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Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Boston Red Sox Face Major Questions in 2020

In true baseball fashion, it’s impossible to focus on and enjoy the current season at hand when questions may shroud the future with uncertainty. The Boston Red Sox, coming off a commanding 2018 season that resulted in a World Series championship have no reason to believe they can’t compete again this year. However, if they look a little further down the road they will see major questions wait for them once this season is over.

The primary questions come in the form of key players who will become free agents, and should also draw significant interest and dollars, despite the suspiciously repressed market this past offseason. No area of the team will be impacted more by this than the starting rotation. Ace Chris Sale (he of seven consecutive top-six Cy Young finishes) and 2017 Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello are both due to become free agents. The checkbook would need to be opened wide to sign one or both, but the team should give pause before making a final decision.

The left-handed Sale will turn 30 at the end of next month and despite consistently logging 200+ innings throughout his career, he was limited to just 158 in 2018, missing time and losing some velocity due to a shoulder injury. These are not reasons on their own to not re-sign him, but should all factor into the decision of whether or not to bring him back. The Red Sox have already indicated they have started inquiring about an extension, and reports indicate that a massive seven-year extinction appears the be in the offing. which sounds like they have no qualms about the southpaw’s long-term health.

Porcello just turned 30 this offseason and has been fit as a fiddle throughout his 10-year major league career. However, he has never enjoyed consistency, flashing CY Young ability at his best (22-4 with a 3.15 ERA in 2016), and at his worst getting hit hard and giving up a lot of home runs (11-17 with a 4.65 ERA and 38 home runs allowed in 2017). In many ways, he pitches like a healthy Clay Buchholz. There is talent for days, but you never know how it will translate on the mound from season to season.

Last year Porcello was solid, yet average. He was 17-7 and had a career-high 190 strikeouts. However, he also had a 4.28 ERA, 102 ERA+ and gave up 27 gopher balls. His record indicates he can give the Red Sox a lot of value but paying him like an ace is probably not a shrewd move. He may be hard-pressed to exceed the four-year, $82.5 million contract he is finishing up and Boston will need to do some deep soul searching if they plan to give him any more than that.

Slugger J.D. Martinez was a revelation in his first season in Boston last year, hitting .330 with 43 home runs and a league-leading 130 RBIs. Despite offering negative value in the outfield, where he played about 40 percent of the time last year, he is a true game changer with his bat. He technically has four years and a little over $85 million remaining on his contract, but has a $2.5 million player option to buy out the remainder of his contract and become a free agent after each of the next three seasons. Although he will turn 32 later this year, he could be extremely productive for years to come (a la David Ortiz), particularly if he fully transitions to the designated hitter position.

It would seem extremely likely that the Red Sox would like to retain Martinez long-term, and if he chooses not to opt out then they are all set through the 2022 season. Something to consider is that he is represented by Scott Boras, who always looks to get the largest contract possible for his clients, even if it means rolling the dice. If there is even an inkling that Martinez can score a larger deal by opting out than you can bet your bottom dollar that he will simply because of his representation.

Another team stalwart who is set to hit the open market after the 2019 season is shortstop Xander Bogaerts. The 26-year-old is coming off a career season, where he hit .288 with 23 home runs and 103 RBIs. However, he has struggled with inconsistency in his career and is not considered an exceptional defensive player. While he is certainly a valuable player, he has not fully blossomed as many expected back when he was a top minor league prospect. Nevertheless, as a shortstop capable of putting up the numbers he has already done are hard to find.

The Red Sox may decide to let Bogaerts walk if they believe the money needed to resign him could be better spent elsewhere, especially on their free agent starting pitchers. A cheaper, more defensively adept shortstop may be easier to find. On the other hand, he is a commodity in the lineup and could be hard to let go of, especially if he continues to see his offensive game grow. He hit .320 in 2015, albeit with just seven home runs. If he can somehow combine the average and power even more, he would be on the threshold of star status.

Playing into these decisions the Red Sox must make is that their farm system is rather barren of near-ready top-flight prospects who could conceivably be cheaper alternatives. To remain competitive Boston will not only need to carefully manage their roster, but they will have to be prudent free agent shoppers, including determining how to handle their own players who may be hitting the market. The team doesn’t need to answer these questions right now, but they definitely need to be well into their planning process.

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