In conjunction with this post, Darragh McDonald will hold a Red Sox-centric chat on 10-24-23 at 11am Central. Click here to ask a question in advance.
Uncertainty seems to be the running theme of the Red Sox right now. Though they have World Series championships not too far in the rear-view mirror, recent seasons have seen them cut payroll and wind up in a middle ground between a rebuilding club and a frontline contender. Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom was recently fired and the search to find his replacement hasn’t yet shed light on which direction the franchise is heading.
- Rafael Devers, 3B: $313.5MM through 2033
- Trevor Story, SS: $100MM through 2027 (includes buyout on 2028 club option; Story can opt-out after 2025 but club can negate that by picking up option)
- Masataka Yoshida, OF: $72MM through 2027
- Chris Sale, LHP: $27.5MM through 2024 (includes 2025 club option with no buyout)
- Garrett Whitlock, RHP: $16.75MM through 2026 (includes buyout on 2027 club option; deal also has ’28 club option)
- Kenley Jansen, RHP: $16MM through 2024
- Justin Turner, IF: $13.4MM player option with $6.7MM buyout
- Chris Martin, RHP: $7.5MM through 2024
- Rob Refsnyder, OF: $1.85MM through 2024 (includes club option for 2025 with no buyout)
2024 financial commitments (assuming no options are triggered): $129.1MM
Total future commitments (assuming no options are triggered): $555.1MM
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
Non-tender candidates: Urías, McGuire
If there were an award for the least consistent club in the majors, the Red Sox would be in the running. In the past 20 years, they have four World Series championships, more than any other team. But they have also finished last in the American League East six times in that stretch, including each of the two most recent campaigns.
As mentioned up top, the recent skid cost Bloom his job, which means the first order of business is to figure out who makes the decisions now. Various high-profile names have taken themselves out of the running, such as Mike Hazen, Kim Ng, Jon Daniels, James Click, Michael Hill, Derek Falvey, Sam Fuld and Brandon Gomes. Most of those executives have other commitments that would make it hard for them to consider a move to Boston, but it’s also been suggested that the appeal of the job might not be very high.
The higher-ups in Boston have given very short leashes to their executives recently. Ben Cherington was put in charge in October of 2011 but was replaced as the club’s baseball decision maker by Dave Dombrowski in August of 2015, despite the fact that the club had won the World Series in 2013. Dombrowski was then dismissed in 2019, even though he also brought a title to Boston the year prior, getting replaced by Bloom. With Bloom now out the door as well, it’s been quite a while since anyone has even lasted five years, despite the club’s many successes. It has also been suggested that the new hire won’t have much autonomy, with Álex Cora seemingly entrenched as manager and several other important jobs already filled.
It would be understandable if the gig weren’t viewed by everyone as a dream job, but there are only 30 of these to go around and there is still plenty of interest. Gabe Kapler, Craig Breslow, Thad Levine, Neal Huntington, Eddie Romero and Paul Groopman have been publicly reported to have been interviewed and it’s possible there are others who have sat down for a chat without it being leaked.
Once a hire is made, there will perhaps be more clarity on how the franchise envisions itself moving forward. But regardless of who eventually gets chosen, they will undoubtedly face challenges in improving the club’s chances going forward. The American League East doesn’t have weak spots, with each of the Orioles, Rays and Blue Jays having made the playoffs in 2023. The Yankees were bit by the injury bug and finished fourth but they will certainly be aggressive in the hopes of putting this season behind them.
Whether a hire has been made by the start of the offseason, the front office will have some formalities to attend to. Both Corey Kluber and Joely Rodríguez are sure to have their options declined after injury-marred seasons in 2023. Justin Turner figures to opt out after another strong season at the plate. $13.4MM is a strong salary for a player his age but the $6.7MM buyout means he only needs to find another $6.7MM in free agency in order to break even. The Sox will miss his bat but will likely need the designated hitter spot for other guys.
