This is how messed up the Red Sox are right now, the most blatant reminder yet of the daunting task facing new baseball boss Chaim Bloom as he tries to restore this roster to contender status while pruning payroll.
J.D. Martinez decided not to opt out of his contract Monday, the deadline for him to do so. Instead, the 32-year-old designated hitter will remain with the Red Sox, with three years and $62.5 million remaining on the deal he signed before the 2018 season.
We will do this dance again next year, when another opt out kicks in. But for this year, the Red Sox retain a model professional at his craft who has averaged roughly 40 homers and 120 runs batted in and posted a .317/.392/.593 slash line during his two seasons with the franchise.
Martinez choosing to remain with the Red Sox should be great news.
Yet, because of financial circumstances, we’re not sure if it’s even good news . . . and we’re pretty sure it’s not.
If you’ve been paying attention — and hopefully making clear to the Red Sox how ridiculous all of this is — you know what I’m getting at. The mildly surprising return of Martinez (and his $23.75 million salary in 2020) makes management’s acknowledged quest to get payroll below $208 million and reset the luxury tax penalties even more of a challenge.
His decision to come back makes it all the more likely that Mookie Betts will be traded.
One great player’s decision to stay means an even better one may go. This isn’t how this is supposed to work for the Boston Red Sox.
Here’s what should happen for the Red Sox in 2020: Martinez should team up with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and Betts — who were fourth, fifth, and tied for seventh in offensive WAR in the American League last season — to form the most menacing core of any lineup in baseball.
Bloom, who drew rave reviews for his ability to identify unheralded talent during his time with the Rays, should be looking to piece together at least two spots in the rotation, a couple of gigs in the bullpen, and perhaps the first and second base positions with low-cost capable or promising players.
He’ll do some of this even without moving on from a high-priced star, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with on the bargain end of things. I suspect he’ll find a new fan favorite or two that we’ve barely heard of, like Kevin Millar/Mark Bellhorn/Bill Mueller back in Theo Epstein’s heyday.
But if the Red Sox are indeed hell-bent on resetting the luxury tax penalties — a perfectly reasonable practice so long as it doesn’t cost you a 27-year-old five-tool outfielder who does everything right — Bloom would be wise to find a way to move on from at least part of the $292 million (at a minimum) they have left to pay David Price, Chris Sale, and Nathan Eovaldi. Actually, that wouldn’t be wise. It would be more like a miracle. Let’s see how good you are, kid.
Betts should be the tipping point when he comes to the quest to reset. If that means trading him to do so, you simply do not do it this year. You wait to see how his contract situation — he’s a free agent after this season — plays out. Trading him for “prospects” with a year left on his deal and a stated goal of hitting the free agent market is not going to bring a major haul, though it might get a couple of intriguing pieces for when the Pawtucket Red Sox move to Worcester in 2021.
These prospects — and the name Baseball America junkies keep throwing at me is Cristian Pache, a 20-year-old Braves phenom who hit 12 homers with an .802 OPS across two levels last season — will never be what Betts is now. You can argue no player to emerge from the Red Sox farm system in the draft era has been the complete player that Betts is, which is a heck of a statement considering home-grown legends Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk, and Wade Boggs are in the Hall of Fame and Dwight Evans ought to be soon.
It’s become trendy to suggest trading Betts is akin to the Nationals letting Bryce Harper walk, then going on to win the World Series. There are some parallels, if you see Devers as Juan Soto and Bogaerts as Anthony Rendon. And the Nats did labor through the start of the season in a way similar to the Red Sox before getting their act together, something their AL counterpart never did.
But there are a couple of huge differences. The Nats have Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer fronting their rotation, and they used the Harper savings to drop six years and $140 million on Patrick Corbin. You know what the Red Sox would do with their Betts savings? Save it.
Also: Betts isn’t Harper. He’s far superior. Harper has had one season with more WAR than 4.6. Betts has never had less than 5.9 WAR in his five full seasons. One is close to Mike Trout, the other closer to Tim Salmon.
The Red Sox theoretically could trade Martinez, though he’ll have teams on his no-trade list that make that difficult. We shouldn’t settle for this as an alternative, anyway. The Red Sox should enter next season with Martinez and Betts and Devers and Bogaerts. With that quartet, a few savvy moves from the new guy in charge, and some change of fortune with the staff’s most accomplished and expensive pitchers, the Red Sox might just prove that the uninspiring 2019 season was an aberration.
Trading Betts in part because Martinez stayed would be one lousy and backward way to let us know things will be better in ’20.