With a familiar face back in the manager’s chair, the Red Sox are looking to rebound from a disastrous last-place finish in the AL East.
- Chris Sale, SP: $115MM through 2024 ($20MM club/vesting option for 2025; Sale can opt out of contract after the 2022 season)
- Xander Bogaerts, SS: $100MM through 2025 (plus $20MM club/vesting option for 2026)
- J.D. Martinez, OF/DH: $38.75MM through 2022 (could become mutual options if Martinez suffers a Lisfranc-related injury to his right foot)
- Nathan Eovaldi, SP: $34MM through 2022
- Dustin Pedroia, 2B: $12MM through 2021
- Andrew Benintendi, OF: $6.6MM through 2021
- Christian Vazquez, C: $6.5MM through 2021 (includes $250K buyout of $7MM club option for 2022)
- $32MM to the Dodgers through the 2022 season to cover a portion of David Price’s salary
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Matt Barnes – $4.1MM
- Ryan Brasier – $1.0MM
- Austin Brice – $700K
- Rafael Devers – $3.4MM
- Kevin Plawecki – $1.3MM
- Eduardo Rodriguez – $8.3MM
- Ryan Weber – $900K
- Non-tender candidates: Brice, Weber
- Perez, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rusney Castillo, Zack Godley, Mike Kickham, Andrew Triggs, Cesar Puello, Collin McHugh, Jose Peraza (already signed with the Mets)
Despite months of speculation that Alex Cora would eventually return to the Red Sox, the team at least created the perception of due diligence in searching for a new manager, with at least eight other candidates considered for the position. Of course, Cora now returns to the job with the baggage of his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, which led to his January firing in Boston and his subsequent league-issued suspension for the 2020 season.
Regardless of whether Cora’s return was always in the cards, the end result is the same — the manager of Boston’s 2018 World Series team has now been tasked with getting the Sox back on track. With the obvious caveat of the 60-game schedule, Boston’s .400 winning percentage (24-36) was the lowest since the club’s .383 mark (62-100) in 1965, representing a drastic fall for a team just two years removed from a championship.
It was expected that 2020 would be a transition year for the Red Sox, considering last February’s trade of Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers. That blockbuster deal ensured that the Sox would duck under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold in 2020, thus avoiding the escalating tax bill that came with three consecutive years of overages, and also ensuring that the Red Sox would pay only the “first-timer” tax rate if they were to exceed the $210MM threshold in 2021.
When the Sox last reset their luxury tax bill in 2017, they responded by exceeding the threshold again in 2018, largely due to signing J.D. Martinez as the final piece of their World Series puzzle. Even before the pandemic sliced into every team’s revenues, however, it didn’t seem likely that chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom was going to immediately launch a similar CBT-busting spending spree this winter. If Boston’s plan going forward is to spend big but not to excess, the front office will have plenty of room to operate, as the Red Sox have a little under $161MM (well shy of $210MM) on the books for 2021.
“I don’t like ruling us out on anybody,” Bloom recently said in regards to shopping at the very top of the free agent market. Boston’s biggest needs also overlap with some of the winter’s biggest available names. George Springer would more than replace Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field. DJ LeMahieu would turn second base from a weak spot to a strength. Trevor Bauer would instantly upgrade a woeful rotation. It remains to be seen how ardently the Sox will pursue any of this trio, or if they’ll instead look to spread their money around for less-expensive free agents or higher-priced players who may be available in trades.
Let’s begin with the pitching staff that was ravaged by injuries in 2020. Chris Sale underwent Tommy John surgery last March and will miss at least a couple of months at the start of the season. Eduardo Rodriguez thankfully seems to be on pace to return after missing all of last season due to a COVID-19 diagnosis that led to myocarditis, but it’s hard to call the southpaw anything other than a question mark until he is back on the mound. With Rodriguez hopefully ready for Opening Day, he and Nathan Eovaldi will headline a rotation mix that currently looks to include Nick Pivetta, Tanner Houck, Chris Mazza, or Kyle Hart.
Needless to say, there’s plenty of room for at least one and probably two proven starters to be added. We’ve already seen some noteworthy early movement within the pitching market, as Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman accepted qualifying offers from the Mets and Giants, respectively, and Robbie Ray re-signed with the Blue Jays. Beyond those names who have already left the board, a case could be made for the Red Sox to pursue just about any free agent arm.
