The Red Sox are in a pretty good place right now. They might not be unanimous favorites in the AL East, but neither are any of the other teams in the division, and Boston's combination of youth and talent is the envy of much of the league. They have as good a chance as anyone in the AL to make it to the playoffs this year, if not better than most.
Still, though, it's hard not to imagine what could have been if the Sox had gone in a different direction following their last-place finish in 2014. What if, instead of reloading by spending $278 million on Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Rick Porcello, the Sox had decided to go the slower rebuild route instead?
For obvious starters, the Sox wouldn't have had those three players in 2015 -- that could have changed the season significantly, since all three were awful during their first season in Boston. It also opens up questions about who would be in those positions going forward. Let's start answering them by seeing who would have been playing for the Sox instead, then work our way toward the present.
There was a debate to begin last spring over whether Shane Victorino or Rusney Castillo should have been playing in right field. The idea was Victorino gave the Sox the higher ceiling, and Castillo could come up and assume the role if -- okay, when -- Victorino was injured. That debate kind of fell apart after Castillo spent most of the spring hurt then started slow at Triple-A Pawtucket, but if the Sox were rebuilding, they would have had more incentive to get to the outfield of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Castillo that they finished 2015 with.
Not having Hanley Ramirez would mean left was open from the start, and while Bradley might have started the year there, Victorino's absence would have opened up right field for him or Betts early on. Castillo would probably hop into the majors a bit earlier, but it's hard to tell if that would have been an improvement because he had more exposure and time to adjust, or just because Ramirez was that horrendous in 2015.
So, 2015's outfield would have looked much different for much of the year, but the end result is probably the same. That is, unless Castillo gets enough extra playing time that went poorly to dissuade the Sox from giving him another shot in 2016. And they might very well have made a move, since Ramirez and Sandoval aren't on the books in this scenario: Justin Upton signed for six years and $132.75 million this winter, and an outfield of Upton, Bradley, and Betts would be something else. The Sox have long been interested in Upton, so let's assume this is the direction they could have gone in with all the money they have in this scenario.
However, Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada are both in the minors, and expected to be in Boston by 2017, and let's not forget that Manuel Margot is still in the hypothetical system at this time. Benintendi is a center fielder, and Moncada could very well end up in the outfield at some point -- maybe the Sox don't want to give money to someone like Upton when Castillo is there for a full-season shot, possibly his last. Plus, there will be other areas to spend cash on, and this trio gives Boston serious options and insurance for their outfield and its future.
The other thing to consider is that Yoenis Cespedes would technically still be on the Red Sox in our alternate vision, but chances are good that, since he wasn't going to sign an extension in Boston, he would have been dealt. It just wouldn't have been for Porcello, but instead, probably for prospects. Maybe that would have happened mid-season, and left field wouldn't have been open as early as discussed above, but in the end, you still have the same trio set for 2016.
In short, this is mostly an area for debate the 2015-2016 offseason didn't allow, because the money was already spent, but things would look pretty similar to how they do now -- maybe just with Margot still in tow. Maybe.
Even if the Red Sox were rebuilding after 2014, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz weren't going anywhere. Ortiz is too beloved for the Sox to be moving him at a time when they would be purposefully rebuilding instead of spending every dime they could to contend as fast as possible, and Pedroia is not only the kind of leader the Sox don't want to have to replace, but his deal is also so reasonable that he has more value to Boston than anyone else. So, they're still in town, 2016 is still Ortiz's farewell tour, and Pedroia remains the guy who pushed Betts to the outfield and will eventually push Moncada elsewhere, too.
Xander Bogaerts is still the shortstop, and we're still in the situation where Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez, and Ryan Hanigan are all going to be in the organization behind the plate. Remember, Vazquez wasn't hurt until late in the spring last year, and Hanigan had been acquired to help ease the Sox into a future with Swihart. The same abrupt injuries would have occurred and sped up the process whether Boston was rebuilding or reloading.
