A value 2021 free agent at every position for the Red Sox
While the Red Sox continue their rather mysterious search for a manager and they continue to cut salaries to make room for future pieces of a championship squad, they also want work towards fielding a competitive team as quickly as possible. With the offseason finally hitting its initial stride, Twitter has been stacked with photoshops of free agent MLB stars in Red Sox jerseys.
Big names are on the market but the Red Sox have to be smart. After working towards resetting the luxury tax, even Martín Pérez might fall victim to the latest business tactic of the Red Sox, indicating that maybe his team option might not be picked up so that the Sox can save themselves a couple million.
Us fans can only guess right now how soon the Red Sox plan on going all-in for a playoff push but it shouldn’t be an eternity by any means. A lot of the immediate future will depend on the health of the Red Sox starters, centered around the Tommy John bounceback of Chris Sale and the strength of Eduardo Rodriguez’s heart after his life-threatening COVID-19-related condition.
For now, instead of talking about big names that the Red Sox can go after to make a splash in the market, we’re going to look for value players in the free agent pool instead. We’re looking for under-the-radar guys that can be given small contracts with tons of upside. These aren’t going to be predictions (i.e. I don’t expect to hit on most of these); rather, they are intriguing options I think Chaim Bloom might want to consider stealing from the swamp. Here are some of the best fits I found for Boston’s 2021 team given their uncertainty as of now — at an ultra-low price.
Catcher: Sandy León
If you’re reading this in 2020, chances are you probably think I’m crazy for thinking that a career .611 OPS hitter would be a useful addition to a Red Sox position player crew that could use that bolstering. But here’s the reality — you aren’t going to find above average hitters in this free agent pool of catchers unless you shell out for J.T. Realmuto.
(Photo: Michael Dwyer/AP)
Indeed, the Red Sox would benefit much more from bolstering the depth of their pitching staff and addressing other holes on the offensive side of the ball that have been left from recent departures. Thanks in part to the role of Jason Varitek in the clubhouse, Christian Vázquez has become a staple of the Boston core with his improved offensive and defensive production each of the last few years. In 2020, Vázquez was third amongst catchers in hits and top 20% amongst catchers in Baseball Savant's catcher framing metric. He also played in 78% of all games played by the Red Sox this season. By not trading Vázquez at the deadline, the Sox displayed faith that he could continue pacing the Red Sox backstop position offensively and defensively, rendering the pursuit of a high-end backup futile.
Instead, the Red Sox should find a defensive-minded catcher that can call a great game and as a bonus, has some experience with the Boston environment. Swipe right because we have a match — the under-appreciated former near-personal catcher for Chris Sale in his early Boston days, Sandy León.
Few really appreciate the offensive prowess of León because, let’s be honest, there isn’t much there to appreciate, but he isn’t dry enough to not trust him to start once every four or five days. He can be trusted behind the plate, has experience catching the Red Sox ace, and will likely not cost more than a drop in the bucket. A Sandy reunion isn’t going to make the ESPN front page headlines but it’ll make me happy.
Proposed deal: 2 years / $4 million
First base: Eric Thames
First base might be the most interesting situation for the Red Sox right now — after trading Mitch Moreland for a couple of high-end prospects, the Sox used the services of power-hitter Bobby Dalbec at first base while also thring Michael Chavis over there when they needed to. The Sox might have some insane upside in the system already at this spot. After the Moreland rental, the Padres have now cut ties with the former Red Sox World Series hero, making the trade look like a straight fleece-job on the part of the Red Sox.
The #Padres have declined their club option on 1B/DH Mitch Moreland.
Do the Red Sox bring back Moreland, still a gold-glove caliber first baseman and someone whose left-handed at-bats provide some of the hottest barrel streaks in baseball? Perhaps but at 35 years old, a reunion of Moreland doesn’t seem to be the MO of this “transitioning” Sox team.
Is Dalbec the future at first base? Maybe, but what happens if the league sneaks up on him in 2021 and he encounters a slump once in a while? Is that when 2018 first round draft pick Triston Casas nears the majors as the lefty counterpart to Dalbec? With Casas’ scouted offensive profile being eerily similar to that of likely 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman, the Red Sox might actually be super-comfortable with the offensive future at first base, so yet again, I’m suggesting an extremely cheap option, mostly as a safety net for possible injuries to the young studs in case Dalbec sees time off and Casas is not ready.