How aggressive the Sox will be for 2024 is an open question and likely won’t be answered until the front office business is complete. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the club’s payroll was one of the top five in the league for much of the century but they’ve dropped down since, settling at 12th place in 2023. Perhaps they will sign off on more spending after having reset their luxury tax status this year, but it also wouldn’t be a shock for a new exec to take a year to slow-play things and evaluate the franchise, an approach that is common.
When factoring in estimated arbitration salaries, Roster Resource pegs the club’s 2024 payroll around $167MM and their competitive balance tax figure at $187MM. Non-tendering depth infielder Luis Urías would knock those numbers down a few million, but the club isn’t too far from the $181MM payroll they had this year. They have a bit more room on the CBT side of things, with next year’s base threshold at $237MM, but it’s unclear if the club plans to spend up to or over that line.
The roster has its share of uncertainty, particularly on the pitching side of things. Chris Sale is coming off a somewhat encouraging season in 2023, as his 102 2/3 innings and 20 starts were more than he threw over 2020-2022 combined. But the results weren’t to his previous levels, with a 4.30 earned run average on the year. Perhaps he can fare better next year when he will be further from his injury struggles, but he will also turn 35 in March.
Nick Pivetta posted an ERA of 6.30 in his first eight starts and got bounced to the bullpen in May. He was able to get things back on track from there, with an ERA of 3.16 the rest of the way, finishing back in the rotation with a 4.04 ERA on the year overall. Brayan Bello made 13 appearances in 2022 but got a fuller audition in 2023, which resulted in some solid but not outstanding results. He registered a 4.24 ERA with a tepid 19.8% strikeout rate, though he limited walks and got heavy doses of ground balls.
Kutter Crawford had a 4.04 ERA this year with good peripherals, though it’s unclear if that’s sustainable since he’s never been a highly-touted prospect. Tanner Houck has shown some potential, but injuries have continually kept him in the range of 100-120 innings. The same is largely true for Garrett Whitlock, though he hasn’t even reached 100 frames since 2018.
Having six semi-plausible starting pitchers isn’t a terrible place to be in, but there isn’t much locked in, especially in the long-term. Sale is entering the final guaranteed year of his deal and Pivetta only has one arbitration season remaining. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Sox add someone here, though it might not be a top-of-the-market name, depending on where they plan to set payroll. Pitchers like Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery and Aaron Nola are destined for nine-figure contracts, but the Sox could perhaps set their sights on arms like Sonny Gray or old friend Eduardo Rodriguez. Beyond them are veteran bounceback candidates like Marcus Stroman, Jack Flaherty or Lucas Giolito.
The bullpen has a bit more clarity, with veterans Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin each having another year remaining on their respective deals. Josh Winckowski, John Schreiber and Brennan Bernardino have shown promise to varying degrees and should have the inside track for jobs on next year’s club. That still leaves plenty of room for a free agent addition, though any investment here could be on the modest side with Jansen and Martin already giving the club strong high-leverage options. On the other hand, if the new front office decides to make 2024 a sort of evaluation year, maybe Jansen or Martin find themselves on the trade block.
On the position player side of things, the catcher position is probably the most wide open. The Sox gave plenty of runway for Connor Wong and Reese McGuire in 2023, though neither of them took firm hold of the job. They each posted a matching wRC+ of 78 with so-so defensive grades. Wong was great with the running game but poor in terms of blocking and framing, whereas McGuire was generally middling across the board.
Investing in a veteran backstop and non-tendering McGuire would be sensible, though the free agent options aren’t terribly exciting. Mitch Garver and Tom Murphy have strong bats but generally struggle to stay healthy. Austin Hedges and Martín Maldonado have strong reputations as defenders and pitching staff leaders but they’re both poor hitters. Gary Sánchez is arguably the best of the bunch but his half season in San Diego was strong enough that he may have played himself into a two-year deal. The trade route could feature unproven options like Joey Bart or Iván Herrera.
