Red Sox have flexibility to pursue impact move coming out of lockout

The Red Sox made a somewhat surprising run to the ALCS in 2021. They’ve been fairly quiet to this point in the offseason, making a series of low-cost additions on the pitching staff. Yet they could be poised for some more impactful activity once the new collective bargaining agreement is in place.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Chris Sale, LHP: $82M through 2024 (Sale can opt out of final two years and $55M after 2022; contract also contains a 2025 vesting option based on Cy Young voting)
  • Xander Bogaerts, SS: $80M through 2025 (Bogaerts can opt out of final three years and $60M after 2022; contract also contains a 2026 vesting option based on plate appearances)
  • J.D. Martinez, DH: $19.375M through 2022
  • Matt Barnes, RHP: $18.75M through 2023 (including buyout of $8M club option for 2024)
  • Jackie Bradley Jr., CF: $17.5M through 2022 (including buyout of $12M mutual option for 2023)
  • Nathan Eovaldi, RHP: $17M through 2022
  • James Paxton, LHP: $10M through 2023 (deal contains club option for 2023-24; Paxton can exercise 2023 player option if club declines their option)
  • Enrique Hernández, 2B: $8M through 2022
  • Christian Vázquez, C: $7M through 2022
  • Michael Wacha, RHP: $7M through 2022
  • Rich Hill, LHP: $5M through 2022
  • Hirokazu Sawamura, RHP: $2.2M through 2022 (including buyout of $3M club option for 2023)
  • Franchy Cordero, CF: $825K through 2022

Owe $16M to Dodgers as part of David Price trade

Total 2022 commitments: $155M

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Option Decisions

Free Agents

After coming up a couple wins shy of a pennant, the Red Sox opened the winter facing the departure of a few important members of last year’s club. Most notable among them: longtime rotation cog Eduardo Rodríguez and midseason trade pick-up Kyle Schwarber.

Boston expressed interest in retaining both players, but Rodríguez departed fairly quickly. The southpaw signed a five-year deal with the Tigers in the first marquee free agent move of the offseason, leaving the Sox to turn elsewhere for starting pitching. Boston was loosely tied to top-of-the-market options like Robbie Ray and Kevin Gausman, and they reportedly had strong interest in Steven Matz. Yet in all three cases — as with Rodríguez — those hurlers ended up landing multi-year deals elsewhere.

With no long-term rotation deals finalized, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and his front office pivoted to a bulk approach to the pitching staff. Rather than concentrating their resources into a mid-rotation innings eater, the Sox have spread money around on a few lower-cost arms.

They began by inking Michael Wacha to a $7M guarantee, making them the latest team to roll the dice on a hopeful bounceback from the righty. As the lockout neared, Boston reunited with veteran Rich Hill, who’s remarkably coming off his highest innings total since 2007. The Massachusetts native is entering his age-42 campaign, yet he’s continued to produce at an average or better level every season, adding to an incredible late-career renaissance that began in Boston in 2015.

Wacha and Hill are each options for the season-opening starting staff. Boston’s other free agent rotation pickup, James Paxton, is not. He’s still recovering from an April 2021 Tommy John surgery and likely won’t be ready until the middle of the season. Paxton’s a very good pitcher when healthy, though, and for a $10M guarantee, the Sox picked up a two-year club option that could keep him around through 2024.

The Red Sox’s choice to eschew a huge rotation investment minimizes their long-term financial downside, but it’s not without risk in 2022. There’s plenty of upside among Boston’s in-house rotation options, but it’s a high-variance unit. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Chris Sale returns to his ace-caliber form, but it’s tough to treat that as a given after Sale missed most of the past two years recovering from Tommy John surgery. Nathan Eovaldi was excellent last season and could be a high-end #2 behind Sale, but he’s had ups and downs throughout his career. Nick Pivetta has great raw stuff but inconsistent production.

Boston seems comfortable with that volatility. The free agent rotation market has been mostly picked through to this point. There are still some interesting trade possibilities, but it’d register as a bit of a surprise if Boston lands someone like Sonny Gray or Sean Manaea after signing three free agent starters. That’s particularly true given the presence of Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock, each of whom the club will seemingly consider for the rotation mix.

