An initially disastrous season for the Red Sox provided some hope for the future as several young players stepped up during a late-season surge. The new Dave Dombrowski/Mike Hazen-led front office will now have to add the final pieces around these emerging young stars to get the Sox back into contention in 2016.
- Dustin Pedroia, 2B: $84MM through 2021
- Rick Porcello, SP: $82MM through 2019
- Pablo Sandoval, 3B: $75MM through 2019 ($17MM club option for 2020)
- Hanley Ramirez, 1B/LF/DH: $66MM through 2018 ($22MM vesting option for 2019)
- Rusney Castillo, OF: $56.5MM through 2020 (Castillo can opt out after 2019 season)
- Allen Craig, 1B/OF: $21MM through 2017 ($13MM club option for 2018)
- David Ortiz, DH: $16MM through 2016 (club/vesting option for 2017 worth at least $10MM)
- Wade Miley, SP: $15.25MM through 2017 ($12MM club option for 2018 that could increase in value to $14MM)
- Koji Uehara, RP: $9MM through 2016
- Ryan Hanigan, C: $4.5MM through 2016 ($3.75MM club option for 2017)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- Alexi Ogando (5.114) – $2.4MM projected salary
- Junichi Tazawa (5.086) – $3.3MM
- Anthony Varvaro (3.121) – $700K
- Joe Kelly (3.101) – $3.2MM
- Robbie Ross (3.100) – $1.1MM
- Ryan Cook (3.086) – $1.4MM
- Jean Machi (2.154) – $900K
- Non-tender candidates: Ogando, Cook, Machi, Varvaro
- Clay Buchholz, SP: $13MM club option with $245K buyout
In 2014, rotation struggles and underachieving rookies were major reasons the Red Sox finished last in the AL East. In 2015, rotation struggles and underachieving veterans were major reasons the Red Sox finished last in the AL East. Boston has now suffered through three last-place finishes in four seasons (though the year outside the cellar resulted in the 2013 World Series title), and it seems like the first order of business is to upgrade the starting pitching.
Per the MLBTR Transaction Tracker, Dombrowski’s history indicates that he is more likely to acquire a big-name starter via trade rather than via free agency. Though the 2015-16 free agent pitching market is deep with top-tier starters and includes one name (David Price) that Dombrowski has already gone out of his way to acquire before, it remains to be seen if Red Sox ownership has changed its stance about not giving expensive long-term contracts to pitchers in their 30s. It was just a year ago, remember, that this stance ultimately led to Jon Lester leaving town.
If the Sox aren’t willing to go beyond five or maybe even four years for an ace, it’s not going to help them land the likes of Price, Jordan Zimmermann or Johnny Cueto, all of whom could realistically find six-year deals on the open market. Zack Greinke might be amenable to a five-year deal since he’s about to turn 32, though would Boston then spend over $125MM for a pitcher’s age 32-36 seasons, even an elite pitcher like Greinke?
In the September 23rd edition of the MLBTR Newsletter, MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes made the case that one of Carlos Carrasco, Sonny Gray, Matt Harvey, Chris Sale or Stephen Strasburg could be dealt this offseason, even though there’s no current evidence that any are being shopped. (Gray’s availability, in particular, has been emphatically denied.) Carrasco stands out as an intriguing option since Boston discussed him in trade talks last summer, though Cleveland was said to be just gauging Carrasco’s value rather than actually trying to deal him. If the Indians have a (sure to be high) price in mind for what it would take to obtain Carrasco, they could explore deals this winter. One would certainly expect Boston to at least check in on Carrasco and any of the aforementioned starters should they be made available, plus any other front-of-the-rotation pitchers whose teams could be open to trades.
Dombrowski and Hazen have lots of options if they want to trade for an ace given the number of quality prospects within the Red Sox system. Boston’s top six prospects are all ranked in MLB.com’s current listing of the top 100 minor leaguers in baseball, not to mention several other recent first-rounders that didn’t make the top-100 cut. It’s also possible the Red Sox could deal one of their current starters in a trade for a top-of-the-rotation arm, since the Sox are in the somewhat curious position of both lacking in top-tier starters while also having a bit of a rotation logjam.
The Sox rotation was unquestionably one of the game’s poorest in the first few months of the 2015 season, yet for the year as a whole, Red Sox starters finished a respectable 13th in starter fWAR (11.9) among all 30 teams. The rotation had a 4.75 ERA in the first half and a 3.99 ERA in the second half, though the peripheral numbers were mostly the same on both sides of the All-Star break. It’s no surprise that the starters’ numbers began to look a lot better once Boston upgraded its defense, so it’s possible the Sox already have something close to a playoff-contender rotation already, especially if Clay Buchholz is healthy. (His $13MM club option is seen as a virtual lock to be exercised.)
The 2016 rotation shapes up as Buchholz, impressive rookie Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello, whose $82MM extension kicks in next season. Porcello is one of the arms who performed better in the second half, though it’s highly unlikely other teams will explore trades for him given his rough first half and that big pay bump. That leaves Wade Miley, Joe Kelly and Henry Owens competing for two spots, and quite possibly just one spot should Boston indeed acquire an ace. The highly-touted Owens would be a big trade chip, and while Kelly and Miley both had their share of struggles in 2015, Kelly is just entering his arbitration years while Miley is owed a not-exorbitant $15.25MM through 2017. Pairing Kelly or Miley with a couple of blue chip prospects would certainly be enough to get the ball rolling on trade talks. Rich Hill surprisingly exploded back onto the scene in MLB with four impressive late-season starts, so Boston could explore re-signing the veteran to add some more depth.
