Much like the offseason as a whole, the Red Sox have moved slowly this winter. The only meaningful transaction to this point has been re-signing 1B Mitch Moreland to a 2 year $13 million contract after a productive debut year with the club as he hit .246 with 22 homeruns while playing serviceable defense. The narrative the team has heard all offseason is that the lineup needs a middle-of-the-order bat to generate some power. While Moreland’s return does come with a good deal of pop, he is not the bat the Red Sox are going to rely on for this offensive firepower. Rather, as it has been oft-rumored, that will be J.D. Martinez who just four years ago was released by the Houston Astros. However, after tinkering with his swing, he found a renaissance with the Detroit Tigers (under then general manager Dave Dombrowski) where his new mechanics manifested themselves in the form of 23, 38, 22 and 45 homerun seasons. Martinez furthermore boosted his stock after his trade from the Tigers to the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he had 29 homeruns in the second half alone – including one game where he slugged 4 in consecutive at-bats. Even looking past the front-page statistics, advanced analytics believe in Martinez citing a BABIP of .327 which would indicate little regression and a wRC+ of 166 showing that his production had a meaningful impact in winning games.
It seems as if Martinez-to-Boston has become an almost forgone conclusions given the lack of serious, big-money suitors except for the fact that he has super-agent Scott Boras representing him. Boras holds Martinez in high-esteem – as he should – however his rumored contract demands 7 years and $250 million are not going to fly with Red Sox upper management, especially considering how investments with the likes of Carl Crawford (7 years $142 million), Rusney Castillo (7 years 42 million) and most recently Pablo Sandoval (5 years $90 million) have played out. So for now, Boras and Dombrowski will remain in a staring contest and until one side blinks and Martinez inks his contract. While it cannot be considered a foregone conclusion that the top bat on the free agent market will in fact sign with Boston, the reigning AL East champs seem to be the front-runners due to a combination of their deep pockets and serious need to make a big splash considering their infamous rivals in New York already traded for the defending NL MVP in Giancarlo Stanton.
So, assuming that J.D. Martinez will eventually join the Red Sox, what else is the team that returns virtually every starter on offense and a full starting rotation entering 2018? Well, the short answer is not much, however I created a small to-do list for new manager Alex Cora and the front office.
First and foremost: find out what Hanley Ramirez’s role on the team will – if any at all. Ramirez is in an interesting position. While he had a disappointing 2017 posting a line of .242/.320/.429 alongside 22 homeruns, the left-fielder-turned first baseman-turned DH is a veteran player, a good clubhouse presence and did have some big moments last year. However he has two major factors working against him: the addition of J.D. Martinez will replace him as the team’s everyday designated hitter and Hanley has an option in his 4 year $88 million contract that would trigger another year at $22 million if he sees 400 plate appearances in 2018. The two dilemmas here are obvious – unless Ramirez shows that he is on the road to a bounce-back season next year there is no space (nor desire) to have him in the everyday lineup. However, paying $22 million for a bench player is equally problematic, but even if Red Sox try to trade him, who is going to want an age 34 designated hitter making big money? The answer is difficult to find. So, the Red Sox face the issue of either giving Hanley a bench role, trading him and eating a ton of money, or releasing him and eating all of it. None of these seem truly appealing and so management is going to have to find out just what Ramirez can bring to the table this year and decide if $22 million is worth the extra roster spot.
Next up is the utility infielder role. The Red Sox infield currently has Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts locked into the left side, with Dustin Pedroia and Mitch Moreland manning the right. However, due to injuries to the now 34-year-old Pedroia and the lack of production of Bogaerts, the utility role may see semi-regular at-bats, much like Eduardo Nuñez did late in the season last year. The candidates for this spot figure to come down to either returners Brock Holt and Deven Marrero or free agents like Nuñez. There is always the possibility that the team signs a bounce-back veteran to compete for the job in spring training like a Matt Dominguez. More likely, however is evaluating the talent they already possess and giving a bigger role to a Marrero, Holt or maybe even Blake Swihart who has experience all over the diamond in his short time in the majors.
Finally, the Red Sox should pay attention to shoring up the back end of their bullpen. Outside of closer, Craig Kimbrel, there are few trustworthy relief pitchers on a team that stunningly performed well out of the bullpen last year – even after losing acquisitions Tyler Thornburg and Carson Smith early on. Their returns will bring some confidence, however it will be hard to lean on a bullpen that features so many righties. Beyond just Kimbrel, Thornburg and Smith, high velocity guys in Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes also throw from the right side. So while the bullpen should be solid, it would certainly help to have a lefty reliever the team can rely on late in games, much like they did with Andrew Miller a couple years ago.
Fernando Abad was not very popular during his brief stay with the Red Sox and it is unlikely he’ll be back. The market features good-not-great options in Brian Duensing (68 games, 2.74 ERA) and Mike Minor (65 games, 2.55 ERA). Either could be an intriguing option that would certainly help fortify the bullpen, however they will come at a price. Wade Davis established the relief market last week signing a 3 year $52 million contract, which would indicate a rise in bullpen demand. The Red Sox will likely look into these options, but should they look for cheaper options, Brian Johnson could step into the left relief role. As a former top prospect, the Florida grad has impressed at AAA Pawtucket and in his few stints at the major league level. At the very least, expect him to compete for the job in spring training as he could develop into the late-inning southpaw that the team currently lacks.
The offseason is moving painfully slow, however thankfully, the Red Sox to-do list is relatively short. While it is hard to know if the team is on the right track yet due to J.D. Martinez holding out on contract offers, it seems as if things will fall into place after that first domino. Spring training competitions and evaluations will allow the other items on the laundry list to shake out and soon reveal the 2018 Red Sox team that looks to win three straight AL East titles. Solving their dilemmas at designated hitter, utility infielder and southpaw set-up man will go a long way in making this dream a reality as the Sox gear up for a demanding pennant race against the Yankees.