Eric Thames is no Ted Williams at the plate but after becoming a power-hitting sensation in Korea between 2014 and 2016, he spent three seasons with the Brewers amassing 140 extra base hits at 15.4 at bats per home run. In 2020, he signed a 1-year deal with the Washington Nationals with a mutual option for 2021. But Thames' 2020 was so abysmal that the Nationals declined his option and he might have been their biggest disappointment of the year.
You know what that smells like to me? Upside of a steal. If Boston’s young talent at first base can really hold itself, all the Red Sox need is a veteran backup as an experiment that wouldn’t cost much. At 33 years old, someone will definitely give Thames a shot.
Proposed deal: 1 year / $2 million
Second Base: DJ LeMahieu / Enrique "Kiké" Hernández
To an extent, I’m cheating here by providing two options of very different magnitudes in pricing and value. With the end of Dustin Pedroia’s career in sight, the Red Sox have an obvious hole at second base. They were looking to get through 2020 with a platoon that consisted of various moving parts — Michael Chavis, Christian Arroyo, Jonathan Araúz, and now-free-agent José Peraza. None of these options are long-term locks by any means.
BREAKING NEWS: According to the Boston Globe, the Red Sox and Dustin Pedroia are expected to mutually agree on ending his contract and career due to injuries.
Furthermore, the Red Sox haven’t been clearing salaries and freeing up contracts for nothing. The aim is to eventually come up with a timeline that includes a plan to compete very quickly. For the team to contend seriously for a championship within the next couple of years, they will eventually be buyers; in fact, it could be as soon as this year.
Conveniently, one of the best hitters in the game of baseball happens to be a second baseman and is a free agent now. When the New York Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu as a free agent in 2019, I called it the steal of the offseason. Indeed, a couple seasons later, LeMahieu is the best second baseman in the game and he has a top 5 MVP finish and another batting title. In 2020, he hit at a league-high .364 average and 1.011 OPS.
The truth about him is he is a complete hitter to all parts of the field and will make a lineup significantly better wherever he goes. He’s a tough at-bat, can pull home runs and wear out the gaps in right field. As Mike Petriello aptly noted, you just can’t shift on DJ. If the Red Sox want to splurge at any spot, this is a place they could do it. Go snag yourself one of the best hitters in the game away from the Yankees and put him in your lineup.
It’ll cost a bit but at 32 years old, LeMahieu is far from washed up and would turn the Red Sox lineup into the AL East’s best. At the price I’m suggesting, I claim this deal still counts as a steal.
Proposed deal (LeMahieu): 3 years / $50 million
Of course, if this route turns out to be too costly given the priorities being in the pitching staff, the Yankees could very well out-bid the world. If the Red Sox miss out on the bat, they might be encouraged to call up Jeter Downs eventually, the big name of the Mookie Betts trade who is not named Alex Verdugo.
If this ends up being the case, the Red Sox can still find a value free agent at this spot. The second baseman pool is deep with names — Dee Strange-Gordon, Kolten Wong, Jonathan Schoop, etc. that all might prove to be too costly.
Instead, I’m picking out a name that can not only guard up second base but can also move around the field like Brock Holt did and play innings around the infield and sometimes in the outfield — Los Angeles Dodgers postseason hero Kiké Hernández. While Hernández’s offensive prowess doesn’t stand out on paper, his versatility in the field, speed on the basepaths, and streaky nature at the plate could provide valuable at-bats and a veteran energy that Brock Holt used to bring to the Boston clubhouse. Plus, he’s clutch.
Proposed deal (Enrique "Kiké" Hernández): 1 year / $6 million
Left IF: Jake Lamb
Yes, I’m cheating by skipping shortstop and just naming one man on the left side of the infield. I don’t care — we don’t need multiple shots at the free agent pool while fielding Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, one of the best left sides of the infield in all of baseball.
In 2016 and 2017, Jake Lamb was the everyday third baseman for a competitive Arizona Diamondbacks team and he tallied 133 extra-base hits and drove in 196 runs. In 2017, he was also an all-star. Granted, in his career, Lamb has been a well below average hitter against lefties, has struck out at an alarming rate, and not been elite by any means defensively at the hot corner. However, with the ability to hit for power to both sides of the field, Jake Lamb would be a much-needed power bat off the bench for the Red Sox.
As a bonus, he has experience playing first base where he has only one career error. Lamb could easily slot in as a lefty bat in the lineup on a rest day for J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, or whoever takes the job at first base. With the high likelihood of the Red Sox losing out on the lefty bat in Jackie Bradley Jr., Lamb’s hot 2020 stint with the Oakland Athletics (.882 OPS) could earn him a spot in Boston.
