As the most successful decade in Red Sox history comes to a close, all eyes turn to what has been, to this point, an underwhelming offseason. The 2019 campaign was undoubtedly one of the most disappointing in recent memory- the Sox were coming off a year that will go down in the annals of baseball history and returned every impact player from that championship team. Fast forward to the winter of 2020, and the organization seems to be engulfed with question marks surrounding both its short and long term direction.
The two major roster questions at the moment surround the statuses of Mookie Betts and David Price. While there are numerous theories being thrown around about what the Sox could do, it is clear that one number stands above all- $208 million, the threshold at which the luxury tax penalties start to take effect. After $208 million, there are higher thresholds that, if met, result in stiffer spending penalties. Alex Spier of the Boston Globe has a great primer on how it works if you are unfamiliar with its nuts and bolts.
Anyway, almost everyone believes that Red Sox ownership has directed newly minted head of baseball operations, Chaim Bloom, to get under this magic number. After Dave Dombrowski was shown the door, Henry stated “this coming year we must be under the CBT. That was something that we have known for more than a year now. We may not be under, but that is our goal.” What is the best way to do that? Well, moving the cumbersome contract of David Price is a great place to start if you are looking to shed cash. Price is owed $32 million over the next three seasons before becoming a free agent in 2023. At $32 million per year, Price is the 6th most expensive starting pitcher in baseball in terms of AAV- his teammate Chris Sale sits right behind him at 8th.
There was some slight regression from Price in 2019- his ERA ballooned from 3.58 to 4.28, while his ERA+ dipped from 123 to 113. Furthermore, in 2019 he gave up the most hits per 9 innings in his career- nearly a hit and a half more than he gave up in 2018. That said, 2019 was not all bad news for Price. Before the all start break, Price struck out 28% of the batters he faced, gave up just 0.76 home runs per outing, and his 66 ERA- ranked 17th among the 146 pitchers who had thrown at least 50 innings before the Midsummer Classic. Lastly, Price’s 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings a season ago was the best mark of his career.
So, with the facts on the table, what should the Sox do? To me, it seems foolish to trade Price at this stage in the game. Yes, the contract is costly, but the market is limited- teams like the Dodgers and Angels are not going to give up any of their high-end prospects for an aging pitcher with a terrible contract. If you are able to shed Price’s $32 million off the books, who are you going to spend that money on to improve the pitching staff? There are no established starters left on the free agent market who could reasonably be expected to come in and compete for the fourth spot in the rotation. A year from now, they could sign a free agent starter, but given that the market is not all that enticing and the Sox are, supposedly, looking for more homegrown pitching talent, this would make little sense. Theoretically, the Sox could keep some of the salary to compel another club to include a top end prospect. For example, say the Sox agreed to pay 30% of the $96 million left on Price’s contract. At that point, a team like the Dodgers would almost certainly be more willing to include a higher end prospect, something the Red Sox desperately need- their farm system is last in the league, according to MILB. com. While any Sox fan would welcome some young blood in the system, a team built around this lineup shouldn’t be discounted from competing for the first wild card spot. As we saw with the Washington Nationals a season ago, you just need to give yourself a punchers chance by playing your best baseball in October. The Red Sox, as currently constructed, have perhaps the second-best player in baseball at the top of their order, two legitimate power bats in Rafael Devers and JD Martinez, and a shortstop in Xander Bogaerts who is coming off the best season in his career. Assuming the Sox keep Betts around- something that certainly is not set in stone- they will enter the season with one of the most talented lineups in the American League.
