Once again, the Red Sox missed out in the José Abreu sweepstakes.
Just over nine years after the Red Sox were outbid by the White Sox on a six-year deal for the slugging first baseman, they lost out to the Astros for the services of the soon-to-be 36-year-old, who signed a three-year, $58.5 million deal with Houston.
According to Jon Heyman of the New York Post (via Twitter), “Abreu was Boston’s No. 1 outside target” in free agency.
Abreu, who hit .304 with a .378 on-base percentage and .446 slugging percentage for the White Sox last season, would have represented a good lineup and organizational fit for the Red Sox in a number of ways. Though he hit a career-low 15 homers in 2022 (down from an average of 28 in his first eight seasons), Abreu regularly smoked the ball.
He posted a 92.2 m.p.h. average exit velocity (14th in MLB and second to Aaron Judge among available free agents). He also had a career-low 16.2 percent strikeout rate while maintaining a high walk rate (9.1 percent), contributing to one of the highest averages in the AL and a career-high OBP that was accompanied by 40 doubles.
“Even though the power might have been below his historic pace that he was on in terms of 30/100 production at the start of his career, he still found a way to be productive — probably taking the ball the other way a little more, taking what the pitcher was giving him,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said recently.
“You’re going to be hard-pressed to find anyone who spent a portion of the last nine years around José Abreu who’s not going to be singing his praises.”
The Abreu checklist of attributes — bat-to-ball skills, plate discipline, and righthanded thump — for a lineup whose foremost current extra-base-hit threats are lefthanded is considerable.
Moreover, he likely represented the best hitter in the free agent class who won’t receive a $100 million-plus deal, and because he did not receive a qualifying offer, signing him wouldn’t have required the sacrifice of draft picks. He profiled as a player the Sox could have afforded to sign while also having the budget to re-sign Xander Bogaerts and/or extend Rafeal Devers.
So, given the report of the Sox’ interest in Abreu, it’s worth asking: Is there a comparable player remaining in this year’s free agent class?
Here’s a look at possible righthanded fallback options:
⋅ Mitch Haniger: He hits the ball hard (91.9 m.p.h average exit velocity in 2022) and pulls fly balls, a good combination for Fenway Park. Though he has dealt with numerous injuries, he has been at least an above-average hitter when in the lineup, and at times a star.
He hit .246/.308/.429 with 11 homers and a 114 OPS+ in 57 games in 2022 after posting marks of .253/.318/.485 with 39 homers in 157 games in 2021. Haniger, who turns 32 next month, spent the last two years in right field but could play both outfield corners and DH.
⋅ Justin Turner: The offseason following 2013 featured a pair of near-misses for the Sox. They entered the blind bid for Abreu but fell just short of the White Sox, and they were on the cusp of signing Turner to a minor league deal before his hometown Dodgers swooped in with a major league offer. Both became cornerstone stars.
Turner is now in gradual decline, but he remains a very, very good hitter. He hit .278/.350/.438 (116 OPS+) last season, including a .319/.384/.503 line in the last two months. And while he chiefly has played third base, he has some experience at first.
He puts the ball in play (16.7 percent strikeout rate in 2022), takes walks with a disciplined approach, pulls pitches in the air, wouldn’t require the sacrifice of draft picks, and at 38 wouldn’t be looking for a long-term deal.
Of course, as one of the central figures of the Dodgers’ excellence the last several years, there’s also a good chance he returns to Los Angeles.
⋅ Josh Bell: He is coming off an All-Star campaign in which he hit .266/.362/.422 with the Nationals and Padres, continuing a four-year stretch in which he has been a power-hitting force who limits his strikeouts and takes a lot of walks.
Because he was traded mid-year, he doesn’t have a qualifying offer attached, and he fits the first base/DH profile that Abreu could have addressed.
Two caveats: While Bell is a switch hitter with plenty of all-fields power, as a righthanded hitter, he mostly hit ground balls when pulling the ball. When he drove the ball in the air, it was to right and center — an imperfect fit for Fenway. Moreover, his exit velocity plummeted from a career-high 92.5 in 2021 to 88.9 in 2022.
⋅ Trey Mancini: He was hitting .268/.347/.404 (113 OPS+) with the Orioles before posting a .176/.258/.364 line down the stretch after a trade to the Astros. Still, he ended the year with an offensive profile fairly similar to that of J.D. Martinez, and he pulls the ball in the air in a way that would play well at Fenway. He could play first base and both corner outfield spots.
⋅ J.D. Martinez: Speaking of Martinez, though the Red Sox didn’t make him a $19.65 million qualifying offer based on the near-certainty that he’d accept it, a major league source suggested that they haven’t completely ruled out a reunion at a lower salary.
Like Bell, Martinez saw his exit velocity nosedive last year (from 92.1 to 89.1). But his strikeout and walk rates remained stable, and he barreled the ball as well as any free agent save for Judge.
The 2022 season certainly felt like a swan song for Martinez in Boston, and as the season progressed, the Sox seemed inclined to carve out a future with a DH who also would represent a positional option. Still, never say never.