This winter, much like last winter, includes a frustratingly slow-moving MLB offseason. There have been some big moves here and there, and it seemed the reliever market was starting to pick up after before the holiday season began, but for the most part the biggest names available haven’t signed. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel and A.J. Pollock, among others, remain without a team after the New Year. J.T. Realmuto continues to be everyone’s favorite trade target instead of an exciting player on a new team. There’s plenty of reasons for what is starting to become a trend around the league, but that’s not the point of this piece.
The fact of the matter is that teams are less and less willing to pay market price on the open market, and players are understandably not willing to quickly cave and lower their demands. It’s a battle of chicken between the two sides, and it’s leading to plenty of inaction early in the winter. This isn’t entirely universal, but in most cases teams are holding out longer than the players and eventually the demands do come down and the free agent deals are smaller than ever. Something will and needs to be changed at some point down the line, but in the meantime regardless of how you feel about the current state of baseball’s economic landscape, the ripple effects are felt around the league. In the case of our favorite team, the Red Sox are in a position where they can take advantage of the slow pace and further add to a roster that just won the World Series.
There are some important points to keep in mind here. For one thing, the Red Sox are seemingly one of the last teams in baseball willing to spend money to improve their roster. The luxury tax has become a de facto salary cap, and even teams like the Yankees and Dodgers are treating it as such. Though I’ll always believe the Red Sox can spend more than they do, they are doing a hell of a lot better right now than anyone else in the game. Furthermore, we saw the Red Sox take advantage of the slow winter just a year ago when they waited out the J.D. Martinez market. Again, in no way do I think a larger contract to Martinez would have hindered the team, but they got a downright steal on the Martinez deal thanks to the rest of the league being scared of spending money.
This winter, there isn’t a clear, slam-dunk option on free agency like there was with Martinez, but there are a few options available that the Red Sox could sign for deals way below market value and supplement their roster. The first is the most obvious and the most likely to come to fruition: Craig Kimbrel. We all know that the closer left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth in the postseason and his regular season in general seemed a bit more shaky. However, his final regular season numbers were still outstanding and it’s easy to forget he basically didn’t have a spring training. Kimbrel is still far and away the most talented reliever available on the open market and is still in the conversation for best reliever in baseball. His initial demands were obviously never going to happen, but if his market craters and he has to settle for a three- or four-year deal, there’s no reason the Red Sox should let him pitch for another team. To a lesser extent, this logic applies to the other big-name relievers on the market, though I have a harder time seeing them fall significantly below their market value.
We are pretty sure the Red Sox are going to acquire reliever regardless of whether or not the prices come crashing down, but some other areas at which they are expected to stand pat could become interesting if those markets crash. For example, the only plan of action behind the plate right now seems to be to trade or release one of the three catchers on the roster, but what about Yasmani Grandal. We discussed him early in the offseason, but since then there’s been close to zero traction with him and the rest of the league. The draft pick compensation attached to the former Dodger catcher seems to be destroying his market, and there’s at least a chance he decides to sign a one-year deal a la Mike Moustakas last year and attempt free agency again next year. Further hurting their upcoming draft isn’t ideal, but if there is a real chance the Red Sox could provide themselves such a monumental upgrade at catcher on a cheap, one-year deal? Well, it’d be irresponsible to not at least seriously consider it.
Finally, you can look at the utility market. Now, this is a less straight-forward addition because the Red Sox already have a lot of infield depth. They have a starting group plus Eduardo Núñez and Brock Holt on the bench, both of whom are likely to play a bit more than your typical bench player. Of course, Núñez is coming off a horrible season and could be a DFA candidate six weeks into the year if things don’t improve. There’s also Dustin Pedroia, who we all want to see succeed again but it’s impossible to know what to expect in terms of health. It would be easy to be tempted by more infield depth, and specifically by guys like Marwin Gonzalez and old friend Jed Lowrie. Gonzalez in particular, given his Holt-like versatility, would be intriguing. I don’t anticipate either of these guys being real targets in Boston, but if the slow winter hinders their markets enough, you have to at least take a real look.
A lot of this is probably wishful thinking on my part, but what else is this time of year for? Plus, it’s not like I’m saying the Red Sox should go out and sign Bryce Harper (but they totally should). The main point is that free agent contracts don’t look like they used to and teams around the league don’t want to spend anymore. Teams are always looking for market inefficiencies and trying to zig when everyone else zags. In this case, zigging means signing free agents, and there are some scenarios where the Red Sox could take their roster to another if the slow winter only continues to crawl at a snail’s pace.