Proposed deal: 1 year / $2 million
Outfield: Kevin Pillar
NY Post and MLB Trade Rumors both predicting that Jackie Bradley Jr. will sign with the Astros.
After the Red Sox did not extend a qualifying offer to their former ALCS MVP, Fenway Park could be losing one of the game’s best defensive certain fielders in the game to a team in need of one like the Houston Astros. It’s no secret that the Red Sox will want to downgrade at some spots and center field seems to be a target area to make monetary decisions that would free up the opportunity to sign big names down the stretch and stack up for a champion-ready roster.
The obvious name that comes to mind? George Springer in a possible center field swap between the Astros and the Red Sox. The photo-edits are everywhere and Springer remains to be the obvious “safe” prize at center field, especially in a possible reunion with UConn friend Matt Barnes. But at 31 years old, there is never a clear-cut guarantee that the biggest name is the best value pick.
So where is the steal in the free agent market?
With Andrew Benintendi set to return healthy in 2021 and man left field, does Alex Verdugo make the permanent switch to center field or does he stay in right field and man the biggest part of Fenway Park? Verdugo has showed that he can clearly handle any spot in the outfield so Boston’s decision of outfield alignment should solely depend on the Jackie Bradley Jr. replacement, assuming he does walk.
Considering the difficulties associated with playing the grass and walls at Fenway Park and the value the organization places on defense, you have to imagine that if you choose not to go to the Springer route, you have a rock-solid defensive outfielder with offensive upside. Take into account age and you have yourself only a couple of options from the pool, and the best value pick from this year's free agent class has to be a reunion of long-time AL East member Kevin Pillar.
I’ve raved about the all-rounded play, energy, and leadership of Kevin Pillar and his value to a winning ballclub and in 30 games with the Red Sox in an otherwise ugly 2020, Pillar was one of the offensive bright spots of the team while continuing to be a spark plug on defense. At still only 31 years old, a small deal to bring Pillar back to familiar territory is strictly safer than a Hail Mary on an overpriced Joc Pederson, a risk on a light-hitting Jake Marisnick, or the pressure of an injury-bitten Adam Eaton.
Proposed deal: 2 years / $9 million
Starting Pitchers: Taijuan Walker, Corey Kluber
Whether or not the Red Sox want to pursue the services of superstar ace Trevor Bauer is a conversation for another time. The pros, cons, and caveats associated with the acquisition of Bauer would involve being a complex set of decisions because Bauer comes with on-field and off-field baggage that the Red Sox may not want to take on.
Regardless, the Red Sox need to examine where to acquire starting pitching at value as they could start the 2021 season without Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodríguez and will likely watch Martín Pérez leave town in free agency. I mention two names that are both criminally underrated at this point, primarily due to the injuries and recency bias in opportunity.
The first name that comes to mind is straight from the raw measurables. In 2010, the Seattle Mariners selected Taijuan Walker in the first round of the MLB draft. After impressing as a 21-year-old at the big league level, he became a full-time starter in 2015 but was up and down. While his 4.56 ERA in 29 starts was nothing to be amazed at, he showed signs of brilliance and improved upon his performance in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, where he was amongst the league leaders in movement on his fastball and cutter while also mixing in a decent splitter, sinker, and curveball. Despite moving to the Arizona Diamondbacks and having to pitch in hitter-friendly environments, Walker showed growth and posted a 3.49 ERA in his age 24 season and pitched almost 160 innings.
(Photo: Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
It was 2018, however, that begun the fall of his talented arm. Walker needed Tommy John surgery and wouldn't appear in the big leagues until one inning in 2019. In 2020, Walker made his return to the Seattle Mariners and then also spent time on the Toronto Blue Jays. All he did in his six starts for the Blue Jays was pitch 26.1 innings at a 1.37 ERA. He did walk 11 but he struck out 25 and showed flashes of that brilliance that earned him respect in the league in the first place. And yet again, in 2020, Walker was in the elite spectrum in horizontal and vertical movement on his fastball — but this year, he also improved upon the break in his curveball. Walker was amongst the top 26% of pitchers in softest contact induced.
At only 28 years old, why shouldn’t the Red Sox take a chance on the rejuvenated career of someone with 5 pitches, one of which a 94 mph fastball with movement? At this price, your seat in Boston comes with a red carpet.
