All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Matt O’Halloran takes a look at the Boston Red Sox!
The walls caved in. The town flooded. The levees burst. The 2020 season was one in which the Red Sox couldn’t seem to catch a break. From losing their manager, to their ace getting Tommy John Surgery, to trading the best position player the franchise has seen in 50 years, it was blow after blow for Red Sox Nation. However, there are some things to be hopeful for, and some things in 2020 from which we can take a positive.
2020 Record: 24-36, 5th Place in AL East
Team MVP: Alex Verdugo
Team Cy Young: Nathan Eovaldi
Biggest Positive Surprise: Bobby Dalbec, Tanner Houck
Biggest Negative Surprise: JD Martinez’s Offensive Struggles
This team did a lot wrong in 2020, but it also did some things right. As a team, they were dreadful, and their record shows it. The pitching was painful to watch at points. Nathan Eovaldi and Martin Perez were both solid options on the mound, but that list ends with them. JD Martinez, Michael Chavis, and Andrew Benintendi may have looked lost at the plate, but Alex Verdugo, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. all put together strong seasons at the plate. Bobby Dalbec came up and set the league on fire with a 152 wRC+ and 8 home runs (including a home run in 5 straight games 9/5-9/10) in 92 plate appearances. Tanner Houck impressed just as much, albeit in a smaller sample, posting a 0.53 ERA (895 ERA+) across his three starts (17 IP). This included a September 20th start against the Yankees in which he went 6 innings allowing just 1 hit and 0 earned runs. These performances, both good and bad, have put the Red Sox, and Chaim Bloom, in an interesting position as we prepare for the 2021 season.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
Key Losses: Jackie Bradley Jr., Martin Perez
Areas of Greatest Need: Rotation depth, Bullpen, Center Field
The Red Sox have already filled one of their greatest needs: manager. It was announced early on November 6th that the former Sox Skipper and World Series Champion Alex Cora would be coming back to Boston. This came after much speculation about a potential reunion, and a managerial search that narrowed down to Cora and Sam Fuld, whom Bloom has worked with previously during his time in Tampa Bay. While Sam Fuld was a great candidate and deserves an opportunity somewhere to manage, Alex Cora seemed like the guy from the moment the Red Sox entered the managerial market (although Bloom disputed this during Alex Cora’s introductory press conference). While Cora alone cannot be expected to take a team from where it was in 2020 to relevancy, let alone Championship contention, he certainly will be a calming presence in the clubhouse who will help to right the ship and bring the team a sense of identity – something they lacked in 2020.
With the managerial search completed, attention can turn to the team’s two major losses to free agency: Jackie Bradley Jr and Martin Perez. Perez became an instant fan favorite with his charismatic and jolly presence on Twitter, as he frequently interacted with fans. Every “Perez Day” was something to look forward to. However, the front office cannot afford to look at players through rose-tinted glasses. Martin Perez was good, not great (104 ERA+). By declining the 29 year old’s $6.5M option for the 2021 season, it became clear that the front office felt there was more value to be had in $6.5M. However, a return on a cheaper contract should not be ruled out. Bradley’s return to Boston is more unclear. The general atmosphere around Jackie and the team as the season came to a close seemed to indicate a return was unlikely. There were not reports of any significant extension talks between the team and Jackie. Bradley is projected by spotrac to earn a bit north of $11M in AAV as a free agent this Winter. At that price, I have a hard time seeing a reunion, but the general outlook on this year’s free agency would indicate that salaries are going to be down, and if Jackie isn’t receiving offers that high, the Red Sox could absolutely bring back their center fielder. It is worth noting that in the early days of free agency, while the Astros have reportedly emerged as front runners for the Gold Glover, the Red Sox have also been in contact with Bradley and have strong interest in bringing him back.
The final internal piece of this offseason puzzle is rather simple. This team, even if Chaim Bloom takes a vacation until Spring, will be better in 2021. The pitching rotation was decimated. Missing Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez for the entire season all but guaranteed a disappointing season in Boston. However, both are expected back on the field in 2021 – ERod by opening day, and Sale sometime in late spring/early summer. These two additions alone will be massive. Along with more time for young guys to develop, there is already a lot of talent under contract for next season. That said, there is still a lot to be done.