It’s also possible the Red Sox could use some of their surplus arms in the bullpen, with Kelly in particular having been mentioned by some pundits as perhaps better suited to relief work. Sox relievers ranked 26th in ERA (4.25), 29th in xFIP (4.36) and dead last in both FIP (4.64) and fWAR (-1.5) last season, indicating some vast room for improvement. Koji Uehara will return as closer after putting up more strong numbers in his age-40 season, though it remains to be seen if he’ll still be as effective after suffering a fractured wrist last August.
Lefties Robbie Ross and Tommy Layne and righties Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara are all slated to return, while veteran southpaw Craig Breslow could be let go in free agency. Aside from Uehara’s injury-shortened season, though, there were no dominant campaigns in the Sox bullpen. Sub-par bullpens plagued Dombrowski’s tenure in Detroit, and now he’ll have to upgrade another flawed relief corps in his new job.
Around the diamond, the Red Sox are more or less set at every position thanks to a wealth of young players who emerged last season. Beyond stalwarts David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and center fielder Mookie Betts stepped up as very productive everyday Major Leaguers and could be future superstars. Injuries opened the door for Blake Swihart to make his big league debut a bit earlier than expected and the catcher fared respectably well in his rookie season. Jackie Bradley enjoyed an absolutely torrid month (1.361 OPS in 102 PA from August 6 to September 7) after regaining an everyday outfield job, so if he can find a middle ground between that unsustainable production and his below-replacement numbers in 2014, he can easily keep a starting job thanks to his outstanding glove. Rusney Castillo is still a work in progress at the plate, though the Cuban outfielder also possesses a tremendous glove and should at least see part-time duty, possibly in a platoon with Brock Holt.
While these young players all contributed, however, it was most of Boston’s veteran core that let the club down last season. Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli were both traded, while Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez remain the two biggest scapegoats for the 2015 season. Sandoval has rebounded from poor seasons before (he had a 1.2 fWAR season in 2010 sandwiched in between 5.2 fWAR and 5.3 fWAR, respectively) though that was five years ago and his 2010 campaign wasn’t nearly as rough as his sub-replacement performance in 2015.
Sandoval, at least, has a set position at third base. Ramirez doesn’t even have that luxury, as the Sox removed him from the left field job after one of the worst defensive seasons in recent memory. With Ortiz locked in at DH, Ramirez has been working out at first base in an effort to find a spot to play, though it’s an open question whether he’ll be able to handle the position (and if Ramirez plays first, that blocks 25-year-old Travis Shaw, who delivered a strong rookie season). There is hope that Sandoval and Ramirez could rebound with better fitness, though there have also been whispers that Boston coaches aren’t pleased with Ramirez’s overall effort level.
Could Sandoval or Ramirez be traded this offseason? I’m sure Dombrowski and Hazen will put feelers out, though both players’ stock could hardly be lower. Ramirez’s defense will further limit his market, since it’s hard to imagine an NL club would be comfortable putting him anywhere in the field without the DH spot as a fallback. Unless there’s something to these rumors of enmity between Ramirez and the coaching staff, it’s probably unlikely that Boston would outright release Ramirez or make a salary-eating trade to get him off the roster just yet. The Sox could try him at first base in 2016 and if that still doesn’t work, slide him into the DH role in 2017 if Ortiz retires.
Holt is almost a one-man bench by himself, giving the Sox lots of flexibility as they look for backups. They’ll probably be in the market for at least one bench player to go with Holt, Shaw, Deven Marrero as a utility infielder and the backup catcher. Christian Vazquez should be recovered from Tommy John surgery and veteran Ryan Hanigan is still under contract, so there could be a Spring Training battle to see who will be Swihart’s understudy, or a trade could be in the works. Vazquez himself was a highly-touted prospect before his injury, particularly on defense; if he proves himself as healthy in the spring, he would draw attention from several teams looking for a long-term answer behind the plate.
One of the club’s biggest questions for 2016 was answered when the Red Sox announced that John Farrell would indeed return as manager. Interim skipper Torey Lovullo signed a two-year contract to return to his bench coach role (and forgo any manager offers from other teams this winter), so the Sox have a trusted option in place should Farrell have a setback in his recovery from lymphoma. Another update about Farrell’s health will come later this month, and hopefully Farrell will have a clear path to a return on Opening Day.
Dombrowski faces an interesting challenge in taking over a Red Sox team that clearly has a lot of talent on the Major and minor league levels, yet has greatly underachieved over the last two seasons. Hiring Hazen is an acknowledgement of that player development and (partial) player acquisition success, though getting sustained results on the field has been a challenge in the post-Theo Epstein era. Dombrowski’s history as a front office executive has been filled with creative transactions that worked swimmingly well for his teams, and since he’s armed with both a loaded farm system and a luxury tax-level payroll to play with, the first Red Sox offseason under the new regime could be a busy one.