The latter two hurlers might also find themselves in the bullpen. Whitlock, in particular, was downright excellent in shorter stints as a rookie. While he’d had some success as a starter in the minors and has spoken about his desire to land a rotation role, it’s arguable the Sox should keep him in relief.

The late inning mix is uncertain, largely thanks to the second half struggles of Matt Barnes. Signed to a two-year extension after an All-Star first half, Barnes was awful during the season’s final couple months and was left off the initial playoff roster. As he struggled to find his footing, Whitlock emerged as the top late-game option for manager Alex Cora. Getting Barnes back on track is no doubt a key focus for the Boston coaching staff and front office, but it’s tough to pencil him back into a high-leverage role at the moment.

In addition to Barnes’ downturn, the Sox are facing the free agent departures of a few of their most relied-upon relievers. Garrett Richards and Martín Pérez were both kicked to the bullpen midseason after struggling as starters; their contracts have since been bought out. Adam Ottavino hit free agency, as did midseason pickup Hansel Robles. Those aren’t impact arms, and Boston could look to bring one or more back on affordable deals. But it’s a lot of relief innings to potentially walk out the door, and with a high-risk, high-reward rotation, having a reliable bullpen takes on all the more importance.

Some of the Red Sox’s bullpen work may have already been addressed by their rotation signings. Adding enough starters to have the flexibility to use Whitlock and/or Houck later in games helps, and Wacha might eventually be a bullpen option himself. Yet there’s more work to be done, particularly from the right side. Josh Taylor, Darwinzon Hernández and midseason trade acquisition Austin Davis make for a solid trio of southpaws. The right-handed group — likely anchored by Whitlock, Ryan Brasier, Barnes and Hirokazu Sawamura — looks a bit thinner.

At least one big league addition to the mix seems likely, whether via free agency, trade or the Rule 5 draft. Just minutes before the lockout, Bloom told reporters the club was hoping to “add more pitching,” noting that they’d “yet to address (the bullpen) in meaningful fashion.” Kenley Jansen is the biggest-name free agent closer still available, while players like Ryan Tepera and Collin McHugh could step into set-up roles.

Bloom also indicated the Red Sox would like to add a right-handed bat whenever teams are again permitted to make moves. That came on the heels of the club trading away one of their top righty hitters, outfielder Hunter Renfroe. With the transactions freeze fast approaching, Boston sent Renfroe to Milwaukee to bring back Jackie Bradley Jr. and a pair of fairly well-regarded prospects.

The deal, which essentially amounted to taking on a few million dollars in salary to bolster the farm system while parting with Renfroe, registered as a surprise for a win-now Red Sox club. Bradley’s coming off the worst offensive season of any regular in MLB. The front office is no doubt hoping a return to familiar environs can help to reinvigorate his bat, and Bradley’s still a high-end center fielder. But while the front office may not believe the downgrade from Renfroe to Bradley is as significant as their respective 2021 numbers would indicate, it’s unquestionably a blow to the club’s offense.

Renfroe was fifth on the team in park-adjusted hitting last season (minimum 100 plate appearances). His loss, coupled with Schwarber’s potential free agent departure, could make it hard for the Sox to again run out a top-five run scoring unit in 2022. The deal does, however, make for a sizable defensive improvement, much needed for a team that was by far the league’s worst at turning balls in play into outs.

Strong team defenses were behind a lot of the Rays’ success during Bloom’s tenure in the Tampa Bay front office, and it seems that’ll be a priority for his clubs in Boston. That might diminish the possibility of a Schwarber reunion, since he’s a bat-first corner outfielder who struggled to acclimate to first base down the stretch. There’s room on the roster for a position player pickup of some form, though, and there’s enough flexibility that that addition could come in a number of areas.

That’s largely thanks to the presence of utilityman Enrique Hernández, who had an excellent season after signing a two-year deal last winter. Hernández is a plus defensive option at a number of positions, and his ability to bounce between the infield and outfield serves the front office well. If the Red Sox add an outfielder from outside the organization (or re-sign Schwarber), then they’d have that player, top prospect Jarren Duran, Alex Verdugo and Bradley as options on the grass. Hernández, meanwhile, could slide to second base, where there’s not a whole lot of certainty internally. Alternatively, Boston could acquire a second baseman (the Mets are reportedly likely to make Jeff McNeil available, to name one speculative possibility) and rely on Hernández primarily in center with Bradley pushed into fourth outfield duty.

