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Offseason In Review: Boston Red Sox

A transformative offseason for the Red Sox saw the club trade its franchise player, make an unexpected managerial change, and (perhaps most importantly in ownership’s view?) duck under the luxury tax threshold.

Major League Signings

Trades And Claims

Notable Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

When Alex Cora, Dave Dombrowski, Mookie Betts, and David Price were all taking turns hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy in October 2018, it would’ve seemed inconceivable that all four men would no longer be members of the Red Sox organization just 15 months later.  And yet, it didn’t take long for the Sox to go from a 108-win World Series champion to a team suddenly facing a lot of questions.

Dombrowski was the first to depart, let go in early September amidst some reports suggesting Red Sox ownership considered firing him even a year prior.  As surprising as Dombrowski’s ouster was, Cora’s quick fall from grace was even more of a shock.  After the league’s report on the Astros’ sign-stealing exploits during the 2017 season cited Cora (then the Astros’ bench coach) as a key author of how Houston’s system of video footage and trash can-banging was constructed, the Sox fired Cora before MLB could announce even what punishment the now-former Red Sox skipper would face.

Speaking of stolen signs, the Red Sox are still currently awaiting the results of Major League Baseball’s investigation into whether or not the Sox made inappropriate use of video footage to steal signs during their own World Series campaign in 2018.  While the Red Sox aren’t expected to be as punished as severely as the Astros were, it’s probably safe to assume that some type of penalty is forthcoming, perhaps in the form of a lost draft pick or two.

Needless to say, Chaim Bloom had a lot to deal with after being hired as Boston’s new chief baseball officer in late October.  Bloom was already deep into offseason business before having to deal with an unforeseen managerial change, which could be one reason why the Sox chose to promote from within by naming bench coach Ron Roenicke as the interim manager.  Roenicke is a safe choice but hardly a bad one, as he is a known figure to Boston’s roster and had success in his only prior big league managerial stint with the Brewers from 2011-15.  If the Sox play well in 2020, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Roenicke become a longer-term answer in Boston’s dugout.

As a longtime member of the Rays front office, Bloom’s first offseason in total control of a baseball operations department resulted in something of a Tampa Bay-esque winter for the Sox.  It was an offseason of mostly low-cost signings and acquisitions, while moving a pair of expensive players in a trade that was driven largely by financial motivations.

Let’s start with the biggest blockbuster of the entire offseason: the Betts/Price trade with the Dodgers. What began as a three-team deal involving the Twins turned into another Los Angeles/Boston blockbuster after the Sox took issue with the medical records of Minnesota prospect Brusdar Graterol, who was supposed to be the one of the young minor league centerpieces headed to Boston in the deal.  In the end, the three-team arrangement was broken down in to two separate deals, with Graterol ending up going to Los Angeles as part of the trade that sent Kenta Maeda to the Twins, and the Red Sox swinging a deal with the Dodgers that saw Betts, Price, and $48MM (covering half of Price’s contract) for three interesting young talents.

Jeter Downs immediately became the top prospect in Boston’s farm system and potential second baseman of the future, while catcher/infielder Connor Wong also gives the Red Sox a future option behind the plate or even as a multi-positional backup catcher.  Both of these youngsters could be on track for the big leagues as early as 2021, while outfielder Alex Verdugo is already coming off a strong performance (.294/.342/.475 in 377 PA) in 2019, his first extended stint against Major League pitching.  Verdugo is expected to take over for Betts in right field, perhaps as early as the new Opening Day, as the delayed start to the season will likely give him time to recover from a stress fracture in his lower back.

It’s not at all a bad prospect haul, yet it’s also one many Boston fans and media members found inconceivable, given that one of pro sports’ wealthiest franchises was surrendering one of the game’s best players in what seemed like more or less a salary dump.  Principal owner John Henry’s late-September statement that the 2020 Sox “need to be under” the Competitive Balance Tax threshold after two seasons of overages loomed large over each transaction Bloom made this winter, no matter how much Henry tried to downplay his original comments both before and after the Betts trade.  Boston’s luxury tax number now stands at just under $196MM, as per Roster Resource, below the $208MM luxury tax threshold and indeed putting the Red Sox in line to reset their tax bill to zero.

A third consecutive season of CBT overage would have cost the Sox a 50 percent tax on every dollar spent over the $208MM threshold, plus an additional 12 percent surtax if their luxury tax number stood within the secondary penalty range ($228MM-$248MM).  As well, the Red Sox would’ve received a 50 percent deduction in their cut of revenue-sharing rebates, as outlined by the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier.

As of mid-January, Boston’s luxury tax payroll stood at roughly $237.89MM, so that third-timer penalty rate wouldn’t have been an insignificant extra expenditure….yet considering the franchise’s vast resources, it’s also hard to consider it a truly significant expenditure either, considering the on-field value lost by removing Betts from the lineup.

With a bit more hindsight, the Sox could’ve given themselves more CBT breathing room had they non-tendered Jackie Bradley Jr. back in December, as their subsequent efforts to trade the center fielder ended up fruitless.  Perhaps the Red Sox could have re-signed Bradley for a lower amount than his $11MM salary, or perhaps just replaced him with Kevin Pillar (a comparable player) at a much lesser price.  An outfield of Betts, Pillar, and Andrew Benintendi clearly looks more imposing than Boston’s current alignment of Verdugo, Bradley, and Benintendi, with Pillar as the fourth outfielder.

From a pure baseball perspective, Boston’s argument for trading Betts was that it made more sense to deal him now rather than risk letting him leave in free agency for nothing (save a qualifying offer compensation pick) next winter, or perhaps dealing him for a lesser package closer to the trade deadline if the Red Sox were out of the playoff race.  But, ownership has maintained all along that they intend the Sox to be contenders in 2020, and trading Betts and Price runs counter to that notion.

