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Boston Red Sox

Red Sox face one easy free-agent choice and two hard ones

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The Boston Red Sox need to make some noise.

If the Red Sox are the truest rivals of the New York Yankees — and we’re told this is true at least four of every seven days of the week — then despite the fact that the Red Sox won the American League East last year and the Yankees snuck in via the wild card, the Red Sox are playing catch-up going into this year’s Winter Meetings.

The Yankees just acquired National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton for the low, low price of a player on the active roster they wanted to get rid of anyway (Starlin Castro) and two nothing-grade prospects (Jorge Guzman, a prospect Houston threw into the Brian McCann trade, and Jose Devers, an infielder notable mainly for being the younger brother of the Red Sox’s own Rafael Devers and little else).

Unfortunately for them, the Red Sox didn’t just have their own living legend take over a disaster franchise; they won’t be getting any sweetheart deals like the Yankees got from new Marlin frontman, right-diving expert and publishing wizard Derek Jeter.

They do need to respond.

They don’t need to make waves on the pitching staff; the Red Sox have been set on pitching ever since they traded for Chris Sale and signed David Price. Even now they have a far superior staff to the Yankees, though the Sonny Gray trade and Masahiro Tanaka’s decision not to opt out of his deal have made it closer than it would otherwise be. The Red Sox need to focus on their everyday players — this means one easy choice and then one or two hard ones.

The easy choice is clear and simple: J.D. Martinez is the best free-agent bat on the market. The Red Sox need to get him. Martinez has shown elite power across two different home stadiums since he left the Houston Astros, and while he’s not as much of a sure thing as, for instance, Giancarlo Stanton, he’s shown he’s not a flash in the pan. Will the Red Sox pay too much? Yes. Is it your money? No. Is it a signing that’s worth a slight overpayment in the context of the current free-agent market, when weighed against Boston’s window? Absolutely. But it also means Mookie Betts will have to move back to center field, and Jackie Bradley Jr., will either be the fourth outfielder on the Red Sox or will be traded. Not coincidentally, Boston made it known that Bradley is available on the trade market.

After Martinez it gets more dicey. The second thing the Sox need to do is dump Hanley Ramirez’s contract; the money’s not a problem — Boston can eat the money — but the roster spot with the compulsion to play Ramirez is. The Rockies are a possible landing point; the Royals might be as well, depending on how fully they embrace rebuilding, and if Boston eats all the money it can surely deal Ramirez to the Miami Marlins for one of their other young outfielders, but the point here isn’t to get something worthwhile back for Hanley. The point is to open up space.

Oct 4, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Boston Red Sox designated hitter Hanley Ramirez (13) during workouts at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

That space is being opened for Eric Hosmer, the best first baseman on the market. Hosmer isn’t actually elite, despite what any number of infatuated Boston beat writers might tell you; he just finished by far the best year of his career, and buying high on a first baseman with mediocre contact skills and poor power as he’s entering the back end of his 20s is generally a bad idea.

But as unimpressive as Hosmer would likely be as the Red Sox’ first baseman in a vacuum, baseball isn’t a vacuum. Boston would be paying a premium to provide stability and, at worst, mediocrity at the first base position. Given the underwhelming state of the rest of their lineup, that’s not something they can pass on doing if they want to win the division again next year.

The final thing the Red Sox need this offseason is a for-real catcher. Welington Castillo would have been the smart move here, but the Chicago White Sox jumped on him; the Red Sox are left with one big upgrade on the free-agent market: Jonathan Lucroy. He had a value-destroying disaster of a season last year, though he turned things around after his midseason trade to the Colorado Rockies.

His most important aspect as far as Boston is concerned is that when he’s on, Lucroy is one of the best slugging catchers in baseball; he’s certainly the best power-performing backstop on the market this year. He doesn’t have a qualifying offer attached to him either, so all the Red Sox would be giving up to sign him is money.

Lucroy might be permanently broken and on his decline; it’s not likely, and he’s had mediocre seasons at the plate before and bounced back, but it is possible. Even if he’s a 103 OPS+ hitter with huge splits from here on out, his defensive and framing skills still make him a better player than either Christian Vazquez or Sandy Leon. Either of those two guys could be the backup, but heaven help the Red Sox if they want to win the division again with one of them as a starter.

The good news: All this plan requires is spending money, and giving up a draft pick for Hosmer that a big-market contending team should be willing to give up for a player of his caliber (Martinez would have gotten tagged with the QO, but he was traded in the middle of last season, so the Red Sox can sign him without worrying about anything except the money).

The bad news is … well, uh, I guess some Red Sox fans will be really sad when Jackie Bradley Jr. gets traded, and some other Red Sox fans are likely still aboard the hype train for one of the two Red Sox catchers. That sucks for them… but if the Red Sox turn that lineup around and send the Yankees back to the wild card game, they probably won’t have too many complaints.

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Jonathan Bernhardt lives and works in the Baltimore area. He has previously covered Major League Baseball for Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, VICE Sports, and The Guardian.

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