The Red Sox are going to sign some pitching this offseason. The only question is the caliber. I don’t expect Boston to be in on the big name – Trevor Bauer – nor do I think they should. Frankly, I’m just not certain that Bauer will be worth whatever contract he receives. He is the favorite to win the Cy Young award in the NL, but it would be an award for just 12 starts. This isn’t to say Bauer isn’t a good pitcher, but the money that would go into signing him is likely better spent to fix up several other facets of the roster. Not to mention Bauer’s qualifying offer, meaning he would cost the team a draft pick, in addition to the money invested in his contract. Instead, I expect and hope for the Red Sox to sign some lower profile arms with high upside. Jose Quintana would be my #1 target this offseason. It was not that long ago that Quintana was a highly sought after pitcher, as he netted the White Sox both Dylan Cease and Eloy Jimenez in a 2017 trade with the Cubs. Since he arrived in the North side, he hasn’t lived up to that, but he hasn’t been bad. In 4 seasons with the Cubs, he has posted a respectable 4.24 ERA, with a 3.93 FIP. In his 9 year career, he has posted a below average ERA+ just once (2019, 93). While we can’t expect him to be an ace, Quintana is the perfect low risk, high reward target for the Red Sox to pursue this winter.
Past Quintana, there are a number of other interesting options available. . Guys like James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, and Garrett Richards are similar in that they have shown flashes, however brief, of being quality arms. Signing them does come with an inherent risk. It is very possible that the flashes they’ve shown are gone. But at the price they will likely command, that risk is well worth the money. At the right price, the Red Sox would be foolish to not pursue these arms.
There are a few higher profile starters that the Red Sox might pursue, being Corey Kluber and Charlie Morton. Both had down years in 2020 and are getting into their mid to late 30s, but both have shown they can be ace pitchers. Kluber is just a few injury riddled seasons removed from a Cy Young award. However, those injuries and poor performance have tanked his value as a free agent. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to receive just a one year deal for $12 million. While Kluber has no obvious ties to Boston, Morton does. The right hander grew up in Connecticut, and expressed interest in playing in Boston when he was a free agent following the 2018 season. That winter, the Red Sox re-signed Nathan Eovaldi, which just about ended any hopes Morton had of coming home. However, this winter, the Red Sox have the payroll flexibility and roster space to sign the former-World Series Champion. It shouldn’t hurt that Morton played under Cora in Houston, where Cora served as the bench coach in 2017.
The team will also likely try to sign some relievers to bolster the bullpen. Liam Hendriks and Brad Hand headline this off-season’s free agent crop of bullpen arms. A few weeks ago I would have said that both were out of Boston’s price range, but Brad Hand cleared waivers with just 1 year and $10 million left on his contract. If no team was willing to pay even that for Brad Hand, it would seem that the contract he signs this winter likely won’t be much more lucrative. If that is the case, the Red Sox will certainly be in on both Hand, and Hendriks, who would each immediately slot in as the team’s closer. A tier down also features some intriguing late inning help, including successful-reclamation projects Trevor Rosenthal and Blake Treinen, Trevor May, and Alex Colome. None of these guys will break the bank, but all of them would immediately be major contributors out of the bullpen.
If the team fails to bring back Jackie Bradley Jr, they will also be in the market for a new center fielder, or at the very least, a corner outfielder with the intention of moving either Benintendi or Verdugo to center. One of the biggest names on the market this winter, George Springer, is a potential option. There has been plenty of speculation about the Red Sox and Springer. As with Morton, Springer has also played under Cora before. Whether or not Chaim Bloom intends to pony up the money that Springer will command remains to be seen, but if Bloom is going to make any big splash this off-season, it will likely be Springer. Springer put any doubts about his ability to perform without a trash can to rest this year, posting a 146 wRC+ in 2020. Not to mention he is one of the most decorated postseason hitters of all time. Besides Springer, Marcell Ozuna shapes up to be the next highest paid outfielder this winter. Ozuna’s offensive profile works great at Fenway, as he can abuse the monster and has the power to hit the ball out to right field as well. However, his defensive home is uncertain. Having spent his whole career in the National League, Ozuna never had a DH, until this year. And the Braves wasted no time shifting him into that role. Ozuna played in all 60 games, and 39 of them were as the DH. Given that JD Martinez opted back in, Ozuna, while a great hitter, is yet another bat-first, poor defensive outfielder who would force a poor defender into the outfield every day for the sake of having both his and Martinez’s bats in the lineup.
