The 2018 World Series champion Red Sox exceeded all expectations. With the calendar flipping, however, it's time to look ahead to the title defense.
Craig Kimbrel's status is still up in the air, but otherwise, all of the big names are set to return. Meanwhile, the Yankees and others have made some moves, but the big-money free agents are yet to make their decisions.
Perhaps looking to fire up the proverbial Hot Stove, I reached out to my colleague and host of the Hardcore Baseball podcast Matt McCarthy over the holidays. While Matt and I have a shared love of baseball, are both tall and hail from prominent southeastern Massachusetts cranberry-growing communities, we don't talk nearly enough. The following constitutes our e-mails and texts about the team...
SYLVER: The Sox started free agency by shoveling cash at two of their postseason heroes (Eovaldi and Pearce), showing an interest in bringing back pieces of the team that won it all. Since then, Joe Kelly got paid elsewhere, it's assumed Craig Kimbrel will be glaring at opposing batters in a different uniform, and there have even been rumblings the Sox may be looking to unload a young player (Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley) or even Rick Porcello before his contract is up.
You called next offseason "The Reckoning" in a recent conversation. Do you think fiscal restraint, more signings like Gorkys Hernandez, and a potential salary dump or two will be the story of the rest of the Boston offseason?
MCCARTHY: I think this offseason is rapidly going to become about waiting out the bullpen market. I believed Buster Olney's report that Kimbrel's market is quiet and the Red Sox could end up in a situation where they wait until late in the offseason and try and re-sign him at a reduced cost. If Kimbrel waits to sign, what does that mean for the Robertsons and Ottavinos of the world? Get settled in, this could be a while. I don't think we'll know who will close games for the Red Sox in 2019 for quite some time.
I was really interested in the Winter Meetings reports that the Sox might look to dump salary. That's a hard sell to the fans after winning a World Series, especially with the entire team hitting free agency in the next two years. It's kind of strange we haven't heard anything more since then, and nothing has happened. What's going on here?
SYLVER: I found those reports fascinating. The Sox reversed course from the Cherington days and gave Dombrowski the flexibility to make the moves he thought would build a winner. He succeeded, then re-signed Eovaldi to a pretty generous deal. And now we’re pumping the brakes, or throwing it in reverse? The next couple of offseason could get pretty messy. But you'd hope they'd at least make an honest effort to run it back this year.
In the meantime, how they navigate the bullpen market says a lot about their appetite. Is it possible to wait out Kimbrel like they did J.D. Martinez last year? I'm not clamoring for his return, but they need somebody out there. Maybe a suppressed market for one of the aforementioned closer types will benefit the Sox, and they can nab a vet to anchor that group.
MCCARTHY: I'm not a fan of the "wait-and-see" approach this offseason because there are only so many quality bullpen arms. Why wait on Kimbrel when you can get Robertson? That said, the only way I'd take Kimbrel back is if his market turns out to be weak and he has to take a lesser deal. I'll be interested to see if Dombrowski tries the Smith/Thornburg approach again, acquiring a cost-controlled reliever via trade. It didn't work out well before, but if ownership won't let him spend they might have to do that. As we speak, they're currently down two relievers from a unit most people thought wasn't good enough last season.
I understand the Sox don't want to spend any more money than they already have, but I wouldn't have hated to see them actually try and improve the team a little bit this offseason. Getting the band back together is great and I'm happy with that choice, but why can't we add another piece to the band?
SYLVER: I’m just wary of them turning into the 2011 Sox from a payroll standpoint. You might remember that team had about a dozen guys making above-average to top level money, many of them long-term, before their young stars came to roost. It’s not that ownership can’t pay...it’s that we know they'll get to a point when they won’t. And that’s likely to keep some familiar faces from returning when their deals are up.
Speaking of which, what do you make of Chris Sale in 2019? This is a big year for him. If he puts it all together for 162 games and the playoffs (something we haven’t yet seen), he stands to cash in. Even if he’s dinged up, somebody is going to pay him. That puts Boston in a tough spot when they’re setting their priorities going forward. It’s particularly rare that a contender (and not someone who loaded up for a playoff run) lets an ace walk. Yeah, Pedro signed with the Mets, but he was 33 at the time. In recent years we’ve seen it with Greinke and Scherzer, and that’s about it.
MCCARTHY: As much as I love Sale, it's hard to see him having much longevity. He just isn't built for it. Nolan Ryan he is not. He's stayed on top of his game longer than Tim Lincecum, but I'm concerned about Sale having a Lincecum-type drop-off. Just too much strain on the shoulder and I don't think the body can hold up. That said, this is the Red Sox we're talking about here. If he dominates again in 2019, there's no excuse to let him walk over money.
Max Scherzer continues to prove that the Red Sox strategy of not paying for starter pitchers in 2014-2015 was one of the dumbest ideas in baseball ever conceived. With the money the Sox spent on Hanley and Pablo, they could've had Scherzer. Scherzer is headed to Cooperstown on his first ballot. Pablo the Hutt is probably headed to Pizza Hut.
SYLVER: There's your reminder the Sox are paying Sandoval $18 million next season. Another guy they'll be paying is Dustin Pedroia. I really hope (the money they've committed to Pedroia) doesn't become an excuse to let a young guy walk.
Other than that, I'd like to see him get a proper swan song. Given your displeasure with the second base situation last year, I assume you're out on that idea?
MCCARTHY: I'd love for Pedroia to get that. I want him to come back healthy. They're counting on him.
I don't view the contract as a killer. $40 million over three years won't cripple the Red Sox. I view the uncertainty surrounding his status as more damaging. I expect a revolving door of Ian Kinslers for the next three years.
SYLVER: We really need to find more ways to bicker. I guess they won with THE Ian Kinsler last year, so why not try it again?
MCCARTHY: Right. They will definitely be able to get by with that they have - Holt and Nunez will platoon again next year, and when they both get hurt, they'll trade for the next Kinsler in July.
SYLVER: Or, our favorite diminutive table-setter has one last moment in the sun.
MCCARTHY: I sure hope so.
With pitchers and catchers reporting in a little over six weeks and plenty left to shake out for the Red Sox and the rest of the league, maybe Matt and I will have more to talk about down the line.
Until then, don't expect the so-called Hot Stove to keep you warm as teams continue to freeze out free agents for yet another MLB winter.