Change arrived with the force of a wrecking ball, the agreement to send Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers shaking up the Red Sox franchise. Pending the medical evaluations on the five players involved in Tuesday’s three-team trade, the Red Sox will part with one of the most dynamic players in franchise history, along with a pitcher who, while increasingly injury-prone, was a rotation anchor when healthy not only in the championship run of 2018 but also through the first half of 2019.
So what now? This was a deal made not with 2020 but with a longer-term view in mind, the Sox trading a superstar who was one year from a foray into free agency for players who are talented, risky, inexpensive, and under control for several years (outfielder Alex Verdugo and righthander Brusdar Graterol).
How is the Red Sox roster positioned for 2020? In a word: Incomplete. In more words, incomplete, and with a dwindling amount of time to take full shape. Here’s a reassessment of the team in light of the deal:
■ Plenty of cash . . . but nothing left to buy?
Assuming the trade goes through, the Sox payroll will sit a bit under $190 million — about $18 million under the luxury-tax threshold of $208 million. Even keeping a healthy in-season war chest of $8 million for call-ups, in-season signings, and trades, the Sox still have money to spend.
The problem is that there isn’t a wealth of impact players available in free agency. The remaining starting pitching options are players with uninspiring recent track records (Jason Vargas, Andrew Cashner) or players with injury histories (Taijuan Walker, Clay Buchholz). Likewise, there aren’t many righthanded impact bats to complement the lefthanded skew of the lineup.
If the Red Sox are competing for a wild-card spot at the deadline, then financial flexibility could prove a critical asset in allowing them to address deficiencies. Yet it’s not far-fetched to imagine that the loss of Betts and Price pulls them just far enough away from championship contention that they end up parting with more longtime contributors by July.
■ The rotation
If Chris Sale is healthy, he and Eduardo Rodriguez are formidable anchors atop the rotation. If Nate Eovaldi is healthy, he’s a solid mid-rotation presence. Martin Perez proved durable if unexceptional with the Twins last year, but with some underlying numbers that suggested he pitched better than his 5.12 ERA.
But the Sox now lack a clear fifth starter. They have Hector Velazquez, Ryan Weber, and Brian Johnson as pitchers with big league experience, though all profile better as depth starters than even back-of-the-rotation candidates. Ditto lefthander Kyle Hart, who was added to the 40-man roster this winter.
Graterol, 21, has high-end starter potential, though he needs more time to develop in the minors. Righthander Tanner Houck has a chance to contribute as a big league starter, though his dominance against righties and struggles against lefties suggest a greater likelihood of relieving — at least until he takes more developmental steps in the minors.
Perhaps the Red Sox will employ an opener in the No. 5 spot. Perhaps they’ll try to grab someone from the picked-over pool of free agents. But right now, they have a considerable question mark at the back of their rotation — and their absence of depth (until perhaps Graterol is ready) could be magnified if Sale or Eovaldi gets hurt again.
Despite the gaudy blown saves total of 2019 (31), the bullpen was not a primary concern for the Red Sox entering the winter. Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Darwinzon Hernandez, and Josh Taylor give them late-innings options who get tons of swings and misses. All dominated for stretches of 2019, showing enough to give the Red Sox comfort with their internal options rather than diving into a notoriously volatile bullpen market.
With Marcus Walden and Heath Hembree back, the Sox have rebuilt their bullpen depth through a number of waiver moves and minor trades. They seem more likely to continue to work around the margins of their relief corps, but the group is largely set.
This is unaltered by the trade, with the left side — third baseman Rafael Devers and shortstop Xander Bogaerts — representing one of the team’s foremost strengths. Mitch Moreland is back at first, at least against righties, with Michael Chavis, Jose Peraza, and perhaps Rule 5 draftee Jonathan Arauz slated for multipositional duties. Christian Vazquez and Kevin Plawecki will split duties behind the plate.
How on earth do you replace a perennial All-Star who seemed like a given as one of the top players in the American League every year? Answer: You don’t. You can’t. Instead, the Sox will hope that improvement from multiple players helps offset the loss of Betts.
A great deal will ride on whether Andrew Benintendi can take a step forward. He has All-Star potential, with offensive skills that should at least make him an above-average everyday player, rather than the average level at which he performed for much of last year. If he can look anything like he did in the first half of 2018, it would prove a huge boost to the Red Sox.
Verdugo, meanwhile, will be expected to produce right away and build on his strong performance as a 23-year-old rookie with the Dodgers in 2019, when he looked like an above-average everyday player until his season concluded in early August because of injuries.
The lefthanded Verdugo drives the ball to left field with enough frequency that he looks likely to benefit from Fenway Park and the AL East, with a number of outs turning into doubles and homers.
We have moved beyond the point in Jackie Bradley Jr.’s career where anyone can expect him to leave behind the extreme streakiness that has yielded a roughly average everyday center fielder. That said, last year’s season-opening rut — a .144 average and .421 OPS though mid-May — could be chalked up at least in part to remaking and then relearning his swing. Over the final four-plus months, he hit .252/.342/.504 with 21 homers in 109 games.
If Bradley can shorten his annual offensive trough, it would help diminish the impact of Betts’s absence.
There could be plenty of days when the Red Sox feature an all-lefthanded-hitting outfield of Benintendi in left, Bradley in center, and Verdugo (a strong defender) in right. While J.D. Martinez can contribute as a corner outfielder, the Sox may want to explore the addition of a righthanded-hitting outfielder capable of playing all three spots.
Kevin Pillar and Cameron Maybin are the remaining free agents who fit that description, though other righthanded corner outfielders (Hunter Pence, Yasiel Puig) remain available.
Ultimately, the absence of Betts likely lowers the ceiling of the Sox lineup from great to very good.