The star-studded lineup should serve as a reminder to Bloom about what this team is capable of doing. If you go into the season with a starting rotation of Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Martin Perez, you are throwing your hat out of the ring before the games even begin and not only is that unfair to guys like Betts, Martinez, and Devers, it is a slap in the face to one of the most passionate fanbases in sports. The Sox should hope that Price can pitch like he was before the break, but even if he puts up similar numbers to what he finished with a season ago, it would represent a substantial upgrade over anything they could settle for in the current free agent market or the prospect system. If they do trade Price, they are left with two holes in the rotation with no immediate answers. With Price, even if he does not get back to what he was in 2018, you can have a realistic expectation that he will find a middle point between where he was in that season and where he finished the 2019 season. Because of this, it would be dumbfounding for the Sox to deal Price at this point- a Price-less rotation would struggle to win 75 games in a division with a stacked Yankee roster and the surging Rays. With Price in the fold, you are at least giving yourselves a chance to win a wild card spot.
This gets us to the rumors swirling around Mookie Betts. There have multiple reports over the last few weeks linking the Sox and Dodgers on a potential Betts trade. Betts just made $27 million in arbitration, meaning that if he were shipped out of town, it would get the Sox below the $208 million luxury tax threshold that stands as the driving force for both the Betts and Price trade rumors. In return, the Sox would likely demand a top prospect (from the Dodgers), such as pitcher Dustin May or catcher Keiburt Ruiz, in addition to a proven MLB bat, perhaps along the line of David Pollack or maybe even Corey Seager.
As of now, I think it is ridiculous for the Sox to consider trading Betts, widely regarded as the second-best player in baseball behind Mike Trout. With Betts at the top of the lineup, the Sox have someone that can consistently get on base, terrorize opponents on the base paths, bat for power, and field as well as an outfielder in the game. Betts 7.0 DEF ranked best among right fielders in 2019 and while his average slipped to .295 in 2019, it was still good for third best amongst right fielders and his 6.8 WAR trailed only Christian Yelich at the position. Even in a “down” year, it could not be clearer that Betts is an essential, perhaps the most important, part of the Red Sox operation. Without him, the Sox have no clear leadoff batter as Andrew Benintendi showed he was not ready for the role in 2019 and we saw how shaky JD Martinez was in the field. If Betts were to be dealt out of town, the Sox would immediately go from playoff contenders to barely being able to hold their heads above water, regardless of what happens with other unknowns like David Price and Jackie Bradley Jr. Secondly, why are the Boston Red Sox, considered by Forbes to be the 12th most valuable sports franchise in world, implementing an austerity program? Meanwhile, their arch rivals to the south just splurged on the best pitcher in baseball and look loaded for years to come. It should upset Sox fans that this franchise, a beacon of excellence over the last decade, is cost cutting to point where it is in danger of being a non-factor in what is a wide-open American League outside of the Bronx.
As I wrote earlier in the piece, when you go into a game with Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers, JD Martinez, and Xander Bogaerts at the top of your lineup, you’ve got a chance to win on any given night. Those are some of the most talented players in baseball and while they will need more help that they got a season ago from guys like Benintendi, with all of them in the fold, the Sox should be a wild card team. The goal to get under the luxury tax is not one without logic- if the Sox are able to get under $208 million, then they will have more room to maneuver both during this season, should things go well (or south), and more importantly, in the future, when the will need to retool the roster with younger, homegrown talent. Relying solely on big ticket free agents is not a way to win championships- just look at the Yankees from 2009-2017. With that in mind, I do think there is a high chance that the Sox will deal centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr, who is owed nearly $11 million in 2020. While JBJ is the best centerfielder in baseball, his penchant for going on prolonged cold streaks at the plate have been difficult to overcome and the Sox could surely use some more pop at the bottom of the order. Should the Sox part ways with Bradley, as I expect them to in the coming weeks, they could set their sights on someone like former Oriole Kevin Pillar. Is it ideal? No, because there is almost no scenario in which the Sox become a better team by dealing Bradley- they would give themselves some more flexibility regarding the cap- but if they deal Bradley along with Price or Betts (or both), it would be equivalent to Bloom walking out to the pitcher’s mound on opening day and plating a white flag…….as long as it is under budget.