The Red Sox have done some work over the last couple of weeks to finally fill some holes on this roster and make the picture much more complete than where we were, say, a month ago. Recently they’ve added Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards to the rotation, Adam Ottavino to the bullpen, and Enrique Hernández to the lineup. None of these players are massive difference makers on their own, but collectively they certainly raise the floor and the ceiling of this roster. I have my quibbles with each player individually, but as a whole it has been an overall solid job by the front office. Of course, the offseason is not over, so the natural question to come now is: What’s next?
It’s hard to have this conversation outside of the context of the luxury tax. Whatever my feelings — I don’t think it should be a concern, particularly with a new CBA coming up — there is a good chance the Red Sox will treat the first threshold as a payroll cap. Now, that’s not a certainty and to their credit I would not be totally shocked if they went over the mark, even if just slightly. That said, I think at this point, given not only the Red Sox’s actions over the last couple of years but more importantly the league more generally where every team seems to treat it as a hard cap, the safer assumption is to try to keep the figure under that first threshold. Better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.
As of right now, according to Cot’s Contracts the Red Sox have roughly $8 million to spend before they hit that first threshold of the CBT. Ideally, a team typically likes to stay at least a few million under the mark in order to make additions in the middle of the season if they need to — tax calculations are officially done after the season — but I don’t anticipate that being something the Red Sox will care as much about this year as perhaps they have in the past. If we’re being honest, this team still has an uphill battle toward contention, and more likely than not they’ll be sellers at the deadline, which means they’ll be losing payroll, not adding it. This is, in fact, one of the arguments for going at least a bit over the tax. But even if they don’t go over, they can spend right up to it. Then, on the off chance they are in a position to buy in July, I can see ownership being willing to go over the mark in order to make a final push into October.
It also should be mentioned that the Cot’s Contracts’ (or any other site’s) figures are not gospel. There is some vagueness that goes into these preseason calculations, and things can change. So I’m using the $8 million figure as my own guide here, but the organization’s internal calculations may differ a bit. So with that, I see three holes that the team should at least consider filling before the start of the season in the outfield (most likely in center field), with a left-handed bat for the bench (most likely one who can play first and complement Bobby Dalbec) and in the bullpen.
We’ll start in center field, which would appear to be the hole most in need of addressing. It is my position that Jackie Bradley Jr. has and still does make the most sense for this team. As I said in last week’s mailbag, Alex Verdugo can handle center field just fine, but then right field becomes an issue. Given that and the pitching staff’s need for the best defense possible, finding a good glove in center field makes the most sense. Unfortunately, if the budget is limited to the tax threshold, Bradley would essentially be out of reach. From there you’re looking at Kevin Pillar as a Plan B, but even he might be a stretch. FanGraphs projected him for a $5 million salary, which would be more than half of the allotted budget. One could make the argument that center field is enough of a priority to make that kind of commitment, but it’s not a slam dunk to me. If not Pillar, then I think you start looking at guys like Albert Almora and Jake Marisnick, and at that point I’m not sure it’s worth the roster spot.
I think another direction they could go is to actually sign a second baseman here and make Enrique Hernández more of a full-time outfielder. He could still fill in at second base at times — the versatility is, of course, part of the appeal — but he and Verdugo could in some combination handle center and right field and you bring in someone like Jason Kipnis, Joe Panik or Hanser Alberto on a cheap one-year deal. It would be a bit out of the box, but if Bradley is truly out of range price-wise, I think that might be the most effective use of budget space.
From there, looking at the left-handed bat need it just seems like Mitch Moreland is too perfect of a fit. The organization loves him. He is extremely comfortable here. He has the leadership qualities you want with someone who would play alongside a young player like Bobby Dalbec. And he has shown he can play that part-time role and also come through late in games off the bench when needed. If for whatever reason that doesn’t work out, other possibilities would be, in no particular order, Brad Miller, Jake Lamb, Derek Dietrich or Logan Morrison, among others. But again, Moreland just makes too much sense and you can probably get him for a million bucks or two, I would think.
And then finally we get to the bullpen. I personally would like to see another late-inning arm here. Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino have the upside, but there’s also some fair amount of downside as well with their command issues. However, the market is starting to dry up with late-inning free agents, and they would probably have to go super cheap at the other spots to have a chance at, say, Alex Colomé or Trevor Rosenthal while staying under the tax line. More likely I think we see them wait until right before camp and see who falls through the cracks from the next tier down, thinking about guys like Tyler Clippard, Cam Bedrosian, Tommy Hunter, Shane Greene, Sergio Romo, Chaz Roe. There are a lot of those players, and the Red Sox could probably find one on the cheap.
So, it’s going to be difficult, but not impossible, to address the remaining holes on the roster if they do want to stay below the tax. We do have to mention the possibility of opening up more money, though. An Andrew Benintendi trade would probably be the most likely way. If they didn’t get back major-league players, that would open up a bit over $6 million more to play with, which is not insignificant at this point. Of course, that would also open up another hole to fill in the outfield. I suspect something will come with Dustin Pedroia soon, though I wouldn’t expect whatever resolution they come to to have an effect on the luxury tax situation.
And then there’s the wildcard possibility of David Price opting out again. It doesn’t seem particularly likely, though the possibility was raised by his manager in December. If it were to happen it would probably be too late to take advantage of on the free agent market, but perhaps they could then get aggressive in a Benintendi trade and then make another move to take on Kris Bryant’s contract or something along those lines. Again, this is not a situation I would bank on happening, but the outside chance is worth mentioning.
Ultimately, I think Chaim Bloom and company have done a solid job at filling the most important holes here, and now they will have to continue to be creative to fill the rest of the holes with the limited money they have left under the tax. Which, again, they may go over by a bit, but it’s hard to know. If we assume no moves are made to clear significant salary — which isn’t necessarily a safe assumption but it makes an exercise like this easier — I think the best move would be to sign Moreland and one of those cheap second basemen and then use whatever’s left to get the best reliever you can buy with the leftover money.