By Matt McCarthy, 985TheSportsHub.com
Don’t let the Red Sox tell you they can’t afford to keep Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez around in 2020. They can.
The real decision is whether it’s worthwhile for them to keep the two driving forces behind the lineup that led Boston to a World Series title in 2018.
The Sox clearly want to slash payroll to reset their luxury tax penalties. To do this, they will have to get under the $208 million mark, roughly a $32 million reduction from their payroll in 2019. Betts will likely make $8-10 million more than he did in 2019 as he enters his final year of salary arbitration, meaning the Red Sox would have to cut closer to $40 million to keep both players.
That is feasible, but it would create holes elsewhere on the roster.
Here are three steps the Red Sox could take to bring Martinez and Betts back in 2020:
1. Trade Jackie Bradley Jr:
This one is easy.
Bradley is entering his final year before hitting free agency and is coming off a season in which he batted .225 with a .738 OPS. He’s the best defensive centerfielder to wear a Red Sox uniform since Fred Lynn, but defense alone isn’t worth $10-11 million, which is what Bradley will likely command in his final year of arbitration.
The Sox can find a cheaper alternative to fill one of their outfield spots, either from outside the organization or by shuffling internally. The team has considered trying Michael Chavis out in left field and could perhaps think about moving third baseman Bobby Dalbec to the outfield as he moves closer to the major leagues. Centerfielder Jarren Duran, another top prospect in the system, reached Portland in 2019.
The Sox won’t lack options should they move on from Bradley. If they are serious about slashing payroll, Bradley should be the first to go.
2. Don’t spend on Rick Porcello’s replacement:
Rick Porcello’s $20 million per year salary comes off the books this offseason, giving the Sox an opportunity to save plenty of money that has been spent on the backend of their rotation.
But reallocating too many resources away from the rotation would be risky. Chris Sale, David Price, and Nathan Eovaldi are far from sure bets in 2020 and there are few internal options capable of sliding into the rotation in the event that any of those three can’t pitch or are ineffective. The Sox have no major league ready starting pitchers in the minor leagues, as 20-year-old Bryan Mata is likely at least a year away after reaching Portland last year.
If the Sox could find a cost-controlled fourth of fifth starter via a trade, that might be the best approach to replacing Porcello while freeing up much of his salary to be spent elsewhere.
3. Purge the roster of veterans and replace them with internal options:
This seems likely whether or not the Red Sox retain Betts and Martinez. The team can clear $10 million in payroll by letting Mitch Moreland and Brock Holt walk and replacing them with cheaper, younger players like Chavis and Marco Hernandez. Steve Pearce and Eduardo Nunez will take another $10.5 million off the books and there seems little reason to spend any significant amount of money on veteran players in their place. The Sox should also ask themselves whether Sandy Leon is a $2.5 million player and if they can find a cheaper option as the backup to Christian Vazquez.
If the Red Sox aren’t bringing back one of Betts or Martinez, perhaps they can add some more costly veteran bench options with those savings, but it’s hard to see a scenario in which they’d spend any significant money on the bench if Martinez and Betts stay in town.
Is it worth it?
Probably not. The Red Sox need to improve their pitching staff and allocating nearly all of their resources to Betts and Martinez doesn’t seem like the best way to build their team for 2020.
They also might not have a choice. Martinez could opt-out and Betts could make it clear that he’s not returning once he hits free agency, paving the way for a trade.
But there is a scenario in which Betts and Martinez suit up for Boston next season, even with cost-cutting measures going into place across the board.