Proposed deal (Walker): 2 years / $6 million
As for the other name I’m mentioning, you may have heard of him. He has 2 Cy Young awards, two other top 3 Cy Young finishes, 3 all-star appearances, five straight seasons pitching over 200 innings, an ERA championship in the American league, a WHIP championship, an ERA+ championship, and a 2016 postseason run with a 1.83 ERA under his belt. In fact, according to several Baseball-Reference Hall of Fame metrics, he is already a candidate to sneak in to Cooperstown. His name is Corey Kluber.
Despite Kluber's success in the American League, where he lead the circuit in wins twice and has an elite track record in the big moment, a torn teres major muscle limited him to just 1 inning in 2020. Set to be 35 years old in the 2021 season, doubt has settled in organizations about whether Kluber is a risk worth taking. My answer: for the Red Sox, it's a yes on a short-term deal.
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Kluber’s surface-level career numbers are eye-popping but his peripherals are even better. To add on to the pile, Kluber is a Boston guy himself and in his regular season career, he has a 3.00 ERA against AL East teams not named the Boston Red Sox. Add in the experience factor to a young clubhouse and you’ve got yourself immense upside, as long as you’re not risking a huge monetary investment. With the deal I’m proposing, bring Kluber home.
Proposed deal (Kluber): 1 year / $10 million
Relief Pitchers: Trevor May, Blake Treinen
Remember when the Red Sox traded two centerpieces of their bullpen in 2020 by sending Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman to the Phillies? And remember when some people thought that was a risky move for a team that needs bullpen help? For those of you that missed it, after disaster stints with the Phillies, Workman and Hembree are now both free agents and the Red Sox have Nick Pivetta and Connor Seabold for free. Check mate, Chaim Bloom.
Now where do you go for bullpen help? Can you bring back Workman or Hembree? Maybe, but where else can you find value in a deep bullpen free agent class? You have your standard household name relievers available — Liam Hendriks, Kirby Yates, even Brad Hand who was surprisingly allowed to walk by the Cleveland Indians, and public enemy Roberto Osuna who we don't need to discuss further. However, I'm digging a tad deeper and finding you the sleepers.
In his career, all with the Minnesota Twins, Trevor May has a 4.44 ERA and his best season was in 2019 when he pitched in 65 innings for a 2.94 ERA. At first look, his resumé is inconsistent and nothing out of the ordinary. But with how many elite names the free agent pool has and the need for power arms in the Red Sox bullpen, Trevor May's profile suggests he could be the 7th or 8th inning man of the future for a team in the American League.
Trevor May 2018 profile, via Baseball Savant
May uses a combination of a 96 mph fastball, 96 mph sinker, changeup, and slider. Over his career, May's vertical slider movement, vertical fastball movement, and horizontal slider and curveball movement have all been amongst the league leaders. In 2019, his xBA and xwOBA were top 10% in the league and his strikeout percentage in 2020 was top 2% in the league. And by the way, he streams on Twitch and is hella dope. Considering that he is 13th amongst free agent relievers in 2020 bWAR, teams will undervalue his role in a bullpen and the Red Sox shouldn’t be one of the teams to skip over his profile.
Proposed deal (May): 2 years / $5 million
The other name I mention, like Corey Kluber, has some recognition in his bag. In 2018, as the Oakland Athletics closer, Blake Treinen put up mind-boggling numbers. He pitched 80.1 innings, struck out 100, walked only 21, and posted a 0.78 ERA, 0.834 WHIP, an all-star appearance, and received Cy Young and MVP votes as a reliever.
Blake Treinen 2020 profile, via Baseball Savant
In 2019, an injury set his ability back and he lost the closer role to Liam Hendriks who is everybody's #1 reliever of this free agent class. Treinen became a free agent and signed a healthily-sized one-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In his 2020 run with LA, he bounced back with his control and lowered his walk rate per 9 from 5.7 in 2019 to 2.8 in 2020. He finished the regular season with an ERA of 3.86 and made several high-leverage appearances in the 2020 championship run for the Dodgers, including a save in the World Series. Treinen is still only 32 years old, yet another chance at a small low-risk deal.
Proposed deal (Treinen): 1 year / $8 million
Who's coming to Boston in 2021?
Throughout the offseason, the free agent market can be tracked via Spotrac. Which free agents do you think the Red Sox should look into? Any predictions on where the Red Sox will spend their money? Is it splurge time now or should the Red Sox wait on more news related to the starting rotation? Let’s see you all work, armchair GMs.