ORLANDO – After a dismal 2014 season, the Red Sox decided they needed to upgrade their power and deepen their lineup. After a season that saw just 11 players hitting 30 homers (the fewest in a non-strike season since 1992) and with a shallow free agent class, they spent heavily to add third baseman Pablo Sandoval and ready-to-move-off-of-shortstop Hanley Ramirez on long-term deals. It proved a bad time to try to address a glaring deficiency.
This offseason, the Red Sox once again find themselves in the market for power after they finished last in the American League in homers. This time, the landscape is more promising to address such a need.
Last season, 41 players hit at least 30 homers, the most since 2001. Of those 41, four – J.D. Martinez (45), Logan Morrison (83), Jay Bruce (36), and Lucas Duda (30) – are free agents. Others such as Giancarlo Stanton and his 59 homers along with Jose Abreu and his 33 are available via trade.
The Red Sox have options. So who is their ideal target? Here’s a look at the pros and cons of some of the players who seem best-suited to help the Red Sox address their 2017 power outage:
Four general managers surveyed as to whether they’d prefer to have Stanton, Hosmer, or Martinez all made clear that – contract considerations notwithstanding – they’d want Stanton. One said he was a clear grade above Martinez and Hosmer in terms of his impact on a team thanks to his “unbelievable power.”
The man hit 59 homers, including 33 in 73 games after the All-Star break. He demolished lefties (.323/.449/.764) and righties (.270/.354/.596). While his power stands out as unrivaled by anyone save for Aaron Judge, one GM noted the strides he made in his overall offensive approach, evident in his career-low 23.6 percent strikeout rate.. At age 28, his offensive decline doesn’t appear imminent.
He’s also a fantastic athlete who graded as an above-average defensive right fielder. As a result, he stood head-and-shoulders above the rest of the group in overall value, posting 6.9 Wins Above Replacement, fourth in the big leagues.
CONS: Stanton is still owed $295 million over 10 years. Given that Stanton has played in 125 or more games just twice in the last six years, the risk in his deal is obvious.
It’s worth noting that Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski once committed to keeping Miguel Cabrera in a Detroit uniform for 10 years at a cost of $292 million.
Cabrera offers a reminder of the potentially devastating impact of a long-term commitment to a superstar. He hit just .249/.329/.399 with 16 homers in 130 games at age 34 last year – at a time when he has six years left on his deal. There’s a good chance that Detroit will be trying to build its next winning team in spite of rather than around him.
See also: Pujols, Albert, who finished last in the majors with a -2.0 WAR and has four expensive years remaining on his deal with the Angels. Ten-year commitments – even for superstars – can devastate an organization’s flexibility for years.
That said, if the Marlins are willing to pay some of the obligation to Stanton – a subsidy that would diminish his luxury tax hit – he could represent excellent short-term bang for the buck that would balance out some of the long-term risks of assuming his contract.
The Sox would also have to trade players to land Stanton from the Marlins. Dombrowski suggested that after two winters of dealing young talent for Craig Kimbrel, Chris Sale, and Tyler Thornburg, the Sox may be nearing a point where it behooves them to hold onto their young players.
Stanton might not want to come to Boston, and if he doesn’t, he can put the kibosh on a trade. His full no-trade clause allows him to veto any potential deal.
Fenway Park may also be imperfect for the Marlins slugger. Stanton hit six homers with a launch angle under 20 degrees last year; there were just two such homers hit all year at Fenway, where the height of the Green Monster in left and the remoteness of the fence in right make it difficult to go deep without elevating the ball. Stanton might see some homers at Fenway turn to singles. Of course, Stanton’s line drives are of an uncommon sort, with exit velocities that allow them to scream over otherwise imposing landmarks.
PROS: Martinez had a monster finish to 2017 following his trade from the Tigers to the Diamondbacks, hitting .302/.366/.741 with 29 homers in 62 games for Arizona to punctuate a .303/.376/.690 season with 45 longballs. His .690 slugging percentage was the highest in the majors since 2004. As much as 2017 gave Martinez a more prominent place on the baseball map, it continued a four-year run of offensive excellence (.300/.362/.574 while averaging 32 homers).
“J.D.’s been performing since the day we signed him,” said Tigers GM Al Avila. “Every time he’s been healthy, he’s been an outstanding, productive player.”