The infield is half set, with Rafael Devers having third base spoken for. He will likely require a move to first base at some point since his defense isn’t strong at the hot corner, but his offense continues to be excellent and he’s under contract for another decade. Whenever it’s time to move over to first, it could be a bit tricky since Triston Casas seems to have established himself over there. He has 29 home runs in his first 159 major league games and has walked at a 14.9% clip, but his glovework isn’t strong either, perhaps leading him and Devers to someday co-exist via the designated hitter slot. But for the time being, it seems fair to expect them to stay on opposite corners.
The middle infield is far more up-in-the-air, with the investment in Trevor Story yet to pay dividends. He hit at a league-average level in 2022 and then required elbow surgery in the winter, not returning to the big leagues until August of 2023. The results were grim, as he struck out in 32.7% of his plate appearances and didn’t do much impact when he put the ball in play. His wRC+ of 48 was one of the 10 worst in the majors, minimum 160 plate appearances, with mostly catchers and bench players around him on that list. The club has little choice but to hope that Story gets back on track, given the four years left on his deal.
As for his double play partner, that’s also a question. The club has taken chances on a number of light-hitting utility guys of late, with the list including Urías, Yu Chang, Pablo Reyes, Hoy Park and Christian Arroyo. Of that group, only Reyes and Urías remain. The latter seems likely to be non-tendered after a rough season and Reyes is best suited for a bench/depth role. David Hamilton and Enmanuel Valdéz are present as optionable depth options.
The club could certainly pursue middle infield help but the options there aren’t great either. Whit Merrifield, Adam Frazier and Amed Rosario are arguably better second basemen than what the Sox currently have in-house, but each are coming off fairly unremarkable seasons.
In the outfield, Jarren Duran had a breakout season in 2023, with a .346 on-base percentage and 24 stolen bases. Even though his season was ended by toe surgery, he should be pencilled into the center field spot, at least as the strong side of a platoon. Alex Verdugo had another passable season, with offense around league average and strong defense. He figures to be in right field, though he also stands out as a possible trade candidate in his final arbitration season with a projected salary of $9.2MM. Masataka Yoshida showed some encouraging signs with his contact-heavy approach resulting in a 109 wRC+ in his first MLB season. The defense was poor, as was expected, though perhaps the Sox are comfortable using their small left field and the DH spot to diminish the effects of his glovework. Long-term, it’s not ideal to have three poor defenders battling for the DH position in Yoshida, Devers and Casas, but it’s semi-workable for now. Rob Refsnyder will be in the outfield mix as a short-side platoon guy.
Younger options could be pushing for time in that outfield mix this year, as each of Wilyer Abreu and Ceddanne Rafaela got into 28 big league games this year. Abreu fared better in those, but it’s too small of a sample to draw broad conclusions from. Roman Anthony is considered by some to be a Top 100 talent and has reached Double-A, perhaps putting a 2024 debut on the table. Miguel Bleis is also a highly-regarded prospect but is further away.
There may be glimmers of hope for the farm to help out at other positions as well, with catcher Kyle Teel having just been selected 14th overall in the most recent draft. Shortstop Marcelo Mayer is a consensus Top 100 guy and second baseman Nick Yorke has been on some of those lists as well. Each of those three got to Double-A in 2023 and won’t be too far from the majors.
Despite all the uncertainty, there are many things to like about this Boston club. They just went 78-84 in the toughest division in the league, with a run differential of -4. It would only take modest improvements to get them into contention for a playoff spot.
Perhaps a new hire would like to take a year to get more looks at young players like Duran, Rafaela, Abreu, Anthony, Teel, Mayer and Yorke. There’s plenty of money coming off the books after 2024, with Sale, Jansen, Martin, Pivetta and Verdugo all potential free agents. Maybe some of those guys end up getting moved this winter, freeing up roster space for younger guys. They need help at catcher and in the middle infield, but there aren’t obvious solutions available in free agency and the Sox have possible long-term solutions in the pipeline.
All things considered, the ship isn’t in terrible shape. But as of right now, it’s unclear who is steering it, which direction they’re going or how fast they’ll be allowed to head there. There’s plenty of fog on the horizon but perhaps things will clear up soon.