The Infield Corners
In 2015, Mike Napoli and Pablo Sandoval were at first and third base for most of the season. We can safely assume Napoli would have remained at first for as long as he did, with the Sox dealing him to a contender when the opportunity arose. Travis Shaw would have taken over at that time, and for 2016, would still probably be the primary option at first, especially since we're living in a world where John Farrell is desperately trying to find ways for him to get into the lineup.
As for third base, though, things are a little less clear. Does Brock Holt play third all season long since the Sox are rebuilding and third is a barren wasteland? Boston probably hands the job to Garin Cecchini and then eventually to Holt when Cecchini fails to produce at the necessary level. Remember, outside of Chase Headley and Sandoval, third was looking pretty ugly on free agency at that time, and Cecchini wasn't a terrible Plan B.
So, you might think there is a huge difference in how 2015 plays out at the hot corner if the Sox are rebuilding, but that's just not likely. The key change is that the money spent on Sandoval is not spent, so the Sox have it in their pocket for something else. With no Ramirez and no Sandoval, first base is open for Travis Shaw, and third base is probably going to someone like David Freese, who the Sox considered but did not sign this past winter since there wasn't room on the roster for him. Freese would be low-cost, he wouldn't cost a draft pick, and if for whatever reason the Sox floundered in 2016, he could be dealt to a contender should he perform solidly once more.
This is where all that money the Sox haven't spent yet in our hypothetical likely comes in. We have to figure out what the 2015 rotation would have looked like before we can see what holes are left to be plugged, though.
The Sox could trade Clay Buchholz, but remember: he's coming off of a tough 2014, so it's probably not worth it to the Sox to move him before 2015. Then, in 2015, he was hurt before the trade deadline, meaning he's not getting traded in-season, either. With his low-cost options for 2016 and 2017, the Sox could have very well dealt him prior to the this season in the hypothetical realm we've created, but chances are good that the price tags for back-end starters like Ian Kennedy would have scared them off of that unless someone blew them away. Remember, this is a short-term rebuild -- the idea is to get back into things in a hurry, not take five years off from competing. It's slower than spending heavily on Panda, Hanley, and Porcello, but it's not meant to be slow.
So, we've got Buchholz and Joe Kelly in the rotation in 2015. Let's say the Sox still go out and trade for Wade Miley, for the same reasons they wouldn't necessarily deal Buchholz: Miley is a long-term bet they could acquire for pieces they had no more use for. The Sox could have held on to Rubby De La Rosa and stuck him in the 2015 rotation, but his time in Boston to that point had already shown that his future with the Sox was in relief.
It's the other rotation spots that are a mystery. Do the Sox still go for Justin Masterson since they have the budget to attempt to capture a rebound season? Or do they keep their extra spaces that much more open so that pitchers like Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens, and Brian Johnson can get time in the majors as their development allows? My guess here is the Sox avoid Masterson and give Steven Wright a chance to start, then add someone at the level of Chris Capuano or Chris Young for the fifth spot -- pitchers who can work in relief, as depth, and as the fifth starter until someone with more of a future in town is ready to grab hold of the spot.
This would all be done with an eye on the 2015-2016 free agent class, in which the Sox would still sign David Price, as well as... Rick Porcello. Hey, this isn't an unimaginative thing: Porcello would have spent 2015 with the Tigers, and presumably would have continued to throw sinkers since he didn't have a new pitching coach telling him to change everything that made him appealing and productive in the first place. Then, the Sox would have been able to sign a guy they were interested in trading for if you assume Ben Cherington is still in power, or Dave Dombrowski is in charge anyway and goes out to sign not one, but two pitchers he is familiar with to get the rotation into working order.
The key difference here is that Porcello would have cost more than $82.5 million over five years as a 27-year-old free agent existing in the same dimension as Ian Kennedy's $70 million. You're probably looking at a $100 million Porcello, but the Sox are still ahead as far as available money goes, since Shaw and Freese are far, far less expensive at the corners than Ramirez and Sandoval.
