Chris Sale’s pitching elbow is holding together for now, and so are the Red Sox. But both feel temporary. Sale’s precious elbow and the Sox’ roster could be slated for major reconstruction this offseason.
As the days on the baseball dance card and the Red Sox’ opportunities to make up ground in the chase for the second American League wild-card slot dwindle, the Sox’ season remains on life support. But at this point, the most germane and crucial happenings in the Hub of Hardball in 2019 aren’t going to take place on the field during the season. They’re going to occur off the field during the offseason. The most vital part of the 2019 MLB calendar for the Red Sox is going to fall after October. Decisions, decisions confront the Sox, who are coming to an organizational crossroads. How much of this current core can they and should they keep? Is it even wise or worth it to try to at this juncture with Sale a compromised ace and major question mark for 2020?
Even before the news of nebulous and ominous inflammation in Sale’s left elbow, which will sideline him for the next six weeks, effectively ending his season, it felt like the championship window for this group was closing quickly. The Sox had a three-year window with this group. They cashed in with a historic campaign and a World Series title last season. This year it feels like the party is over, and the Sox are still milling about when it’s closing time and the lights have been dimmed. Whether Sale staves off Tommy John surgery or not, the Sox can’t count on him to be an overpowering ace and rotation anchor next season, not given his health and his pedestrian — by his standards — performance this season (6-11, 4.40 ERA). That has to factor into the 2020 vision for the club.
My vote, it’s time for a Red Sox reset. This run was nice, but it’s over. It’s time to reconfigure the roster, replenish the farm system, and reduce baseball’s highest payroll, building around Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi. Sale’s uncertain status is the perfect excuse and cover for the Sox to take this tack.
The offseason to-do list for the Sox is lengthy. But we all know it starts with making a call on Mookie Betts. The reticent face of the franchise is set for free agency following the 2020 season. Betts has professed his love for the Red Sox, for his teammates, for everything Boston from the Zakim Bridge to the MBTA. He’s a class act and has never displayed any of the churlishness or bitterness that the toll of being a Red Sox rock star brought out of Nomar Garciaparra. But similar to Nomar, he’s never really looked fully comfortable embracing the mantle of focal point of the Boston Baseball Experience.
The rubber meets the road for the Sox and Betts this offseason. The Sox can take one more run at meeting his price. As I’ve recommended, they should offer him a mega-extension worth $30-plus million per year and give him the David Price/J.D. Martinez opt-out clause after two or three years. That way there is no downside to the deal for him — he locks in his money and career autonomy. If he’s noncommittal about such a no-lose contract, then it’s time to trade the AL MVP for the best package of young talent you can get, with preferably some starting pitching coming back. Moving on from Mookie is a last resort. But losing him for nothing is malpractice.
If Betts goes, the Sox could free up the funds to re-sign designated hitter Martinez, who can opt out of his deal after this season and is quietly having another excellent season, on pace to produce 30-plus homers and a .900-plus OPS. But Martinez is 32 years old. This is probably his last, best chance to cash in after baseball’s free agent freeze forced him to sign a team-friendly deal with the Sox last time. Boston doesn’t have better options, but it does have younger and cheaper ones. The Sox could roll the dice and give Michael Chavis, Sam Travis, and prospect Bobby Dalbec a chance to man the DH role. Or team one of them with a more cost-effective veteran option such as Justin Smoak. If you’re not equipped to chase a championship it makes little sense to overpay for a DH on the wrong side of 30.
Some of the decisions for the Sox are easy and obvious. Accidental Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello should be gone, unless he’s willing to sign a one-year, make-good deal at a significantly reduced rate from the $21 million he’s making this season. Mitch Moreland has had a nice run when healthy, but it’s time to free up playing time at first base for a youngster. The Sox need to figure out how to bolster the back end of their bullpen with an actual closer.
Of course, the most fascinating decision of all is who will be making these baseball operations determinations? Will it still be president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski or will ownership change front office jockeys yet again. Dombrowski has done a better job than he has been given credit for, especially when it comes to discerning which prospects to keep and which to move for proven talent, a problem for his predecessor, Ben Cherington, who clutched all prospects to his bosom.
Dombrowski, however, has a penchant for profligacy. There’s nothing that rankles ownership more than misspent money. (You already know what else Red Sox principal owner John Henry owns.)
Dombrowski has executed some sinkhole contracts. He signed Price and Sale, whose five-year, $145 million extension kicks in next season, to deals that look dubious in hindsight. The decision to resign injury-prone, archetypal rental player Nathan Eovaldi to a four-year, $68 million deal in the afterglow of the World Series was downright disastrous. Squandering Fenway Funds is what got Cherington deposed — with bad contracts handed out to Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez and high-priced busts Rusney Castillo (international free agent) and Allen Craig (trade) toiling in the minors while collecting eight-figure salaries.
Dombrowski is like the Red Bull of baseball GMs. He’ll give your organization a jolt of energy and accomplishment, but it’s not good for long-term health, eventually wears off, and leaves you with a headache.
Dombrowski might not be given the opportunity to pivot in another direction. But the Sox should pivot no matter who is calling the shots in baseball ops.
Sale’s ailing elbow represents a crossing of the Rubicon for the Red Sox. They can’t go into 2020 with the same all-in, short-term, fire-the-torpedoes mentality they’ve had the last three seasons. It’s not prudent.
The offseason reckoning is beckoning. Whether Sale is able to throw pitches in 2020 or not, next season the Sox should feature a changeup.