Free agency has been a drag in recent years, and the trend has been heading downwards sharply from the players’ perspective for a few winters in a row now. That has been the case both in terms of how much total money free agents are getting as well with how long they’re left sitting on the market. More than ever, we are seeing players go into February and even March without a deal. Now, this has certainly been the case for the middle class, so to speak, as the elite names are still at least getting something close to what we expect in terms of total money. Looking ahead to the coming winter, it does not appear things are going to be getting any better. In fact, it’ll almost certainly be worse. The league still has the rules in place that have led to these trends, and on top of that we’re coming off a shortened season without fans that will allow teams to cry poor.
There is a conversation to be had, one that has already been had, and one that absolutely should be had about what this means for the league and just society at large, but that’s not the conversation I’m having today. We have all winter for that conversation. Right now, I’m focused more on the Red Sox and what they can do with this information to take advantage as much as they possibly can. Boston obviously has as much or more financial might than just about any other franchise in the sport, and in the past they’ve been willing to flex that might. They need to use their biggest advantage again this winter.
Now, to be clear, this does not mean they need to have some over-the-top winter where they sign the biggest free agents. I’m not one who worries about losing a second round pick or the last couple seasons on a long-term deal, but there are even short-term concerns with the big free agents this year. J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball, but the Red Sox already have a top five backstop for much cheaper. Trevor Bauer is probably going to win the Cy Young, but he’s been wildly inconsistent year-to-year, never mind his off-the-field antics and everything else that comes with employing Trevor Bauer. George Springer is coming off a huge season, but it’s valid to want to avoid connections to the 2017 Astros. Marcell Ozuna has a great bat, but he’s also shown some inconsistencies and has some questions on defense. A team with J.D. Martinez already on the roster may not want to add another player like Ozuna, despite his strengths.
There are obviously arguments to sign any and each of those players on an individual basis as well, but my main point here is that the Red Sox do not have to make that kind of big splash to still use what will be a weak market this winter to their advantage. Instead, the biggest key to me is that they actually fill the holes that need to be filled and not talk themselves into reasons to hold back at certain positions. That means actually bringing in a steady second baseman rather than pinning hopes on a group of players who had a couple good weeks. That means fielding a lineup with three starting-quality outfielders. That means adding a left-handed complement for Bobby Dalbec, not really for a straight platoon but at lest for insurance in case the strikeout issues continue. That means not just adding one middling starter and having faith the rest will work itself out. That means actually looking at the bullpen for what it is and adding the necessary pieces (i.e. more than one, and at least one late-inning arm) to make it a competitive unit.
That’s a lot of work, but this is a bad team with a lot holes that need to be filled. That said, they can theoretically get all of this done without signing one of those elite-level players mentioned above. The template would be the offseason prior to the 2013 season, which obviously led to a championship. Clearly replicating those results would be nigh impossible, but the process is sound and fits well with this current Red Sox team, that has some star-level talent already but little surrounding it.
On top of that, there are going to be players this winter who, due to the financial situation that comes with a global pandemic, settle for much less than they usually would. The Red Sox are better positioned than most (possibly getting ready to go public notwithstanding) to take more financial risks, because there’s little doubt they’ll make that money back quickly. They’re the Red Sox. And they can take advantage here in two ways.
One is that they can identify mid-tier guys they want and jump on it right away. Given recent trends and the uncertainty that comes with the pandemic, players are going to be wary of sitting out in free agency too long. If a team comes along with a solid offer early, it’s not hard to envision certain players jumping on it early rather than waiting for a better offer and risking heading into March without a job. On the other end, the Red Sox can also look at, say, the bullpen or a second starting pitching addition, and wait until February and offer solid money to players left out there who were expecting even bigger deals.
My list above of needs this winter is certainly not a small one, but such is life when you were one of the five worst teams in baseball the previous season. By my count, there are at least seven additions that need to be made to make this a viable roster for 2021, and that’s not including a waiver claim or two. I’m talking legitimate additions that cost something. Now, it doesn’t have to all be free agency, to be fair. Trade markets exist as well. That said, if you want to keep the farm trending upwards, which is clearly a goal for the organization, then free agency is the best route wherever possible.
All of this is simply to say: The Red Sox have a lot of holes, but they can still fill them and take advantage of their financial might without even targeting an elite addition. It’s just going to take a little bit of creativity, and more importantly a desire not to settle for middling options already on the roster. When you’re the Boston Red Sox and you’re not using a weak market to your advantage, you’re simply not doing everything you can to put a winning team on the field. I’ve been assured by ownership for a couple months this is the priority for them. This is the test, and there is a clear path to passing it.