With the end of the World Series rapidly approaching, teams everywhere are getting ready to remake their rosters for the 2017 campaign. The exciting side of that, of course, lies in big free agents and blockbuster trades. For the GMs (and Presidents of Baseball Operations) of the world, however, much of the work falls into far more mundane territory. Finding a few minor league free agents to take a flier on with remaining roster spots in Triple-A, or getting the 40-man roster set ahead of the Rule 5 draft.
And then there’s the housecleaning, which is what we’re looking at here. Where once a team might have gone out of their way to protect a prospect on the 40-man, if three years later they’re still sitting around without a major league spot locked up, suddenly they’re the ones who might be making room rather than receiving it. That’s how long the grace period is: three years to transition from minor leaguer to full-time major leaguer after being added to the 40-man. After that, your options are burned, and it’s DFA time.
There’s quite a few players on the Red Sox’ 40-man without options, but only a handful of them for who that really matters.
Honorable Mentions — Sandy Leon, Steven Wright
Both of these players were actually out of options before 2016. For Wright, that meant he had to break camp with the Sox and stick, and Leon had to do the same after being acquired and added to the 40-man for the first time. And both could well have found themselves in this awkward position again had they not enjoyed their surprisingly productive seasons. Both will hope they’ve cleared this hurdle for good.
Brentz is probably the easiest guy to put into the “cut” camp. That might entail a trade (if they can find anyone even slightly interested in the former first-round pick), or a simple DFA. He’d stand a good chance of making it through to Pawtucket if they went that route given how he’s looked in the majors, but it’s not like the Sox stand to lose a whole lot either way.
We hit on Abad’s situation yesterday, and I maintain that the lefty was not quite as bad as he seemed to be while in a Red Sox uniform. That said, Abad’s lack of options are kind of a killer. It’d be nice to have the LOOGY around for when injury inevitably hits the pen—better to go with someone who’s really good at one thing and really bad at another than someone who’s just moderately bad at most. The problem is, even giving him full credit for his performance against lefties, it’s hard to justify giving him a spot on the 25-man roster, much less paying seven figures for the privilege. Someone will probably have a space for him, but likely not the Red Sox.
Here’s where it starts getting interesting. Yeah, Elias was a total disaster last year. But it’s hard to completely fake 286 innings of reasonable pitching. Elias isn’t a good starter, but 2016 notwithstanding, he’s the sort of back-end arm that teams (contenders, even!) always end up needing throughout the year. Maybe something’s gone horribly and irreparably wrong, but I would be more surprised to see Elias never record another successful major league season than I would be to see him throw to a 4.50ish ERA next year.
Unfortunately...the Red Sox just don’t have a place for him. Not unless they’re planning to unload a starting pitcher. If they let Buchholz walk (which seems highly unlikely given his option year and late-season surge) or trade him, then maybe there will be a long relief spot available in the bullpen. Barring that, though, Elias is out of options, and the Sox have nowhere to put him.
Unlike with Brentz, though, it seems likely the Sox will be able to find a trade partner for Elias. They won’t get much, and it may take them until February or March, but with the starting pitching market so horrible, someone will likely decide a 28-year-old under team control who has shown the ability to survive in the majors is worth a low-minors lottery ticket.
I like Heath Hembree. The 27-year-old reliever has now put together 86 innings of 3.13 ERA pitching with the Red Sox, and has only gotten better in each successive season. That should be enough to leave Hembree safe, particularly with so much team control left.
I expect it will be, too. I’m just not completely convinced. For some reason, the Red Sox just seem to not be totally on board with him. Last year, Hembree was jerked around between the majors and minors while players with less impressive results were allowed to stick in Boston throughout. This year, they won’t have that option. If they’re not willing to stick with Hembree, they need to trade him. Someone out there will definitely bite given his solid results and the relative hype that once surrounded him as a possible closer in San Francisco.
Catcher is quietly the most interesting roster position for the Red Sox. Sandy Leon was very good in 2016, and while he’s likely to head back down to Earth in 2017, it’s entirely possible he keeps his head solidly above water, if perhaps below league average (independent of position). Blake Swihart’s season was a lot more rocky. He was seemingly disqualified defensively after a remarkably short span of games, tossed into left, and ended up getting hurt (see Ramirez, Hanley). Still, in that time, he once again proved he’s got an MLB-ready bat. He may not win any silver slugger awards, but he can absolutely hold his own.
For Vazquez? Well...there was a brief period there where he he seemed the savior. Then he hit to a 54 OPS+ over 184 plate appearances. He didn’t even look particularly amazing with the glove, though some of that may be an artifact of having to deal with Steven Wright for six games.
Is Vazquez an average defender? No, and I don’t think even this small sample size would really suggest that. What framing metrics there are put him solidly above that in 2016, and I expect over time he’ll pull ahead of Leon (who is himself quite capable) on catching baserunners. I don’t buy into the idea that Vazquez isn’t a top-shelf defender based on 2016 anymore than I buy into the idea that Swihart is completely incapable back there based on a bad week.
The hitting, though? Oh boy that was ugly. Really ugly. And unfortunately, it’s very easy to believe that Vazquez just can’t hit, since that was kind of what was expected.
That being said, it’s still too early for the Red Sox to be looking to trade Vazquez, even it makes for some roster awkwardness. He was coming off a lost season in 2016, after all. There’s certainly room for rust. It’s worth a roster spot, at least to begin the season, to give Vazquez the opportunity to show he’s better than that. That will mean optioning Swihart to Pawtucket, yes, but especially with the uncertainty of all the players involved, simply preserving depth will be important.
For Vazquez and the other four players, plenty could change between now and April. Injury could open spaces, or keep the Sox from having to make some of these decisions. But for all five, both now and going forward, there’s no more riding the Pawtucket shuttle up and down I-95. It’s either Boston to stay, or into the uncertain waters of the waiver wire.