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What to expect from the Red Sox on the free agent market

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Look for the work on the margins.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves
The biggest name the Sox might grab?
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020 season officially over, at least for the Red Sox, it’s time to look to next year. Having spent the year clearing out contracts to become financially flexible, the Sox now have a chance to shop a free agent market that could reshape the team in 2021 and beyond.

The big names that I’ve heard fans clamoring for are J.T. Realmuto, George Springer and Marcell Ozuna, but with the possible exception of the last one, I don’t find those signings very likely. If we have learned anything about Chaim Bloom from his time in Tampa and Boston it’s that he likes to work the edges, not the middle of the field, so to speak. I’d expect a lot more targeted, smaller deals for shorter lengths of time than new potential albatrosses.

For instance, Springer is a good-to-great player having a a very good year, and I’d expect the price to reflect that. At 31 years old, he’s not exactly in his prime, either. I’d be extremely surprised if the Sox decided to pursue Springer when they have the option of re-signing Jackie Bradley Jr.. also 31, or any number of free agent centerfielders, and putting, say, 34-year-old Michael Brantley next to him or them. Brantley is plenty good enough to work for Boston, would command far fewer resources than Springer, and wouldn’t have to be tied to a long contract. He seems far more in line with Bloom’s structural plan than his current Astros teammate.

Similarly to the case of Springer, I don’t see the Sox pursuing Realmuto, though it wouldn’t ultimately surprise me as much as the former. I still believe that Christian Vázquez is the likely every day starter at catcher, or as close to that as you can get, and if the Sox wanted to bring on a heavier hitting catcher I’d expect them to look at someone like Robinson Chirinos, who is coming off a down year but has legit power and would cost next to nothing. With Vázquez in the building, I expect the Sox to stream second catchers more or less yearly — given how good Kevin Plawecki was this year, it’s possible he returns, though his hot hitting seems as likely to continue as Chirinos’s cold streak.

If the Sox are going to spend relatively big on a position player, Ozuna seems like the safest play. To say he has proven he can hit at Fenway Park is an understatement — he showed, this year, how the Green Monster was created for his game. That’s very similar to Alex Verdugo, who the Sox went out and got at considerable expense because of his suitability to Fenway, and he spent the season showing he was, indeed, a great fit. At 30 and with a more up-and-down past than Springer, Ozuna’s price is likely to be more in line with what the newly dexterous Sox would prefer to spend on a top player, at a more palatable number of years.

Overall, I think the Sox will simply attack the margins much harder than we like to dream about when thinking of free agent acquisitions — this is a slow build, after all, timed both to mesh with returning starting pitchers this season (Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodríguez) and younger players and minor leaguers/draft picks going forward (Tanner Houck, Bobby Dalbec, Tristan Casas, Jeter Downs, among others). My general rule of thumb in free agent watching is that if a player will define the Sox for five years or more, he’s probably the wrong guy. Bloom bought time with his thrifty 2020, and I expect him to use it.