The Red Sox aren’t in a rush. With teams treating free agency this year like Black Friday, there is value to patience, to letting the shelves get picked clean before reloading them with a few new items.
As of Tuesday, the Sox weren’t locked into any particular path, continuing discussions about several players with several teams. While Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported Tuesday that the Red Sox and Dodgers had been in contact about Mookie Betts, two major league sources said that the teams hadn’t discussed Betts in any meaningful fashion before leaving San Diego at the end of the Winter Meetings.
For now, Los Angeles appears focused on the potential acquisition of shortstop Francisco Lindor from Cleveland, while the Sox appear to prefer to deal from other parts of the roster — particularly their starting rotation — before they consider trading Betts at a time when his value will be limited because he’s one year from free agency.
But while the Red Sox haven’t made any substantial progress toward a deal, the market for starting pitchers has gained considerable clarity. Gerrit Cole (nine years, $324 million from the Yankees) and Stephen Strasburg (seven years, $245 million from the Nationals) redefined the top of the market. Zack Wheeler (five years, $118 million from the Phillies) offered a glimpse of what a pitcher who is healthy with the stuff — if not the track record — of a No. 2 starter might get.
But in recent days, the value for veteran mid-rotation pitchers — the one that is arguably the most relevant to the Red Sox in their trade conversations — has gained definition. Consider:
Cole Hamels, who turns 36 this month, got a one-year, $18 million deal from the Braves after he went 7-7 with a 3.81 ERA in 141⅔ innings in 2019, his third straight year of mid-rotation performance.
Madison Bumgarner, who is 30, got a five-year, $85 million deal from the Diamondbacks after going 9-9 with a 3.90 ERA in 207⅔ innings in 2019.
Though his performance declined, he showed the ability to remain durable (34 starts) after two years in which he had navigated injuries (38 combined starts in 2017-18).
Corey Kluber, who turns 34 at the start of this coming season, was traded from Cleveland to the Rangers in advance of a year when he’ll make $17.5 million, following an injury-riddled season in which he went 2-3 with a 5.80 ERA in just 35⅔ innings.
It’s hard to forecast what kind of pitcher Kluber will be in 2020: The ace who anchored his rotation from 2014-18, or the non-factor of 2019, so Texas seemed comfortable betting on him as a mid-rotation type.
David Price performed well for the Red Sox for the first half of 2019 (3.24 ERA with strikeout and ground-ball rates that were at or near career highs) before a cyst in the wrist of his throwing hand prevented his typically excellent ability to manipulate the ball and contributed to a 7.88 ERA after the All-Star break. Early-season elbow discomfort and the wrist issue (believed to be isolated rather than chronic) limited him to 107⅓ innings and made it impossible to avoid durability questions.
Even so, he continued to show the ability to perform at a high level with diminished stuff. The industry still regards Price, who turned 34 in August, as belonging in this group of solid veterans — pitchers who can no longer be relied upon to perform as aces but still capable of offering mid-rotation stability.
And the industry has given a clear picture of what such pitchers cost this offseason (in the neighborhood of $17 million to $18 million per year), albeit with varying degrees of caution about the years of risk a team might assume.
In other words, the Sox have a clear indication of the kind of salary relief they might be able to get in a deal involving Price – relief that, by itself, may be inadequate to get the team’s payroll reduced to a point where it can both get under the luxury tax threshold and address other roster needs. (Any subsidy offered by the Sox counts as part of the team’s payroll for CBT purposes.)
But regardless, the goalposts are better defined about what Price might be worth to other teams.
And there is value in clarity — both in the emptying shelves around the Red Sox’ pitchers, and in the prices that they’ve been able to fetch — as the Sox try to chart a challenging course through the coming seasons.
CLARIFICATION: This story was updated to clarify how any money the Sox send to another team in a trade would count for payroll. Regardless of the yearly distribution of a subsidy, it is averaged over the remaining years of the deal to count as part of team payroll. So if the Sox sent $15 million in 2021 and 2022 to a team that acquired David Price for a total of $30 million, the subsidy would count as $10 million against the Red Sox payroll as calculated for luxury tax purposes in 2020, 2021, and 2022.