Making Sense of the Assets Chaim Bloom Leaves Behind in Boston — Part 3, Tying It All Together and Playing the Roster Construction Game
Welcome to part 3! If you’re reading this and haven’t yet read the introduction to this series, I suggest you read that first here. Additionally, if you haven’t yet read parts 1 and 2, on the Red Sox’s controllable position players and pitchers, you may want to redirect yourself there first. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here. I strongly recommend reading both before taking on what you’ll find in this piece.
Below you’ll find two things. First, you’ll find quick hits on each of the players the Red Sox have contracted for next season who I haven’t yet discussed in parts 1 and 2. Keep in mind the following: the easier to assess a given player is, the less airtime they’ve gotten in this piece. I’m not here to insult your intelligence by telling you good players are good; I’m here to talk about things you (hopefully) don’t know, or aren’t yet sure about. Second, you’ll find an in-depth discussion of a few possible looks for the 26 man roster that the Red Sox could go into opening day with next year, complete with a few phantom trades and a preliminary discussion of free agent signings. Enjoy!
Nick Pivetta (1 year until FA): Got crushed so bad early on this season that he got sent to the bullpen, then dealt so hard out of the pen he wound up functionally starting again. Here’s a great video on how adding a sweeper changed things for him. I wouldn’t bank on him as a starter, but there’s definitely a world where he gives you extremely high quality innings with an opener in front of him. Advanced metrics, pitch shape, and even recent tweaks he’s made to his tunneling make him a bit of a modern day pitching nerd’s daydream. He’s definitely a valuable arm next year one way or another. Ideally he breaks camp in the pen, though.
Alex Verdugo (1 year until FA): If we’re being entirely honest with ourselves, Verdugo is probably the Red Sox’s best outfielder — or at least their outfielder with the least bust potential. He commands the strike zone, can hit to all fields, and is capable of handling Fenway’s roomy right field. He has, at this point, a long track record as an above average MLB bat and glove. There are not a lot of other players on this team you can say that about. However, he’s also extremely streaky, repeatedly makes headlines in all the wrong ways for minor-but-meaningful off the field issues, and frankly the ~vibe~ is just that he won’t be here anymore going forward. That’s a shame, because I do think there’s an alternate universe where he’s a cult hero here in Boston, but I also think it makes him a prime trade candidate this offseason. This is a good baseball player going into his walk year. He can definitely form part of a package, perhaps paired with Jarren Duran (I know, I know, I hate me too) and one of the Red Sox sub-elite prospects (Nick Yorke maybe?) in a deal that nets you a controllable young arm.
Luis Urías (2 years until FA): Arm chair analysts seem to think that because Urías had a down year with the Brewers, and because his pre-pitch routine involves a lean away from the plate, that he’s a bum. I find that point of view extremely goofy. This is a guy who posted two back to back 110 wRC+ seasons while playing a league average second base as an MLB regular in 2021 and 2022. Since arriving in Boston he’s hit .292/.370/.417 against lefties, and managed a respectable .358 OBP against righties as well. He has very good pitch recognition, and has shown an ability to drive the ball in the past. The only real question is: will he be worth the 6+ million he’s owed in arbitration this winter given that Pablo Reyes might be able to offer very similar value? I lean towards yes, simply because Urías’ track record and approach at the plate are much more tried and tested than that of Reyes, but I see both sides of it. He may or may not be here next year.
Rob Refsnyder (2 years until FA): The greatest right handed hitter in the sport* and a solid outfielder, Refsnyder’s place on the Red Sox 2024 roster is secure. His approach at the plate is fantastic, and he gives you flexibility in lineup and roster construction that probably makes his true value higher than what his WAR might suggest.
*A valuable platoon bat
Reece McGuire (2 years until FA): The elephant in the room is that McGuire is just a handsomely paid seat warmer for Kyle Teel’s locker until he gets called up sometime in early 2025 (that’s looking more like late 2024 now). Until then he’s an acceptable backup catcher.
John Schreiber (3 years until FA): Much like most surprise bullpen ace acquisitions, Schreiber was less the shutdown reliever he was in 2022 this season, and more of a run of the mill bullpen piece. He had some injury issues that probably disrupted his command and hurt his results, but going into 2024 he’s simply a candidate for the seventh inning role, rather than a high end setup man.