Veterans Jake Odorizzi, Jose Quintana or Masahiro Tanaka could bring some stability, as odd as it would be to see Tanaka pitching on the other side of the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. Corey Kluber or James Paxton could be had at relative bargain prices given their injury-marred 2020 seasons, or Taijuan Walker or Garrett Richards could be pursued after their bounce-back campaigns. If the Red Sox want to add a veteran to just eat some innings, they could turn to old friends Jon Lester, Rick Porcello, or Martin Perez. Boston declined its $6.85MM club option on Perez, perhaps a bit of a surprise considering their need for pitching, but Perez posted some pretty middling numbers in 2020.
Bauer gets his own section, as the Red Sox’ hiring of Bloom likely pushes the club toward a more analytical approach that the right-hander desires. With so much uncertainty in the rotation, one could even argue the Sox should be willing to let Bauer try pitching every fourth day — another item on his free-agent wish list. Still, this seems like a long shot. Bauer is more likely to sign with a team that seems closer to winning in 2021, and given his past criticism of the Astros, he might not be all that eager to play under Cora.
The bullpen was also a big problem area and might yet face an overhaul. With teams expected to be more aggressive than ever in non-tendering arbitration-eligible players, it wouldn’t be a complete shock if any of Barnes, Brasier, Weber, or Brice were non-tendered. It’s indicative of the state of the 2020 offseason that even generally solid relievers like Barnes or Brasier are lacking in job security.
If Bloom’s time with the Rays tells us anything about the approach he’ll take with the relief market in Boston, he’ll eschew going after bigger names like Liam Hendriks and the lucrative multi-year deals required to land top-of-the-market relievers. The market should have plenty of short-term options available — former Rays Kirby Yates, Sergio Romo, and Brad Boxberger among them, not that Bloom will necessarily be predisposed to look at former Tampa Bay arms. The Red Sox could also explore a reunion with Collin McHugh, who signed with the club last March but didn’t pitch after some lingering elbow problems led McHugh to opt out of the season.
It can’t be overstated just how much Boston’s pitching sunk their season, as the Red Sox lineup was a lot more solid than one would expect for a last-place team. That was despite poor seasons from Martinez and Andrew Benintendi, and the Sox are counting on both to hit closer to their usual form next year.
Martinez will again be the regular DH while Benintendi will have a starting outfield job, though the position is to be determined. With Bradley possibly leaving, either Benintendi or Alex Verdugo could be tabbed to take over in center field, or the Sox could take a more fluid approach to their lineup and have the two alternate between center field and a corner spot based on matchups. With Michael Chavis, Yairo Munoz, and Martinez all able to chip in for corner outfield duty in a pinch and prospect Jarren Duran projected to make his MLB debut at some point in 2021, the Sox have some flexibility in whatever they decide to do with their outfield.
That decision could simply be to re-sign Bradley. The Sox have already discussed a new contract for the former Gold Glover, though they’ll have competition since Bradley coupled his strong defense with an above-average offensive year in 2020.
Elsewhere around the diamond, shortstop (Xander Bogaerts), catcher (Christian Vazquez), third base (Rafael Devers), and first base (impressive rookie Bobby Dalbec) have most of the positions spoken for, but there has been some speculation that Devers’ defensive struggles could lead to a position swap with Dalbec. Since the Red Sox are a bit thin on left-handed bats, nobody would be surprised if Mitch Moreland was brought back into the fold in his old part-time first base role. Munoz was used exclusively as an outfielder last year but has infield experience, so he’ll be competing for bench/utility infield duty with Christian Arroyo, Tzu-Wei Lin, prospect C.J. Chatham, or maybe a new face or two signed to a minor league contract.
That leaves second base as the glaring weak link. The Red Sox liked what they saw in Arroyo last year and it seems too early to give up on Chavis, so the backup plan could be to use these two and Munoz at the position and see what develops. However, second base is also the most obvious spot for an external solution, especially since some solid options exist in free agency. Beyond LeMahieu as the biggest get, Tommy La Stella, Cesar Hernandez, Kolten Wong, and Korean star Ha-Seong Kim are available. Since star prospect Jeter Downs (whose potential debut in 2021 shouldn’t be ruled out) might eventually end up as the second baseman of the future, Boston would probably prefer to seek out shorter-term rather than longer-term contracts for any second baseman they might pursue.
If Bloom’s first season running the front office was marked by cost-cutting and roster churn, this offseason might be our first chance to see how plans to run the Red Sox under more “normal” circumstances — as normal as can be, of course, considering the pandemic’s influence and all of the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 season. Don’t count on an all-in push, but if 2020 was all of the rebuilding and step backwards that ownership was willing to take, the Sox could be one of the winter’s more aggressive teams.