Ownership has stated it is our goal, but not our mandate, to get under the luxury tax threshold this year. I, however, am making it our mandate.
If I’m being honest, I feel our team has more holes than people may admit. Our rotation has health issues galore and we’re in need of a 5th starter, and our bullpen consists of two reliable arms and little quality depth. We also need a starting 1B or 2B, and to fill out our backups at several spots.
If Mookie doesn’t agree to an extension, bringing him back for one last hoorah is pointless unless we’re not only willing to spend money in the off-season to fill those holes, but also spend the money (and prospects, which we’re already lacking) at the deadline to see it all the way through.
I feel the best approach is to do our best to field a competitive team where things could break right and we surprise people (hello 2013!), but more importantly, get under the luxury tax, reset the penalties, and hit the ground running again in 2021 with a solid foundation and clear path forward. By extension, we’re not looking to trade our prospects, but we’ll explore all avenues to find value where we can. Because of that, I’ll focus on free agency.
Here’s the plan:
1/ Non-tender Sandy Leon. He’s awful. I’m pretty sure my 5-year old nephew can hit better than Leon’s 34 and 40 wRC+ the past two seasons (to go along with a mere 0.4 and -0.2 fWAR). I’ve always felt his "works well with pitchers" argument was nonsense, and surely didn’t present itself this year. Either way, he’s simply not worth the projected $2.8M he’ll make next year. I’ll take my chances with literally anyone else.
2/ Say goodbye to JBJ. If there’s a market, I’d trade him. If I don’t feel there is, I’d non-tender him. He simply isn’t worth the projected $11M salary and isn’t in the long-term plans. He is wildly inconsistent at the plate, strikes out a ton, and honestly, his defense is overrated. It’s still excellent, but not nearly as elite as people think.
I’d then replace him with Jarrod Dyson. He’s no spring chicken, having just turned 35 years old, but he’ll be cheap ($4M AAV over the last two years), and despite his age, he’s still an exceptional defensive CF, and every bit as good as JBJ (Dyson was even better this year). His offense has taken some big steps back the last two seasons, but even so, he was still worth 1.3 fWAR this season (JBJ was worth 1.4 fWAR). He puts the ball in play, unlike JBJ, so I’ll trust Cora and Co. can squeeze a little bit more out of him at the plate, and take whatever he’s giving me there to go along with his excellent defense and around $7M in savings.
Another option is Billy Hamilton. He’s far worse as a hitter, but like Dyson, his defensive metrics are better than JBJ’s. He provides exceptional speed and puts the ball in play, so perhaps Cora can utilize him in more creative ways in the lineup. But Dyson is my preferred choice.
3/ Trade fan-favorite Mookie Betts. I know, it stings. But it’s more and more likely Mookie is headed to FA and there’s no way to justify keeping him around for one more year when we know we’re not going to spend in the off-season or the deadline to go all in for one more year. I’m not going to speculate on specific prospects, because that’s an exercise in futility at this time, but Mookie should be traded for the best prospects we can get, along with that projected $27.7M savings. We’ll take a run at him again when he’s a free agent, but if he’s not signing an extension now, it’s probably because we’re either not willing to match his asking price, or he’d rather play somewhere else.
I’d replace him with either Kole Calhoun or Yasiel Puig. Calhoun is a perennial Gold Glove finalist and has won the award in 2015. In fact, for the third consecutive year, Calhoun was a finalist, only to lose to Mookie. If you’re going to replace Mookie, you might as well do it with the guy he keeps edging out for hardware!
Offensively, Calhoun is nothing special, but he’s solid (career 105 wRC+). He’s never hit fewer than 17 HRs in a full season, and saw a huge spike this year with 33. Maybe that’s inflated because of the juiced balls, but either way, he’s a solid player.
For his career, he’s been worth, in order, 1.0 fWAR, 3.4, 3.2, 3.5, 2.1, 0.0, and 2.5 fWAR. MLB Trade Rumors is projecting he inks a one-year, $6M deal. I’ll gladly jump all over that.
Another possibility is Yasiel Puig, whom MLBTR projects to earn a one-year, $8M deal. Defensively, he’s okay and you could do far worse. Plus, that arm! Offensively, he’s been up and down, but has never put up a below-average wRC+. Put him in a hitter’s park like Fenway on a one-year deal where he’s looking to regain value, and in a lineup with Bogaerts, Devers and JDM, he could have an absolutely massive year at the plate.
You can’t replace Mookie directly, but these guys are decent players who can provide value, plus we’d save around $20M (plus acquired prospects).
4/ Walk away from another fan favorite, Brock Holt. I like Holt, but we’re trying to save money, and spending $5M on a utility player isn’t ideal. Holt offers flexibility, but he’s played the vast majority of his innings at 2B. Holt’s not a starter, so I’d be fine replacing him with another cheap option in FA or trade, or even Tzu-Wei Lin/Marco Hernandez if we had to.
5/ Fill a primary spot at 1B or 2B. There are two options here: Sign Justin Smoak to play 1B, or sign Howie Kendrick to play 2B and well, a little bit of everywhere.