His numbers against lefties were a joke – a .376/.464/.892 line with 12 homers in 110 plate appearances. And while he might lose some homers to the opposite field down the right field line, Martinez also has fly ball profile that would stand to benefit quite a bit from Fenway’s cozy left field.
As a player who did not receive a qualifying offer (he was ineligible after being traded mid-year), he will cost just money – not trade chips or draft position.
CONS: The 30-year-old might cost a lot of money, with ESPN.com reporting he is believed to be seeking a deal in the $200 million range.
While few believe he’ll get to such a mark, if he comes near it, then the financial gap between Martinez and Stanton would narrow considerably – particularly if the Marlins would subsidize a deal.
For example, if Martinez signs a six-year, $140 million deal, and Miami pays off $50 million of Stanton’s contract, then Stanton would actually represent a smaller luxury tax salary – approximately $20 million a year – than Martinez’s $23.3 million.
Martinez has also played more than 125 games just once in a big league season, having been limited to 120 games in 2016 due to a broken elbow and 119 games this year after opening the season on the disabled list because of a severe ankle sprain. Those injuries both came while playing in the outfield, but the Sox are capable of minimizing such risks by having him serve as a designated hitter.
“Both times have been freaky plays, nothing that you can say that he’s not a strong-bodied player,” said Avila. “None of those are injuries I’d be concerned about. He’s a stud.”
Martinez also strikes out at a higher rate (a career-high 26.2 percent in 2017) than the other potential middle-of-the-order options, a deficiency that could be amplified as his bat speed slows with age, particularly in the latter half of his next contract. Moreover, his value is tied almost solely to his bat. If he’s not a designated hitter, he’s limited to a corner outfield spot, with advanced metrics pegging him as well below average.
PROS: “He can’t play. He’s not very good. Boston shouldn’t be interested in him,” said Royals GM Dayton Moore.
Moore – who would love to keep Hosmer in Kansas City – was kidding, of course. On the cusp of free agency, Hosmer picked a great time to have a career year, posting his highest average (.318), OBP (.385), and slugging percentage (.498) while matching a career-high in homers (25). He excelled against righties (.335/.410/.528) while holding his own against lefties (.284/.327/.433).
Hosmer also played all 162 games, the fourth time in five years that he’d played in at least 158 contests. That ability to stay on the field is no small consideration, because the durability and defense that helped Hosmer to his fourth Gold Glove at first base also allowed him to post a higher WAR (4.1) than Martinez (3.8). And there’s more.
“Hos is an unbelievable person: great in the clubhouse, great in the community, competitor on the field, and the best characteristic he has is he’ll show up each and every day to help in all phases of the game,” said Moore. “He’ll do something each and every night to help a team win, whether it’s run the bases, make a play, make a pick – he makes in-game adjustments, has the ability to handle the ball away from him when he so desires, he’s incredible at studying pitchers, he has the ability to hunt pitches and sit on pitches. There’s a lot of ingredients that make up Eric Hosmer. I can’t say enough wonderful things about him.”
Hosmer would add to the infield defense, whereas signing Martinez would require the Sox to move Hanley Ramirez to first base – a defensive downgrade from Mitch Moreland – in order to free the DH spot for Martinez.
As a young player who served as the clubhouse anchor of a championship Royals team, Hosmer could represent a valuable personality to add to the Red Sox’ young core.
CONS: Hosmer isn’t the prototype power hitter embodied by Stanton or Martinez, with GMs describing him as being a completely different type of hitter than those two mashers. Of course, his hitting style arguably represents one of choice.
“He understands his approach,” said Moore. “Eric Hosmer is capable of hitting a lot more homers if he wants to, but he prides himself on being a high-average hitter and centering the ball in a lot of different parts of the strike zone, getting on base, taking his walks. If you were looking for Eric Hosmer to just go up and hit 40 home runs, he could do it, but it would probably take away from other aspects of his game, and that’s not who he is. He’s a very balanced and complete player who is capable of carrying a team.”
While it’s possible to point out that his power may have been suppressed because he played in a cavernous park in Kansas City, Hosmer actually had a higher slugging mark and OPS at home than on the road this year.
While he has an all-fields approach and an ability to drive the ball to left-center that does seem made for Fenway, he had one of the highest ground ball rates in the majors (55.6 percent of balls in play), a pattern that makes it difficult to take advantage of Boston’s cozy dimensions.
Because Kansas City extended a qualifying offer to Hosmer, the Sox would lose their second-round pick and $500,000 in next year’s international bonus pool if they signed him.