Trevor Story (4 years until FA): I’ve got good news and bad news.
The good news: Trevor Story is healthy and can play shortstop well.
The bad news: Trevor Story is hitting .188 across 145 plate appearances since his return from injury.
With a full offseason, the smart money is definitely on Story’s performance at the plate improving significantly. He’s still smoking the ball when he makes contact, and his athleticism hasn’t gone anywhere. Whether he’s his 2016–2020 self (120–130 wRC+, 30 HR power), his 2021–2022 self (100 wRC+, 20 HR power), or something less than that is much harder to divine. It all depends on whether you expect him to be able to fix his timing, and in turn better control his outcomes at the plate. His walk rate this season is half that of his career average, and his strikeout rate has climbed back to early career highs. That’s a product of getting absolutely eaten up by breaking balls this year, which in the past have been a pitch group Story has preyed upon himself. Forced to choose, I expect Story to settle in somewhere around his 2022 version, perhaps with a bit more power. Playing at shortstop, that kind of production would be good for something like 3–4 WAR. That’s acceptable value given what he’s getting paid, and would definitely constitute a huge improvement on what the Red Sox have gotten from their shortstop position this season.
Chris Sale (1 year until FA): I could throw all kinds of numbers at you here about Chris Sale’s slider movement, or his fastball velocity, or the expected metrics on his changeup, but the bottom line is that any discussion of the Red Sox’s supposed ace boils down to the following: no one, including Chris Sale, knows what Chris Sale is going to do next season. With that in mind, I think it would be foolish to build next year’s roster with any level of expectation for Sale’s performance in mind. I’m certain he’ll break camp as a starter, but beyond that nothing is guaranteed. This team has to carry six pitchers stretched out to start into late March, because the odds are Sale will either go down injured at some point or he’ll have patches where he pitches so poorly that you’re punting games away for no reason. I love Chris Sale. I love his accountability. I love how he approaches the game. But there will never again be a Boston Red Sox contender built around his wiry frame.
Kenley Jansen (1 year until FA): Teased us with absurd dominance to start the year, then tailed off to be simply /good/ the rest of the way. Ultimately surrendered more hard contact than ever before in his career, walked more men than ever before in his career, and had a career low strikeout rate. Still a good reliever, but the pessimist in me wonders if we’re on that part of the rollercoaster where you have that weird feeling in your stomach already but haven’t yet begun the drop.
Chris Martin (1 year until FA): Arguably the best reliever in the American League this year. Walks no one, whiffs everyone, and never allows hard contact. He will be the setup man next year barring injury.
Roster Scenario 1:
Where does this land the Red Sox 2024 roster? I’m so glad you asked! Let’s take a look:
Before I can properly talk about the 26 man roster I’ve constructed above to break camp with, we first need to discuss one thing: free agency. I’m not going to get into the specifics of who I’d like the Red Sox to sign (faint chants of Ya-ma-mo-to, Ya-ma-mo-to fade away into the distance…), but I will say this: Spotrac.com estimates the Red Sox have 160 million dollars already tied up for the 2024 season when including estimated arbitration wind falls for players like Luis Urías, Nick Pivetta and Alex Verdugo. This piece, which is more detailed but from early June of this year, estimates the Red Sox have about 200 million tied up for next year. I’m inclined to use the more conservative of those two numbers, and so 200 million is the one I’ll move forward with. Enrique Hernandez and Alex Verdugo (who I’ve traded for non-Major League assets in this hypothetical) will both be off the books, however, and RedSoxPayroll’s estimate has the Sox DFAing Pivetta, which almost certainly won’t be happening. Adjusting the 200 million dollar estimate in accordance with those changes puts you closer to 190. There are 47 million dollars to be spent between 190 million and the first CBT Threshold of 237 million for next year. More importantly, there are 67 million dollars between 190 and 257, which is the second CBT Threshold, and frankly the one the Red Sox should care about this winter.
