By now, it’s common knowledge how historically successful the 2018 campaign was for the Boston Red Sox. They were the “well-oiled machine”, they were the twister that could be slowed and inhibited, but was not to be stopped. A lot is made for the Yankees’ season being derailed by injuries and stints on the disabled list; however, a legitimate case can be made that the Red Sox were hit even harder by the so-called “injury bug”. Yet, they still came out of the regular season having won two games for every loss, and losing a combined three games out of their three series and 14 postseason matchups.
So, congratulations to the defending champions. As it goes for every reigning top dog, however, their glory, clout and bragging rights have an end. Taking advantage of them past that point is similar to the effect of drinking milk past its expiration date – it backfires more often than not. This is because, in today’s sporting arena (no pun intended) more than ever, there are complexities, nuances and parameters within which a general manager must operate in accordance with the league’s modus operandi of being hellbent on maintaining parity across its 30 clubs. In the last six postseasons, 25 of those teams have competed in at least one game. Of the remaining five, the Phillies appear on the cusp of returning to relevance, the Padres and White Sox currently boast two of the top farm systems and brightest potential futures in the league, and the Marlins finally under the control of an owner and front office who show more commitment to a long-term plan with an eye on building the franchise back up to respectability.
Part of what comes with this hyperfocus on parity includes measures that result in a heightened level of difficulty when attempting to follow up a World Series championship with an additional ring the subsequent season. The last period of time in which the same club won the title in back-to-back years was the 1998-2000 run for the Yankees. The last 18 titles have been won by 13 different clubs, and 19 of the 30 organizations have been represented at least once in the Fall Classic since then. The current Red Sox may very well be no different. They are coming off a remarkable 108-win campaign, a roster that boasts perhaps the best starting pitcher and best position player in the American League East, and a general manager who has shown no hesitation to push all of his prospect poker chips to the middle of the trade negotiating table when he sees a window of opportunity, pouncing like the namesake of his former employer. Yet, they also are considering moving three of their more impactful pieces from 2018 according to WAR. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts (#4), center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (#6), and starting pitcher Rick Porcello (#7) are all reported to be actively on the trade block for Boston, as of a December 11 tweet by MLB insider Ken Rosenthal.
At first glance, it’s interesting to me that the reigning champions are pondering trades of three of their seven most valuable players from their championship run. When you look beyond the on-field numbers, however, it begins to come into focus, starting with Rick Porcello. Porcello is entering a contract year worth $21.125 million, so if the team believes they can replace his pitching profile for less money with longer control, it makes sense that they would be looking for a team willing to part with anything at all of reasonable long-term value in exchange for a pitcher who consistently provides between 2-3 WAR seasons. The issue remains, their potential for return is limited by his salary. Even if you assume he reaches the top end of that range of production and puts up 3 WAR – something he’s done only once in his decade in the big leagues – it will be tricky to find a club that is willing to eat that whole price tag for one season of a #4 level starter and still provide decent additional future value in the way of prospects or big-league talent in return. Boston’s chance to strike a deal worth their while is complicated somewhat further by the current reality of the slow-moving starting pitching market. Porcello pitched to 2.7 WAR this season with a 3.87 xFIP, a K/9 of almost 9.0, and a BB/9 of under 2.3. He sacrificed less than 1.3 home-runs-per-nine-innings, and will play the entirety of the 2019 campaign at the age of 30. If you look around at the names on the open market, teams simply have a myriad of options that at least can rival Porcello in value. I would guess he’s not someone who will be moved until the top tier of available starting pitchers – Dallas Keuchel, Yusei Kikuchi, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Zack Greinke – all have their fates decided for the coming seasons. When you get past those names, he’s almost indisputably the best available starter remaining, financial situation notwithstanding. The issue becomes, you could take a little bit of a production hit for names like Wade Miley or Jeremy Hellickson, saving potentially over $10 million for 2019 in the process while perhaps gaining additional control over the single year for which you’d have Porcello. Unless you’re one of the major-market teams, this is probably an option that looks very appealing to you, especially if this is a season in which you fall somewhere outside of the bubble of “all-in” clubs.
For Porcello, there are still teams I could see being potential trade fits if Boston seeks to shop him to teams that are left scrambling to add a mid-rotation starter on the short-term after those aforementioned top names are off the board. If you look at Houston, they seem openly resigned to the prospect that former ace Dallas Keuchel will be donning another organization’s colors in 2019. Their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, has been notorious for generally not wanting to move top young future talent in trades for non-elite players. It seems plausible to me that he could look to add a replacement that costs predominately money as opposed to player capital, and Porcello could slot nicely into a rotation fronted by Verlander and Cole and flanked by some combination of Joshua James, Colin McHugh, or Brad Peacock. If Houston and Boston get into talks about a Porcello trade, I could see Houston agreeing to eat most of that money to not have to part with much young talent, where Boston’s modus operandi anyway in moving is rumored to be achieving more financial flexibility.
Next on their potential list of trade candidates is one of my personal favorite players to watch, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. He strikes out at a slightly higher clip than I would like and has never developed into a proven offensive threat with any consistency. Following an impressive 2016 campaign, he averaged 138 games played, 26 doubles, 15 home runs, a .240/.319/.403/.722 slash line, and a below-average 91 OPS+ (100 is league-average) between his last two seasons. Despite the lackluster production with the bat, he has emerged as a truly valuable defensive center fielder and this year had a breakout on the basepaths as well, stealing 17 bases in 18 attempts after only totaling 30 swipes in his first five seasons combined. Unlike Porcello, Bradley Jr. has two seasons until free agency, will play all of next season at the age of 29, and is still under arbitration, making him more affordable, controllable, and therefore, financially desirable.
