammates homered in the fourth inning of an 11-0 win in which he threw a shutout.
▪ The Red Sox’ recent strong stretch, which brought them within four games of the third wild-card spot entering the weekend, underscores that it’s premature for the team to commit to going into sell mode. Still, other teams are already imagining the caliber of players, particularly short-term rentals on the cusp of free agency, who could become available from the Sox.
Xander Bogaerts represents a special case, given the organization’s oft-stated hopes of retaining him, the fact that he has a no-trade clause, and the fact that he has an opt-out rather than a clear path to free agency. But if the Sox do fall out of contention by July, in an offense-starved landscape, J.D. Martinez could emerge as one of the most prominent trade targets in the game.
A year ago, the Twins sent designated hitter Nelson Cruz to the Rays for starter Joe Ryan, who has emerged as an anchor (4-2, 2.39 ERA, 24 percent strikeout rate in seven starts) for first-place Minnesota. Ryan thus represents a baseline expectation for the sort of trade return the Sox could seek for Martinez. Eovaldi’s value is complicated by his uneven start and vulnerability to homers, but one evaluator suggested he could still fetch a pair of solid prospects (perhaps one in the top 150 or so), while another noted that his trade value could shift drastically depending on whether he looks like a top-of-the-rotation or No. 4 starter at the deadline.
Kiké Hernández (based on his standout defense, versatility, and potential to go on a tear), Christian Vázquez, and Matt Strahm were identified by evaluators as rentals who would likely garner interest.
That said, at this early stage of the season, it’s possible that the Sox will retain their rentals and emerge as buyers while trying to make a playoff push.
▪ Astros outfielder Michael Brantley keeps quietly chugging as one of the best pure hitters of the last decade, and one whose ability to use all fields has made him a force at Fenway. Brantley owns a career .366 average at Fenway (second among active players with at least 100 plate appearances) and .962 OPS (seventh).
Did the Red Sox ever contact the 35-year-old in his last foray into free agency in the winter of 2020-21, before he re-signed with the Astros on a two-year, $32 million deal?
“Not that I was aware of,” said Brantley. “[But] I’ve always had the utmost respect for that organization. I’ve always said this is my favorite road city to play in, the atmosphere. Playing here my first time in 2009 was something special that I’ll never forget.”
▪ Trade pitchers to the Rays at your own peril, Lesson No. 1,326: Jeffrey Springs, whom the Red Sox sent to Tampa Bay along with Chris Mazza in February 2021 in exchange for minor league catcher Ronaldo Hernández and infielder Nick Sogard, has moved to the Rays’ rotation. Springs is 1-1 with a 1.66 ERA. He induces a lot of swings on pitches out of the zone, resulting in strikeouts and terrible contact. Mazza’s been an up-and-down depth contributor. Hernández has made some strides defensively since joining the Sox, but is hitting .119/.140/.202 with two walks and 37 strikeouts in 87 plate appearances for Triple A Worcester and he’s out of options after this year.
The emergence of the Astros’ Jeremy Peña, a 24-year-old out of Providence and the University of Maine, as the early AL Rookie of the Year is astonishing. In three seasons for the Black Bears, who were drawn initially to his standout defensive abilities, he never hit more than six homers. He already has seven in 33 games for the Astros, including one on the first pitch he saw at Fenway Park on Tuesday. He’s been unfazed by replacing Carlos Correa. “I’d love to say he’s surprising me with what he’s doing. But he’s not. I always thought the world of his talent. And I don’t think he’s surprising himself,” said Maine coach Nick Derba, who noted that Peña always showed an ability to get the barrel to the ball and that he simply needed to gain strength in college and pro ball. “He was the best player on the field every single day [in college] and he outworked everybody” . . . A combination of factors — warmer weather, decreased roster sizes, hitters gaining their timing — appears to be contributing to an uptick in offense. In April, hitters posted a .231/.307/.369 line with a 23 percent strikeout rate. Entering Friday, those numbers had increased in May to .240/.308/.390 with a 22 percent strikeout rate . . . The Red Sox Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be held at Fenway for the first time Thursday. The Class of 2020 — David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Rich Gedman, and the late Bill Dinneen (hero of the first World Series), as well as former GM Dan Duquette (who signed Ramirez) — will be honored. Tickets are available at redsox.com/fenwayhonors . . . Happy 79th birthday, Walt Hriniak. The Natick native spent 12 seasons on the Red Sox coaching staff (1977-88). Carl Yastrzemski, Wade Boggs, Carlton Fisk, and Dwight Evans — among many others — cited Hriniak’s influence in their success. Frank Thomas did the same in recognition of his time working with Hriniak with the White Sox . . . And happy 49th birthday, Julián Tavárez, a one-of-a-kind personality who also spent three years as a Swiss Army knife for the Red Sox pitching staff, most notably as a swingman in the 2007 championship season.