It’s also worth mentioning the possibility of the Red Sox going all out for one of the two remaining star free agent shortstops. Reports have tied Boston to each of Carlos Correa and Trevor Story this winter, and owner John Henry has shown a willingness to make a significant splash in years past.

Boston certainly doesn’t need a shortstop. Xander Bogaerts is one of the sport’s best players, and the Sox could feel good about him keeping the job entering the season. He can opt out of his current contract at the end of next season, though, and Boston could see a Correa or Story signing as a way to preemptively guard against Bogaerts’ possible departure (as the Dodgers did in acquiring Trea Turner with Corey Seager’s free agency looming).

Signing Correa or Story could push Bogaerts over to second base. While he’s an excellent hitter, Bogaerts hasn’t rated highly as a defender in the eyes of most public advanced metrics. A move to the keystone could help address Boston’s aforementioned team-wide defensive issues, particularly if the Red Sox signed the Gold Glove-winning Correa. (Advanced metrics have been mixed on Story, who has a strong glove and range but has had some issues with throwing errors in recent years).

As things currently stand, Hernández and Christian Arroyo look like the favorites for playing time at second base. Prospect Jeter Downs was added to the 40-man roster and might factor into the mix as well, but he’ll first need to rebound from a dismal Triple-A season. The remaining free agent options at the position aren’t great, leaving a run at Story/Correa or a trade as the best ways for an upgrade.

Boston could also be a dark horse suitor for either of Kris Bryant or Freddie Freeman if they’re content with their current middle infield. Bryant could play primarily in the corner outfield while seeing some action at third base, perhaps allowing Rafael Devers to spend more time across the diamond at first base. Devers is an impact hitter but has had his share of defensive woes as well. Bryant’s among the best right-handed bats still available, and his ability to bounce between the infield and outfield would fit with the Red Sox’s seeming penchant for defensive versatility.

Freeman would be a first base solution only, supplanting Bobby Dalbec on the depth chart there. Top first base prospect Triston Casas isn’t far off major league readiness, but Freeman and Casas could split first base/designated hitter duties in 2023 and beyond. J.D. Martinez forewent an opt-out possibility and will return as the DH next season, but he’ll be a free agent at the end of the year. A run at Freeman would be an outside-the-box move and would probably lead to a Dalbec trade that skews the lineup even more left-handed. But Freeman’s the type of impact player teams should be willing to creatively accommodate, if negotiations between he and the Braves stall out over his reported desire for a sixth guaranteed year.

There are myriad infield possibilities for Bloom and his front office. Adding to the roster in some form makes sense, although it’s also possible the organization prioritizes a long-term deal for one of their current stars. Perhaps Boston could try to supersede Bogaerts’ opt-out by exploring another contract extension with the three-time All-Star. Presumably, the club would love to to work out a deal with Devers, controllable through 2023 via arbitration. Both players are far enough along in their careers that they may prefer to just wait out free agency, but the Red Sox at least figure to be in touch with their respective representatives.

The final area of the roster — the catching corps — already seems in place. The Red Sox exercised a $7M option on Christian Vázquez to open the winter. After avoiding arbitration with backup Kevin Plawecki, they look to have that duo locked in with Connor Wong and Ronaldo Hernández as depth options. The Sox reportedly looked into a Jacob Stallings deal before the Pirates traded him to the Marlins, indicating at least some willingness to make a move behind the plate. Stallings is no longer available, though, and a Vázquez – Plawecki pairing should be capable if unspectacular.

The roster is versatile enough that the opportunities are numerous — if ownership is willing to sign off on another significant expenditure. That the Red Sox have been loosely tied to Correa and Story might suggest there’s money to be spent once the new CBA is in place and the team has more information about the luxury tax thresholds. They haven’t made any huge offseason splashes since Bloom took over the front office, but an impact move or two may be necessary to keep pace in a loaded American League East.

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