Bradley Jr. is not someone I’d be as eager to move if I were Boston. Unless they’re planning to, say, shift Andrew Benintendi from left field to center field, and move JD Martinez from a primary DH into a role seeing more time in left, I don’t see how their defensive alignment would maintain nearly its 2018 level of fundamental cohesion and formidability. That being said, I can definitely see instances in which other teams could theoretically have interest, although pinpointing those for which a deal would make sense is somewhat more challenging. A National League team such as the Reds who are lacking in center field, particularly in those two aforementioned categories of speed and defense (they cut ties with now-Royals outfielder Billy Hamilton earlier in the offseason), could be an intriguing fit. They’ve already added two outfielders in Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, however those two individuals are better suited to handle work on the corners than be the first option as a center fielder. As of now, Scott Schebler is penciled in as the #1 option at the position for Cincinnati, but I could definitely see them preferring to try and add a veteran at that position with those abilities, on a short term affordable commitment that allows him to fill in and gain experience when JBJ needs a break, which is valuable for a center fielder who has played at least 145 games only once in his six years as a Major League player. Boston has long had interest in Cincinnati’s relief depth (such as Raisel Iglesias, Jared Hughes, and Amir Garrett), and talks in that vein could conceivably resurface, especially if Boston does not retain Craig Kimbrel. That being said, I’d be less willing to move someone with game-changing ability like Jackie Bradley Jr. than I would be a mid-rotation expensive contract-year veteran like Porcello.
The last, but perhaps most intriguing, player on whom Boston has fielded inquiries this offseason is shortstop Xander Bogaerts. This year, while playing a premium defensive position, he began to establish himself as a legitimate offensive threat. He hit 23 homers, and posted a .288/.360/.522/.882 batting line with a 135 OPS+ (133 wRC+) in 136 games. He also struck out just 17.6% of the time. There were a myriad of reasons for this resurgence following an abysmal 2017 season. One was his ability to simply get the barrel on the ball, which he did 9.8% of the time this past season, after accomplishing this in just 1.3% of chances in 2017. Secondly, he fared significantly better in 2018 against breaking balls. His whiff-rate in these situations between 2017 and 2018 decreased by 6.4% (36.4% down to 30.0%), his batting average in these opportunities improved from .243 to .270, his slugging percentage jumped from a paltry .320 to a studly .503, and his weighted-on-base-average (wOBA) was .331 after finishing 2017 at .276. Defensively, however, he’s not coming into his own. Among 20 qualified shortstops in the MLB over the last two seasons, he is dead-last in DRS (-30, nearly twice as poor as the second-worst mark in that span (16) by Alcides Escobar). His UZR/150 of 0.1 puts him at the middle of the pack, 11th out of the 20 players. As he wasn’t developing into an elite shortstop on the fielding side of the ball, it was all the more imperative that he establish himself as an offensive threat.
Despite these defensive shortcomings, Bogaerts should be the most difficult to move of all. He was the third-most valuable non-pitcher on the championship roster, and would have likely topped the list for several teams. He is also entering his contract year, and could become an intriguing asset for a team seeking someone to plug in for a season on a contending roster. The Brewers could make an interesting fit, with an interesting crop of young talent from which to potentially make an offer, the yet-to-break-out Orlando Arcia currently slated to man the position for the 2019 club, and looking for one more strong offensive weapon to add formidability, depth and impact to a lineup that boasts Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Bogaerts’ former teammate Travis Shaw. Arguably, with how well-matched their pitching staffs were, a shortage of consistent impact offensive firepower made the difference in LA (not Milwaukee) advancing to the World Series out of the NLCS. Plugging in Bogaerts would be exactly the type of move that could help take a lineup that was in that second-tier of the National League along with those of teams like the Cardinals, Cubs, and Braves, and give it the boost it needs to contend with perennial threats such as the Dodgers. This could be an even more opportune time to swing a move like this for Milwaukee, with recent contenders like the Diamondbacks, Nationals, Rockies, among others appearing poised to regress in 2019. A potential dark horse for a Bogaerts move could be the Chicago Cubs. Their infamously-embattled shortstop, Addison Russell, is facing a 40-game suspension in accordance with the league’s Attachment 52: Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy. As has been done in the past, the league and/or franchise may take action to keep him away from the field longer than that allotment of time, thereby creating a need at shortstop for an organization that currently is financially-hamstrung by recent splashes that by-and-large have not panned out. Making a short-term splash for a player like Bogaerts, who was originally signed when Boston’s decision-maker was Theo Esptein (now the President of Baseball Operations for Chicago), could provide a needed Machado-to-Dodgers type jolt for a season aimed to get the Cubs’ record, performance, clubhouse, and culture over the hump. Furthermore, it would come at an affordable financial sum for a mid-market club that shouldn’t exacerbate the payroll concerns with which the Cubs are now faced. The one potential drawback here is that the reported sole motivation for the Red Sox potentially moving any of these three players is to obtain financial flexibility, which is precisely what the Cubs now seek to do as well.
In today’s MLB, it’s exceedingly and increasingly rare to watch a late-October team match its success from the previous season. Coupled with Boston’s top-two payroll in the league, it does make some level of sense that the team would look to trim the proverbial fat from its financial books if they believe it provides them freedom to reshape and tweak their roster going forward without footing a collective $200+ million bill. The circumstances within which it would be optimally sensible to architect a transaction to move any of these players vary to certain degrees, but with Dealin’ Dave in charge and a bloated payrolla, Boston (particularly as it pertains to these three players) is certainly an organization to watch on the trade market henceforth as we move into 2019.