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A Risk-Averse Winter Continues for the Red Sox

Signing Shota Imanaga would not have been without risk. But that’s true of literally every baseball player.

World Baseball Classic Championship: United States v Japan Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons why it made sense to pass on Shota Imanaga, even at the surprisingly low number he ended up agreeing to when he signed with the Chicago Cubs. Before we even get to a home run rate that would make JN Phillips executives consider opening a new location right on Lansdowne Street, let’s just start with the fact that he’s listed at just 5-10 and 176 pounds. That’s even smaller than Tim Lincecum, whose pixie dust had already worn off by the time he reached Imanaga’s 30 years of age.

There are plenty of reasons why it made sense not to make an offer for Yoshinobu Yamamoto that blew away the rest of the field. Yamamoto clearly preferred the Dodgers as a landing spot. And while that alone isn’t sufficient to let the Sox off the hook for not being more aggressive in pursuing a piece that would’ve made the next 10 years of roster construction significantly easier — because even if Boston wasn’t his first or second choice, everyone has a price — it’s easy to see why giving out $350 million or more to a guy who’s never played at the highest level of the game is scary.

There are plenty of reasons why it made sense to stay out of the Juan Soto trade discussions. He’s committed to testing free agency, the Red Sox are short on the young pitching pieces the Padres prized, and he’s not likely to be the missing piece for the next Red Sox World Series Championship.

Blake Snell has topped 130 innings just twice in his career and led the league in walks last year.

Jordan Montgomery doesn’t strike out enough hitters and would be punished pitching in front of the Red Sox defense.

Teoscar Hernandez’s .305 OBP would be one of the worst marks in the Red Sox lineup.

Seth Lugo is Seth Lugo.

Every target the Red Sox have missed out on so far this offseason carries risk. Duh, they are human beings, and, as a species, we’re not exactly known for our predictability. There were and are good reasons to be wary of every single one of them.

But pitchers and catchers will report to Fort Myers in a little over 30 days and, at this point, the 2024 Red Sox do not look meaningfully different than the 2023 version. Chris Sale, James Paxton, and Alex Verdugo are out; Lucas Giolito, Vaughn Grissom, and Tyler O’Neill are in. Are you excited yet?

Chelsea FC v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

It increasingly appears that John Henry’s lodestar in building the Red Sox is, above everything else, risk aversion. We don’t know why this is, because talking to the media and fans is the only thing Henry wants to avoid more than a pitcher over the age of 30 (tellingly, there isn’t a town hall event on the schedule for this year’s Winter Weekend at this time). It’s possible that he is dogmatically committed to building through the farm and he won’t go near a significant free agent until Marcelo Mayer, Roman Anthony, and Kyle Teel are all yucking it up along the foul line at the Home Run Derby. It’s possible that he’s freeing up capital to outbid the King of Saudi Arabia for a golf league (that would take a lot of capital!) It’s possible that he was so scarred by the David Price and Chris Sale contracts that he experiences ‘Nam style flashbacks whenever he sees an MRI machine.

Whatever the reason, since 2020 the Red Sox roster has been built like a conservative growth fund from T. Rowe Price: limit volatility, maintain liquidity, hope for a steady and stable return. It may not be a bad plan if your goal is to have enough cash to cover a hip replacement down the line — it may not even be a bad plan if you want to make a run in the postseason without overextending yourself, given that MLB now actively incentivizes mediocrity — but it sure isn’t any fun, and it closes the door on ever seeing another 100-win Red Sox team.

The offseason isn’t over yet. By the time I finish this post, Craig Breslow may have already traded for and extended Corbin Burnes for all I know. But that would necessitate a serious shift in the prevailing strategy and, throttle talk aside, we’ve seen little evidence that the Red Sox are prepared to do that so far. Because baseball players aren’t just inherently risky; they are also, as John Henry once lectured us, expensive. And, ticket prices and entire professional golf circuits aside, there doesn’t seem to too much excitement for expensive things these days on Yawkey Way.