I’ve got three spots on the 26 man roster free in this construction: two top of the rotation starters and a bench bat. The bench bat doesn’t necessarily have to be a bench player — but he should probably be a right handed bat capable of playing first and third base. There’s a non-zero chance Justin Turner picks up his 13 million dollar player option, and that’s basically exactly what we’re looking for here. If we assume that — or an equivalent free agent acquisition — happens, we’re left with 54 million to spend on two starters.
Let’s pause for a second. I’ll come back to Free Agency in a moment, but let’s address the part of the roster I’ve already put together first. An Abreu/Refsnyder platoon is a big risk, I admit. That said, Abreu has absolutely slaughtered MLB and AAA pitching, and his approach doesn’t exactly scream unsustainable. I believe in his bat against righties. The same is true of Refsnyder against southpaws. I don’t see these two providing less production across 162 than what the Sox have gotten from Verdugo, frankly. There’s some risk, but the Sox are at a point in roster construction where you have to start trusting your internal evaluations to some degree. This is my version of that.
I’ve got a similar situation at second base. I’ll admit, I’m far less enthusiastic about this than I am my platoon in RF. Urías is presumably the righty-hitting-half of this platoon, and while he’ll get on base against those guys, you’re getting basically 0 pop from second base in this scenario. That’s all while getting average defense at the position, and that’s being kind. You can introduce Valdez here in Urías’ place — I hear that argument — but in that scenario you’re trading defense (in a bad defensive team) for pop (in a team that otherwise has pop).
The rest is easy. Casas and Devers are your lineup anchors. Beyond them you’re banking on Duran, Yoshida, Story, and your two platoons to generate some mix of average (95–105 wRC+) to above-average (105–115 wRC+) offensive production. Rafaela, Story, and Wong bring something like 150 games (fewer than that in Wong’s case) of defensive stability to your premium positions. It’s an offense that can score runs at a similar rate to that of the current team, with a defense that won’t finish the campaign in the basement across the Major Leagues in terms of OAA and errors. Sounds like a playoff team’s set of position players to me.
The pen picks itself, and is deeper than this year’s edition. Whitlock, Houck, and Pivetta all break camp as relievers rather than starters. Murphy, Kelly (I didn’t forget you, my sweet prince) and whatever minor league acquisitions/farm system arms that make themselves competitive can wait in the wings. I already think the 2023 bullpen is good, albeit overworked, and this one theoretically should be better (assuming Jansen and Martin don’t regress, which is a big assumption I admit).
The rotation is a big question mark, but I like the guys who I’ve got in there where I’ve got them. If Bello has to be a 2, or Sale (read: Pivetta with an opener) has to be a 3, it suddenly looks a lot uglier. The same is true if the two starters you bring in aren’t as good as the ones I think we’re all imagining. All I can do here is draw it up and hope, I’m afraid.
That brings us back to free agency. A 27–30 million dollar AAV starter and a 22–24 million dollar AAV starter fixes your rotation. There’s no doubt about that. But expecting to land two of the five or so premium starters on the market seems far fetched. That’s not to mention this scenario involves spending all of your hard won financial flexibility on just three players. I’d love to get Yamamoto and Nola or Snell for example, but so would lots of teams. We have to have a plan B, no? Yes. Let’s get weird.
Roster Scenario 2:
What’s the big difference here? I included Jarren Duran in a package for pitching.
*Ducks for cover from the plethora spoiled fruits, vegetables, stones, and improvised explosives launched in my general direction*
Let me start my proper defense of this idea with the following: I repeat, I think Jarren Duran is a very good MLB player. Therein, however, lay the basis of this idea. You don’t trade great players. You do trade very good players, for the right price.
The Red Sox don’t have starting pitching. That’s true at the Major League level. That’s also true across the organization. There are very few pitching prospects above rookie ball in the Red Sox system who are likely to stick as starters at Major League level.
That is not true of outfielders. At the MLB level the Red Sox currently have at least three players capable of being value added regulars in CF. That’s not to mention Verdugo, Yoshida, Refsnyder, and Valdez (who has outfield experience) in the corners. And that’s just current Major Leaguers. Two of the Red Sox top 3 prospects are outfielders who split most of their time between center and right field. It’s possible both of them will arrive in the MLB before Duran even hits arbitration. Something has to give.