Going back to the hypothetical scenario I floated earlier, let’s pretend the Red Sox kept Price and Betts, non-tendered Bradley, and still signed Pillar and Mitch Moreland.  Let’s also assume a few more dollars are spent here and there over the course of the season to bring Boston’s tax number to $245MM.  That works out to a three-timer CBT bill just shy of $21MM, plus the approximately $6MM in lost revenue-sharing rebate money as calculated in Speier’s piece.

In essence, that makes the decision to trade Betts and Price a $27MM choice in terms of immediate money, plus the Red Sox get the peace of mind of knowing that they’re under the threshold now rather than having to perhaps scramble next winter to avoid a fourth year of CBT payments.  Rafael Devers and Eduardo Rodriguez are due for big arbitration raises next offseason, which would’ve counteracted some of the savings from having Moreland, Pillar, Perez, Workman, and still-with-the-Red Sox Betts all coming off the books.  (Plus, J.D. Martinez also has another opt-out decision at season’s end, so he might not be part of the 2021 roster.)

Is saving $27MM worth a much more difficult path back to the postseason?  Even with Betts and Price, obviously the Red Sox would’ve still faced a stiff test from their AL East rivals, plus more competition from the American League as a whole for wild card positions.  But, had the Sox not been in contention by the deadline this year, they could’ve traded some contracts to duck under the luxury tax anyway — or, had until the end of the 2021 season to figure out ways to avoid paying a penalty for a fourth straight season.

The Reds, Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Padres were all reported to have interest in acquiring Price over the offseason, but since the Red Sox weren’t able to trade the left-hander (and enough of his $96MM contract) alone, they ultimately had to package Price together with Betts to finally swing a deal.  Figuring out a solo Price deal quite possibly could have kept Betts in a Sox uniform in 2020, though Price’s own departure has no small impact on Boston’s roster.

Martin Perez was signed prior to the Price trade, but he will essentially serve as a southpaw-for-southpaw replacement in the rotation.  Perez had a fairly hot start to his 2019 season with Minnesota but saw his productivity plummet beginning in late May.  As much as Bloom is optimistic about Perez’s untapped potential, the lefty has been a mid-rotation innings-eater even during the best of times during his eight MLB seasons.

While Price’s age and injury history also make him a question mark heading into 2020, his presence would’ve brought more stability to the pitching staff than the current mix.  Ostensible staff ace Chris Sale is battling elbow problems and could still potentially face some type of surgery, though he’s begun a throwing program, and the Sox are hoping the extra rest in the elongated offseason allows Sale time to heal without missing any games.  Rodriguez is coming off a strong year, but Nathan Eovaldi is coming off an injury-plagued season and a wide array of arms (or an opener) could end up filling that fifth rotation spot.  The newly-signed Collin McHugh is a bit of a wild card as a either a rotation or bullpen candidate, assuming McHugh (who was only cleared to throw in late February) is himself healthy after dealing with elbow injuries.

McHugh could ultimately make more of an impact to the relief corps, which didn’t get much attention despite an overall middle-of-the-road performance in 2019.  The Sox are hoping that a change in roles can help, as Brandon Workman’s emergence as the closer can add some clarity to the rest of the bullpen’s roles.  If openers do become a part of Boston’s rotation picture, there could be more mix-and-match than usual in the Red Sox pen, perhaps taking a page from how the Rays used their relievers under Bloom over the last couple of seasons.

Besides Price, the Red Sox said goodbye to another veteran starter this offseason when Rick Porcello signed a free agent contract with the Mets.  A pair of other recent roster staples also departed, as super-utilityman Brock Holt signed with the Brewers and backup catcher Sandy Leon was dealt to the Indians.  New signings Kevin Plawecki and Jonathan Lucroy are competing for the backup catching job, while Jose Peraza will now somewhat replace Holt as a multi-position asset.  For now, Boston plans to use Peraza mostly as a second baseman, splitting time with Michael Chavis whenever Chavis isn’t filling in for Moreland at first base against left-handed pitching.  However, Peraza has experience at short and in the outfield, so he could move around in the event of injuries elsewhere on the roster.

2020 Season Outlook

We’ve gone this deep into the offseason review without really mentioning the three biggest reasons why the Red Sox could still contend for a wild card berth — Devers, Martinez, and Xander Bogaerts, who form as tough of a 1-2-3 punch as any lineup trio in baseball.  That group of sluggers goes a long way towards propping up a lineup that has some uncertainty, but also a lot of potential in Christian Vazquez, Verdugo, Benintendi, Chavis, Peraza and Moreland.  Even pitching-wise, despite all the injury questions, the Sox certainly have talent on hand if Sale and Eovaldi can stay healthy and Rodriguez matches his 2019 form.

Simply running it back with Betts and Price on this roster would’ve been a perfectly respectable idea on paper, except that Red Sox ownership felt it was more prudent to take a step back to reload the farm system and take the opportunity to get what they felt was an untenable contract (Price) off the books.  Ideally, the Sox wouldn’t have had to trade Betts to make that work, though perhaps reading between the tea leaves, the club felt Betts wasn’t going to re-sign with with Boston anyway next winter, making him ultimately expendable as a trade chip rather than as a long-term asset.

It’s a tough pill to swallow for the Fenway faithful, who have a right to be annoyed that the same Red Sox ownership group who has okayed several big-money signings and extensions over the years now feel the “need to” (to use Henry’s words from September) enact some financial prudence, even if it meant trading Betts.  Time will tell if the decision ends up being wise, but the window of contention that looked so wide open after the 2018 season is now much narrower.

How would you grade the Red Sox offseason?  (Link for app users.)

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