So, you've got Price, Buchholz, Porcello, Miley, Kelly, and Rodriguez for 2016. The Carson Smith deal is likely one that still goes down, because Smith is under control for longer than Miley, the Sox still have Wright, Owens, and Johnson as depth, and room is made for Rodriguez to keep the spot he took for himself when Buchholz went down in July in our alternate timeline, or even earlier if his Triple-A performance pushed either of Wright or Young/Capuano out of the rotation.
If you're not buying the Porcello thing, maybe the Sox do spend on Upton for the outfield, pushing Castillo to the minors or the bench, and the Sox hold on to Miley rather than deal him for Smith. Then, instead of Smith, maybe the Sox throw this extra money they have at Darren O'Day and convince him to leave the Orioles for Boston, or maybe they target another cost-controlled reliever that lets them keep Miley rather than diving in headfirst.
The Sox bullpen was not a source of major spending before the 2015 season, so let's just admit it still would have been a depth-less dumpster fire and look toward what they had in mind for 2016. Robbie Ross would still be around from a 2015 trade, since the Sox were in a position to try to rehabilitate him in exchange for a pitcher they had no room for in Anthony Ranaudo. We've already discussed acquiring Carson Smith or Darren O'Day, too -- the real question is whether or not this team is going to go out and trade for Craig Kimbrel.
Considering that in this scenario, Boston has even more prospects after trading Yoenis Cespedes, and that they were linked to Kimbrel under both Cherington and Dombrowski in 2015, then yes, it's happening.
* * *
If you haven't already realized it, there isn't a huge difference between what the Red Sox did and what they could have done had they gone about things a little slower. Either way, you're talking about a young, talented core with even more young and talented players on the way, and they needed to be surrounded with quality players to form something akin to a contender. It's the same reason the Sox didn't have a major sale at the deadline last year when it was clear 2015 was a loss: they have assets that are more valuable to them than others, and they're not so far off even when they fail that they should blow things up entirely.
In this alternate setup, the Sox have more money available to them -- maybe they would have spent on Justin Upton or someone like that after all, with the idea being that Moncada is the future at third and Benintendi is the future in center and an eventual upgrade on Bradley. But in the end, we come down to very few major changes anywhere on the roster. Well, in 2016, anyway.
Don't expect Shaw to take Sandoval's job just yet
Is Pablo Sandoval's job at risk? Yes, but not for Opening Day, and not because of what Travis Shaw is doing in March.
There is likely far more of an impact from all that extra cash in 2017, when David Ortiz has retired and the Sox don't have the same in-house options to replace him that they do now, when Shaw can presumably step in at first while Ramirez shifts to DH. In this rebuild-focused world, the Sox could have spent huge on Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista as Ortiz's successor before 2017. Still, overall we're talking a difference of maybe a couple of players on the whole team, as many of Boston's decisions to add talent in the last six months are coming from the position of someone who might as well have been rebuilding.
The narratives would have been different, but the results probably would have been similar. We'd still be disappointed in the performance of the 2015 Red Sox, and we'd still be enthused about what all of this talent and youth means for the future. The key difference is in the money the Sox would still have to spend: there would be more room for adding a high-impact bat for 2017, and there would also be more wiggle room for in-season additions in 2016 than there are now. That's nothing to ignore, but it's not franchise-altering, either.
The key prospects and youth they don't want to block exist in both universes, so the moves they would allow themselves to make this past winter are going to look the same either way. The major changes would be in the shape of 2015's failures and who would be the designated hitter in 2017, and we'd all probably be a little more relaxed since we wouldn't have to hear the Pablo Sandoval Discussion all the time.
Oh, who are we kidding? Everyone would just find something else to be mad at that we'd try to write away with an alternate timeline. Time travel is more trouble than it's worth.