Now, I admit, Duran being that something is far from a given. When you have a logjam at a position, why clear it by jettisoning the most guaranteed asset you have? Well, in short, because it takes something to get something. Any trade for a controllable, effective starting pitcher will involve exchanging serious assets. It’s natural that at least 2 of those assets, from the Sox side, be outfielders. Verdugo is the obvious starting piece. In a blockbuster deal, a potential partner would almost certainly demand either Duran or Roman Anthony as the other outfielder in question.
How did I decide between those two? The answer is, again, the all-too-nebulous, “internal assessment.” I don’t think the evidence in front of us points to Duran being a consistently far-above-average MLB bat. I do, however, think Anthony is quite likely to be that given his plate discipline, ability to impact the baseball, and age. I’m making a call based on the evidence in front of me. That’s what this is all going to come down to, ultimately.
It’s worth noting that Duran’s floor is of course much higher than Anthony’s. Duran is very likely to be a value added Major Leaguer for the next five years. The same is not guaranteed for Anthony. However, on the other end of the spectrum, Anthony’s chances of being an elite, MVP-vote-receiving MLB bat are also higher than those of Duran. Unless Duran goes through some crazy jump at the plate, that’s simply not achievable. Anthony, on the other hand, is probably one of the top 5 hitters in his age group anywhere in the world. Championship teams are built around those players, and I’m less inclined to part with them as a result, even as prospects.
With Duran and Verdugo you’ve already put together the beginnings of a good package. That’s two MLB everyday outfielders, one who’s controllable long term. Another good prospect (Yorke, Perales, or perhaps Bonaci if he’s not taken in the Rule 5 Draft) and you probably can start a conversation for a good young starter. It’s possible a potential partner might still want someone in the Teel/Bleis tier of prospects, but that’s a bridge you cross when you get to it.
This puts you in a more realistic situation with free agency, where you only need to secure one of the top end starters to put together an effective rotation. It also means you can perhaps go after a bat-first left fielder to give your team more guaranteed production from that part of the field. Our first plan, scenario 1, has big bust potential in the outfield: a league average season at the plate from Duran paired with some regression from Abreu would basically leave you bereft of offensive production from that part of your team. In our new plan, perhaps you can raise the floor for the offense with the money you otherwise would’ve spent on a second starter. I’ve also saved an extra 6–7 million by non-tendering Urías and carrying Valdez on the 26 man roster.
I’ll be honest, though: I still don’t love this pitching staff. It’s not that I think it’s not good enough to make the playoffs when healthy, but rather that it feels eerily like this year’s pitching staff with Kluber and Paxton simply replaced by lower risk, higher floor guys. That’s obviously a big difference, but what if I’m left wanting more? What if we really want to overhaul the whole damned thing?
Roster Scenario 3:
Scenario 3 is basically scenarios 1 and 2 combined. Verdugo is still gone, but Duran stays. Rafaela, whose value may also be at an all time high depending on what you make of his bat, is also on his way out. The position player group is not so different from the current MLB roster, with the caveat being left field is occupied by a hypothetical trade acquisition.
While we perhaps neglect our position players in this scenario, we profit greatly in the pitching department. We’re dumping all of our FA spend on 2 of those available front line starters AND we’re moving Verdugo, Rafaela, and Houck for a third front end starter. I’ll be frank: this approach is by far the least realistic and arguably the riskiest. Call it the most Dombrowskian, if you will. But it does put the pitching staff in a drastically different place from where it was this season. That seems to make sense — why would we overhaul a group of position players that already scores runs when the pitching has been so much worse? Team defense is still a problem, but in 2023 that’s been far less exaggerated since Story’s return. If you improve the pitching, move Yoshida out of the outfield, and get a full season of actual middle infielders playing middle infield, I think this is perhaps the most transformative offseason you could swing.
This concludes our three part series on the state of the Red Sox major league team. I leave you with this: I don’t know what the Red Sox’s front office will do this winter. I don’t even know who’ll be running the Red Sox’s front office this winter. That said, I do think we can get a pretty good idea of how they might think about this pivotal offseason in terms of the broad strokes. I hope this series has helped you see those broad strokes differently, or at least given you a good chuckle — whether that be with me, or at me — along the way. Go Sox.