If the Red Sox fail to get any of Bradley, Springer, or Ozuna, their remaining options become much less exciting. There’s Joc Pederson, who while an electric hitter, has shown extreme platoon splits throughout his career and also leaves a hole defensively. Billy Hamilton is available, and while he is a terrific defender and baserunner, he has a paltry .298 career OBP. They may bring back Kevin Pillar after dealing him to Colorado this summer, but at this point in his career, Pillar is more of a platoon or role player than everyday center fielder.
Trying to predict exact trades is an exercise often done in vain. For that reason, it seems much more reasonable, to me, to discuss just potential trade targets for the Red Sox, and leave the negotiating to Chaim Bloom. This winter’s trade market could be a busy one, with a number of high profile players potentially being dealt, including Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, and Kris Bryant. While I do not expect the Red Sox to be the primary bidder on any of these big names, they will certainly be asking around about some others. Perhaps the biggest trade candidate is Texas’ RHP Lance Lynn. Lynn has put together great seasons in back to back years, including a 5th place Cy Young finish in 2019. Lynn is owed just $8 million in 2021, and will be a free agent after the season, making him the perfect low risk, high reward player. It’s possible that the Rangers’ asking price may be too much for the Red Sox, but given that the team failed to trade him at the deadline in 2020, it seems that his trade market may not be what you would expect for a player of his caliber. It’s not super clear what pieces the Red Sox would be looking to part with in any deals this Winter, but Lance Lynn will absolutely be on their radar.
There are a number of interesting bullpen arms likely available for trade this winter, including Cincinnati’s Raisel Iglesias and Milwaukee’s Josh Hader. Hader is likely more of a pipe dream than reality, as he is under control through the 2023 season, and has shown himself to be one of the very best in the league. A trade for him would be a blockbuster which I’m not sure the Red Sox are looking to do. Iglesias, on the other hand, is under contract for just one more year, at $9.125 million. While this is certainly more than they would likely offer Iglesias were he a free agent, if they struggle to find the help they are after on the free agent market, they may be forced to turn to a trade, and Iglesias would be a prime option.
Should the Red Sox fail to bring back Jackie Bradley Jr. to patrol center field, there are a few options to fill his spot on the trade market, which is more likely since the free agent market is, as previously mentioned, underwhelming. The most exciting trade option would be Tampa Bay’s Hunter Renfroe. Renfroe has three years of team control left, and received $3.3 million in his first year of arbitration. Tampa has the resources to easily replace him should they trade him. Renfroe struggled in 2020, but had posted a 111 OPS+ across 935 plate appearances in 2018 and 2019 combined. His poor 2020 makes him a potential buy low candidate, and hopefully he would prove that he simply had a bad 42 games in 2020.
2021 Projected Roster
Christian Vazquez, C
Bobby Dalbec, 1B
Michael Chavis, 2B
Rafael Devers, 3B
Xander Bogaerts, SS
Andrew Benintendi, LF
Jackie Bradley Jr., CF
Alex Verdugo, RF
JD Martinez, DH
- Chris Sale
- Eduardo Rodriguez
- Charlie Morton
- Nathan Eovaldi
- Jose Quintana
Tanner Houck (LR/Spot Starter)
Trying to predict an exact roster is going to be a fruitless endeavor, but if the team looks anything like above, I anticipate an improved season in Boston. Regardless of how this off-season goes, it will give us more insight into how Chaim Bloom runs a team, and how he will run the team moving forward. Having never worked in a big market before, it’s difficult to guess how Bloom will handle and approach big-name free agents and their contracts. We’ll have an idea by Spring. There is one thing I am certain of, and that is that better times are on the horizon for Red Sox Nation.