Happy 2018 to everyone! As we enter the New Year the hope is that the hot stove action to which we’ve grown so accustomed begins to approach its normal pace. It’s no secret that this offseason has been remarkably slow, and when things have occurred they have been at best uninspiring (Mitch Moreland) or at worst, incredibly depressing (Giancarlo Stanton to Yankees). Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox still have most of the heavy lifting ahead of them to put together a complete roster for 2018 club. The needs are clear. A big bat for the middle of the lineup, preferably a right-handed option. J.D. Martinez anyone? Additionally, they could add to the bullpen depth, likely with a LHP.
As someone who writes and podcasts about the team I have felt the slow pace of this offseason acutely. It has been a cold, baseball hell, devoid of anything interesting to discuss about the hometown team. We all have some idea as to the cause of this unusually slow winter—the long drawn out trade process involving Stanton and the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes was the initial hypothesis. Once those two big fish were plucked out of the pond the general theory was that things would pick up. Not so fast. The Orioles in their typical too late/maybe never fashion have decided to shop Manny Machado, if you believe them. The prospect of dealing for Machado has further starved an already underfed hot stove season. The other factor here is Scott Boras. The super-agent is known for drawing out his premium clients for a long period of time to get the best deal. It just so happens that most of this year’s big fish, including Martinez, Eric Hosmer, and Jake Arrieta, are Boras’ guys.
Just how slow has the 2017 offseason been for the Red Sox? This is what I seek to find out. To do so I went to the Red Sox official transactions pages and looked at eight full offseasons starting in 2009 and ending with this year’s partial off-season. You can view the data I compiled here. This was a nice sample size because it allowed me to look at three Theo Epstein off-seasons, three from Ben Cherington, and two and change with Dombrowski at the helm. Overall, I looked at 60 meaningful transactions that took place between November and opening day of each year. Over the 8.5 offseasons I looked at, the team has averaged about 7 moves before Opening Day. This data does not include minor-league deals but rather focuses mostly on major-league signings and trades with meaningful roster implications.
As I write this, the calendar has just flipped to January which has historically been the second busiest month for the Red Sox with 10 moves dating back to 2009. This year it would be shocking if we don’t see the bulk of the action during this month. The month we just finished, December, is historically where most of the major events have occurred including 38 of the 60 major roster moves. This is why December was so hard for us baseball fans. We are conditioned for fireworks and what we got this year was one bottle rocket. November came in at third place with eight moves taking place with February (3) and March (1) bringing up the rear. Looking at the data I was able to spot some trends about how each Pres/GM conducted themselves.
Dombrowski loves the big trade. He has made five offseason trades, all involving pitchers. Three of those trades were for relievers, two of which have been or are still injured. One landed the team Chris Sale and the other got rid of the most frustrating member of the rotation in recent memory—Clay Buchholz. Dombrowski has been judicious when handing out deals longer than two-years except in the case of David Price. His track record, however, shows he is more than willing to pay players who are performing at a high level like he did with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. His trades and short-term signings have generally worked out, although prospect-leaning fans hate his tendency to include four prospects or more for one player.
Cherington is a very interesting case, having compiled the perfect offseason heading into the 2013 season by signing Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross, Koji Uehara, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, and re-signing David Ortiz to deals of three-years or less. We all know how this worked out, with the team putting together one of the more memorable summers in Red Sox history on the way to the World Series victory. Fear the beard indeed. As good as the 2012 off-season was the 2013 and 2014 attempts to build a club certainly cost him his job. Cherington, a former farm director, never traded blue chip prospects for short term returns and rarely signed players to deals longer than two-years. Unfortunately for him he received little credit for the players who came up to the big leagues during his tenure and the disasters that are Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez continue to carry roster implications to this day.
Last but not least is the curse breaker in the gorilla suit, Brookline native Theo Epstein. I will always remember 2004 and 2007 for the amazing seasons they were. However, later in his tenure he made some questionable moves. Signing Carl Crawford to a seven-year deal makes the Hanley Ramirez signing look like a value as the former is arguably the worst contract in Red Sox history. The other long deal he signed was the five-year John Lackey contract which ultimately helped the club to a World Series victory with his 2.77 ERA in the playoffs. I would bet if you asked him he’d rather have a do over with the trades of Anthony Rizzo and Josh Reddick, but hindsight is always 20/20. My favorite Epstein moves from his later years are certainly the uncovering of Hideki Okajima, the lefty swap that landed the team Andrew Miller, and the one-year $10 million contract he gave to Adrian Beltre.
Overall, the past 8.5 off-seasons tell us a few things:
- Typically, if a big ticket free agent was going to be signed or the team was going to make a big trade for someone like Sale it would have happened by now. Only Napoli and Beltre were signed after the New Year and Napoli was delayed due to hip issues.
- The team has only given out deals longer than three-years six times. Victorino worked out incredibly, the rest were terrible or a mixed bag.
- Dombrowski is very adept at trading. Sure, he gives up a lot, but he does seem to get players that add considerable value.
- The market has changed drastically, it seems now more than at any time in the recent past teams are hesitant to hand out large multi-year commitments.
- The best way to build a good bullpen is strength in numbers. Trading prospects in one for one deals for relievers, or signing relievers to short year/money contracts. Giving up multiple players for the elite relievers at the height of their value is not a sustainable strategy.
- It would pay for Dombrowski to study the art of the small deal, moves like the Anthony Ranaudo for Robbie Ross Jr. seem inconsequential, but tend to have important implications.
From this point forward we can expect a busy January, with lots of work needs to be done before the team you will watch in 2018 is ready for action. As this data shows, January is a month where things happen, but not typically big things. If the Red Sox get deeper into discussions with the Orioles about Machado or choose to sign Martinez that could change in a hurry. Maybe this is the new normal as teams prefer to make trades and cultivate young talent rather than doling out big money deals, though to me it feels like an aberration. The Red Sox will add to their squad and will do it sooner rather than later. It's also hard to envision another offseason like this in the future, though, especially with the crop of free agents coming up next year.