Let’s start with Smoak. I haven’t seen a projection for his salary, but his last contract saw him make an AAV of $8M over three years and he’s coming off a down year. The good news is he has always followed up down years with really good ones, and MLBTR doesn’t even have him listed among their Top 50 Free Agents, so he isn’t likely to make much. If he can be had for a one or two-year deal for around $5M AAV, I’d take a chance.
Smoak can play everyday, and is a switch hitter. He’s also got power. He’s acceptable against LHP (career 92 wRC+), but hits better against RHP (career 109 wRC+). He may end up putting up only average numbers at the plate, but he’s got potential to have a really good offensive year, as he’s done it before. He would be the primary 1B, but can split some time there with Chavis depending on Cora’s needs.
Howie Kendrick is another option. Rumors are he could be had around $6M AAV. He’s not an everyday guy like Smoak, but he can play a little of everywhere if you need. This could allow Cora a lot of flexibility in his lineups and provides more value than what we had in Holt.
6/ Sign Michael Wacha to fill out our rotation. Let’s be honest, the starting pitcher market consists of Cole, Strasburg, and no one else I’m interested in, so it’s slim pickings.
MLBTR has Wacha projected at a one-year, $6M deal. He has injury questions, and missed September with a shoulder issue. It’s a big gamble, no doubt, especially considering the rest of our rotation has question marks as well. However, there really aren’t any options out there that are cheap and provide anything close to reliability.
Remember, the goal is to field a completive team where if things break right, we can make a deep run, but also get under that luxury tax. Blowing $10M+ on a pitcher who isn’t that good in the first place is not what we’re looking for, even if he "eats innings." I’ll take the gamble, and hope Wacha stays healthy for most of the year, and can regain some of that past magic.
Realistically, Wacha’s health isn’t even all that relevant. If Sale, Price and Eovaldi are all healthy and pitching to their capabilities, then Wacha is an afterthought and we can get by with someone else if we had to. If those other pitchers go the opposite way, like this year, then even a healthy Wacha (or whoever else is your choice to fill that last spot) isn’t going to make a difference.
7/ Restructure our bullpen with some moves. Our bullpen needs help. While our bullpen did have the highest K/9 of any bullpen in baseball (10.50), we also had the highest BB/9 (4.38). Last time I checked, the goal of pitching was to keep people off base, not deliberately put them there.
I’m heading into the season with Barnes and Workman as my guarantees, but they really need to cut down on their walks. Every other spot is up for grabs. Again, I’m not interested in expensive relievers, but diamonds in the rough and relievers who could be flying under the radar and have a decent season.
First, I’d start by non-tendering Hembree and saving his projected $1.6M salary. He’s not that great, has been walking a lot of guys that last few years, and although he has a high strikeout rate, he’s pretty replaceable in my mind.
Two potential targets are Jeremy Jeffress and Robbie Erlin. Jeffress struggled this year, with a 5.02 ERA, 3.96 FIP and 4.40 xFIP. However, even with that down year, his career is a 3.16 ERA, 3.62 FIP and 3.66 xFIP. He doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, but he doesn’t walk a lot either. He also keeps the ball on the ground, with a 56.8% GB rate over his career.
Robbie Erlin is another candidate. He had a meh 2019 season, with a 5.37 ERA, 3.61 FIP and 4.14 xFIP. Even with that, he has a career 4.57 ERA, 3.59 FIP and 3.72 xFIP. Like Jeffress, he’s another reliever who doesn’t strike out many but doesn’t walk many either (only 1.78 BB/9 over his career!). If he can be had cheaply, I’d take a chance on those peripherals.
With all that, here’s roughly what the lineup would look like:
1B: Smoak or Kendrick
2B: Chavis or Kendrick
RF: Calhoun or Puig
Barnes, Workman, Darwinzon, Josh Taylor, Walden, Erlin, Jeffress, Hector Velazquez* (*Velazquez is here only because he’s long-man/spot starter depth, although he does have an option, so he could be in AAA and it wouldn’t bother me in the least)
TBD with cheap depth
Note: MLB is going with a 26-man roster this year, so that extra spot can either fill the bench or be added to bullpen.
If my math is correct, we’d be just under the luxury tax threshold with only a few bench spots to fill. Of course, this isn’t set in stone, and we’d like to be comfortably under.
Unless Pedroia becomes my personal hero and savior and unexpectedly retires, we’re going have to look to eat whatever we need of Price or Eovaldi’s contract to get us comfortably under the limit. It’s just too much money to spend on those pitchers, and I hated the Eovaldi contract the minute it happened. I trust Bloom to help find a diamond in the rough starter who can provide some value, and I’ll take my chances with their health and salary savings over Eovaldi or Price.
In lieu of eating salary. we could certainly nix any one of my suggested signings and decide on a much cheaper option to save more money. If you don’t like Wacha, throw a cheaper option out there and hope for the best. Don’t want Jeffress in the bullpen? Roll the dice on someone else.
Either way, we’re not going to be World Series favorites, but we do still have a ton of talent and shouldn’t completely punt on 2020. In my opinion, my suggestions give us a fighting chance. More importantly, Chaim will likely work his magic and make a number of under-the-radar trades, and we’ll get prospects in return for Mookie (and possibly JBJ), and reset the luxury tax ready to spend again in 2021 with a clearer path and more flexibility.
What are your thoughts?