It’s been a quiet off season. Not just in Boston, but really everywhere around Major League Baseball.
Outside of a Marlins fire sale and some nifty pick-ups by the LA Angels, the hot stove can barley heat some leftovers.
While the talk around J.D. Martinez is still ongoing, it’s barely above a whisper, which seems strange for a team and fan base that is screaming at the top of their lungs for an impact power bat. Sure, the price tag is high, and patience can lead to some new year clearance deals (see: Edwin Encarnacion), but as the calendar sheds away days, and the player and agent begin to soften their demands, the door opens for a few more “sleeper” teams to pounce on the target. Of course, the front office does have to keep the budget in mind. The luxury tax threshold and penalties that are incurred for spending over it have to be taken into account. There is a formidable core in place, and while the need to lock that core up long term is not immediate, the ability to do so in the coming off seasons can be greatly impacted by the years and dollars committed to a single player.
The landscape has changed, however.
With the rivals in the Bronx adding the most dynamic power bat in the game to an offense that already out paced the rest of the league in home runs, the Red Sox and their league low home run output can’t solely focus on 2019 and beyond when there is an entire season (and postseason, hopefully) to be played in 2018. Just how important is JD Martinez to this team? Can they contend in 2018 with this team as it’s currently constructed?
The signing of Mitch Moreland to a fresh two-year deal this off season was a bit of a head scratcher. Moreland performed as expected for the Sox in 2017 after signing a one year deal in the previous off season. 22HR / 79RBI / .769OPS and a 2.0 WAR is par for the course for veteran first baseman on a 1 year/$5.5M deal. Consistent. Productive. Not spectacular. With a buffet of starting first baseman on the market –headlined by Eric Hosmer– the expectation was that the Red Sox would shell out big bucks to an impact bat and likely let Moreland sign with another team. The most sensible rumor was to sign J.D. Martinez and let him get the bulk of the DH at-bats while using Hanley Ramirez as the everyday first baseman. The other scenario was to sign Hosmer to play first and keep Hanley in the DH role, which is probably better suited for him at this stage of his career. The Moreland signing eliminated that scenario, and seems to have further complicated the signing of JDM, as Hanley Ramirez’s near $23M salary for 2018 makes it difficult to justify keeping him in a part-time role (especially with limited positional flexibility). Although it could be argued that the signing of Moreland and Martinez could help the payroll of the Red Sox moving forward, as it would greatly increase the odds that Hanley does not meet the 497 plate appearances required to vest his $22M option for 2019. Regardless, with the outfield set and starters penciled in at first base and DH, adding a player like J.D. is going to leave an odd man out on a nightly basis.
So, if the Sox miss out on Martinez, do they have enough to contend for a Wild Card spot in 2018? There are some factors here besides the impressive upgrade to the Yankees lineup that need to be considered. On paper, it looks lke the the 2018 Red Sox will look exactly like the 2017 Red Sox, but that’s not entirely the case. Dustin Pedroia is likely out until the All-Star break as he recovers from surgery, and with Eduardo Nunez unsigned and unlikely to return there is a little less punch in the lineup from the second base position. Relying on some combination of Brock Holt, Devin Merrero and Tzu Wei Lin to fill that void offensively isn’t exactly inspiring. Of course, there is the expectation of bounce back seasons from Betts, Bradley, Bogaerts and quite possibly a rejuvenated Hanley Ramirez in something of a contract year. The continued development of Benintendi, Rafael Devers and Christian Vazquez provide some promise for our power starved lineup as well. But the Red Sox came into this season a power bat away from being serious contenders. And even with the starting rotation and bullpen being healthier and deeper, they’re still a power bat away from being true contenders. Maybe a “pillow contract” or a one year “prove it” deal to a player like Logan Morrison (38HR, .868OPS in 2017) if they fail to sign Martinez gives them a boost in the power department.
Who knows? I can’t project this team as more than an 88-90 win team as presently constructed. And in the new and improved American League, it’s not enough to contend for a playoff spot.