Choose your own adventure: 2020 Red Sox offseason edition
By Drew Athans
The Red Sox have three paths to building the team using their new approach, but each has serious pros and cons that may not sit well with the fanbase.
By now, there isn’t a single fan of the Boston Red Sox who doesn’t know of the team’s desire to shed payroll and get under the luxury tax threshold of $208 million. However, while there’s been endless talk, rumors, and speculation about how the team can get there, to this point in the offseason they haven’t done much.
They’ve let go of free agent Rick Porcello (who signed with the New York Mets) and haven’t shown any interest in bringing back Brock Holt. They’ve signed a couple of middling players in Jose Peraza and Martin Perez, traded backup catcher Sandy Leon to the Cleveland Indians for a low-level prospect, and it was just announced that they signed former Cleveland backup catcher Kevin Plawecki, another uninspiring and unexciting move that is sure to draw a collective shrug from the fanbase.
While the mantra during the last two months of the 2019 season was that the Red Sox were going to get under the luxury tax threshold to reset the tax penalties, new President of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom hasn’t done much beyond the above moves.
Red Sox fans all over the internet and social media are asking themselves the same question: “What the heck is the plan?” That got me thinking that while I have no answer to that question, there are actually three different ways Bloom and the team could go with this teardown/rebuild/reset or whatever you want to call it.
1) Business as Usual
This approach would entail the Red Sox pivoting away from their newly self-imposed cost-cutting approach to do what they’ve always done: spend money on free agents, trade prospects for major-league players, and plug whatever remaining holes along the way by spending even more money.
The pros of this approach are obvious, as the team has won four World Series championships since 2000 and has, for the most part, remained competitive almost every season in that span. There is a lot of money from dead contracts (Pablo Sandoval) coming off the books immediately and they’ve only got three more years of overpaying David Price (to the tune of $96 million over that span). Simply trying to keep up with the Yankees without adding too much payroll for the next few years until all that money is off the books could eventually see the problem fixing itself, especially if the team stays healthier in 2020 than they did in 2019.
The cons, as we also know, are that the team has paid the luxury tax penalties and lost the draft positions that go along with it for several years. This approach (prematurely extending Chris Sale and signing Nathan Eovaldi for four years, overpaying for Price) is what got them into this mess in the first place. They’ve also depleted the farm system to an almost barren state and now have a lot of money tied up in bad contracts that have finally come back to bite them (especially influencing how much they’re willing/able to give to Mookie Betts).
While this is probably the approach most fans wish the team would continue to take, it’s the least likely since the team has publicly proclaimed they wouldn’t do this anymore (at least in the short term) and going back on it so quickly would be a bad look for ownership and the front office. So scratch this one off the list.
2) Gutting the Team Down to the Studs
This one isn’t too appealing, either. This tack would basically have the team sell off every big money piece they can unload in order to drastically reduce their payroll commitments while fielding a team of cheap rentals, journeymen, and unprepared prospects. It would also mean taking a team that has won 90+ games in three of the last four seasons and knocking it down to one that will probably finish under .500 for the first time since 2015.
The pros of doing this would be to get under the tax threshold John Henry seems so hellbent on reaching and freeing up a lot of money to rebuild the team. It would allow the Red Sox to pick higher in the draft since they wouldn’t be penalized for being over the tax threshold and could help replenish the farm system quickly. The farm system could also get a big boost if trading some of the big-name players (and their associated big price tags) like free-agent-to-be Mookie Betts, David Price, or Chris Sale netted a haul of multiple top prospects in return.
The cons, though? There are many. As mentioned above, it would almost certainly sink the team to fourth or fifth place in the division with the Yankees and Rays not going anywhere and the Blue Jays getting better as their own homegrown stars like Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio come into their own.
In fact, this approach would probably set the Red Sox back at least a few seasons before they’re able to contend again which won’t sit well with Red Sox Nation. It’s already a bad look for John Henry to be crying poor when A) the Red Sox are one of the most valuable teams in all of MLB, B) they’ve “only” paid a total of $50 million in luxury tax penalties since the system was instituted in 2003 while the Yankees have paid $324 million, and C) they play in one of, if not the most baseball-crazed cities in the league.
Asking fans to endure several self-inflicted down seasons while simultaneously raising ticket prices again would be a tough sell to the perpetually impatient Red Sox fanbase. This approach is the riskiest in terms of squandering goodwill with fans (especially if they end up trading Mookie) but judging by the underwhelming moves Chaim Bloom has made so far, it seems to be how things are trending. All of this leads into the third possible approach and the one I personally favor which is…
3) Something in the Middle
This would be my preferred approach and is the path I hope Bloom eventually settles on as we get closer to spring training and the 2020 season starting. While his bargain-basement pickups haven’t thus far inspired much confidence in his team-building and suggests he’s going down the second path listed, there’s still time for a course correction if they’re so inclined. This balanced approach would entail continuing to shave off a million here, a million there as he’s done to this point, but to also spend a little bit to improve the lineup where it’s needed most (bullpen, second base, first base).
This would mean that while the Red Sox might not get under the $208 million mark this year (it may take two or three years), they’d work their way to it gradually while still staying relatively competitive. They wouldn’t be wasting the prime years of Mookie, Xander Bogaerts, or Sale (assuming he can stay healthy) and if they could get someone to take on the remainder of Price’s contract along the way, all the better.
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This approach certainly wouldn’t be as much of a shock to the system as the second one would be, although it does carry the highest risk of having to trade Mookie or risk losing him for nothing at the end of the season since the Sox wouldn’t have a big enough chunk of money freed up to offer him the enormous amount it’s likely to take in order to keep him in Boston.
As you can see, there really isn’t an option that is wholly pleasing to both fans and ownership. All have things going for and against them and while some would be more painful than others, each of them would bring some pain for all involved.
This is, unfortunately, the corner the Red Sox have painted themselves into with their numerous bad decisions over the last decade. Yes, those decisions ultimately led to two World Series titles during that span, but the team looks poised to endure at least a few of the dreaded “bridge years,” the concept of which was enough for Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino to run Theo Epstein out of town for even suggesting.
The Red Sox near-term future is a classic case of enduring some short-term pain for some (hopefully) long-term gain, but it’s going to be interesting to see how the ever-PR conscious Red Sox front office handles it. Red Sox fans are passionate and loyal, but they’re also impatient. This is going to get interesting.