SAN DIEGO — The Red Sox’ road to a 2020 team comes with a disclaimer: “Some assembly required.”
Last winter, they had all but concluded the shaping of their roster by the time they arrived to the Winter Meetings, re-signing Nate Eovaldi and Steve Pearce, and trading for Colten Brewer.
This year, with a far more complicated set of instructions, that breakneck pace of team-building seems like an approach from a distant past. The Red Sox are in a strangely fluid state that offers little more than guesswork about what course they might chart.
Save perhaps for Rafael Devers — who combines the trifecta of being very young, very cheap, and very good — it wouldn’t be a shock to see anyone on the roster traded.
Right now, there is no need for an outfielder, but there would be if the Sox trade Mookie Betts or Jackie Bradley Jr. or Andrew Benintendi. Right now, they have four starters under team control, but with the possibility that another vacancy could open if they deal David Price or Chris Sale or Eovaldi.
Might they trade a young player or prospect — say, Benintendi or Michael Chavis or Bobby Dalbec — to entice a team to give back more talent or absorb more money on one of their pitchers’ deals? And if so, could the Red Sox end up having to find both a first baseman and a second baseman?
How much money will the Sox have to address potential needs? That, too, is in flux, since the team’s financial flexibility is likely dependent upon trading at least one player, and more likely multiple players, to clear payroll. Are the Red Sox confident that they’ll move one or more of their more expensive players?
“Hard to handicap right now,” said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “I wouldn’t want to venture a guess.”
Even with that hesitancy, Bloom said the organization still hopes to shed enough salary to get under the $208 million luxury tax threshold, which he believes is “certainly a realistic goal, though obviously we’re not there right now and there’s a lot of potential paths you could line up to get us there.”
Yet those paths are not direct lines from A to B, nor are they as simple as identifying one or two missing pieces of a puzzle. Instead, they’ll need to be created by an entire set of gears of varying sizes that need to interlock. Each transaction seemingly necessitates the choice of an entirely different set of corresponding gears to create the right fit.
“I think when you’re building a 26-man roster, I don’t think anything truly exists in a vacuum,” said Bloom. “Some things that we might discuss or contemplate are more free-standing, so to speak, than some other moves or sequences.”
The number of possibilities is potentially dizzying, particularly given the interconnected nature of what the team is trying to do. Even a player who would appear to be a natural fit for what the Red Sox are trying to do — free agent infielder Travis Shaw, for instance, who is on the open market after being non-tendered by the Brewers last week — likely can’t be signed until the team first makes moves to clear payroll and create an available budget.
It’s a complicated dance. Those around the Sox continually speak of the efforts to be creative and remain open-minded, while thinking comprehensively about the entire 40-man roster. That broad focus suggests that virtually no one is off-limits.
The Red Sox — unsurprisingly, given the background of Bloom in Tampa Bay — are open for business.
The 2019 Rays had 13 position players with at least 200 plate appearances. Ten of those were acquired via trade. The team’s pitching staff was far more homegrown, though several of its key members were likewise acquired via trade.
Trades were the central mechanism of the Rays’ team-building-on-a-budget model, and they’ll again have to anchor the Red Sox’ entwined efforts to build a competitive team in 2020 while also forging one that is financially leaner.
“I think trades sometimes provide just more possibilities, because there are obviously 29 other clubs,” said Bloom. “People see the world differently. Everybody sees players a little differently.
“On top of that, the differences in what teams are trying to accomplish, you try to turn that into something that can help your club, so it does give you the opportunity to advance your goals much more dramatically just because of how people are seeing the world differently.”
As an organization, the Red Sox certainly seem to see the world differently than they did in the last few offseasons, a fact that has created a different kind of blueprint and pace for what is taking place.
A team whose winter work was all but done by this point in three of the last four years is now instead still trying to carefully line up dominoes, before toppling the one that sets all others in motion.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com.