As free agency kicks off, it will be interesting to see how the Red Sox approach the market following the retirement of David Ortiz. Many have speculated that they will add a big bat to replace Ortiz at DH, and names like Edwin Encarnacion, Carlos Beltran, Kendrys Morales, and Mike Napoli have been floated around. However, while these were certainly all productive players this past season, their best option may simply be to avoid big spending altogether. It’s important to note that regardless of who they sign, the Red Sox aren’t going to replace Ortiz. Off the field, his leadership and clubhouse presence was second to none, and he grew to embody both his team and the city of Boston as a whole. On the field, his wRC+ of 163 was second to one (Mike Trout), who unfortunately is not about become Boston’s savior. Anyone who the Red Sox could acquire would not have Ortiz’s impact on the team, so talk of needing to “replace him” is engaging in the wrong type of thinking.
Now that that’s out of the way, signing one of the market’s premier DHs is simply not necessary. The Red Sox paced the league in runs last year with 878, and while Ortiz certainly played a big role in the team’s success, a lineup with three other 2016 All-Stars (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley), two more premier veteran hitters (Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia), and potentially a pair of exciting young players (Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada) should once again rank near the top of the league. Additionally, adding a DH to this deep lineup is no longer an easy fit: Pablo Sandoval and his egregious contract will likely have to spend a lot of time there after fangraphs gave him a Defensive Score (which measures runs above average) of -15.1 in 2015, worst among all qualified third baseman. This would leave Travis Shaw and Brock Holt to hold down the fort at third base until Moncada (the #1 prospect in all of baseball according to mlb.com’s latest rankings) is ready to take the reins. Once Moncada establishes himself as the starter, which figures to (hopefully) happen fairly early next season, even less time will be available at DH as Travis Shaw will go back to pushing Pablo Sandoval for playing time (with Shaw playing 1B and Hanley Ramirez moving to DH when Shaw plays over Sandoval). Any outside addition would likely compromise either Sandoval’s potential impact (by making him either play the field or sit on the bench) or Shaw’s (by pushing him to the bench), and Moncada’s path to get called up and contribute would get a whole lot murkier. To me, adding an aging DH doesn’t outweigh the potential harm that this could cause.
Additionally, signing one of the market’s premier DHs would complicate things financially for the Red Sox. Jackie Bradley (26 years old) and Xander Bogaerts (24) are entering their first years of arbitration eligibility while Mookie Betts (24) is only a year away, so all three figure to see big salary bumps over the next few years. While signing a DH to a 3-4 year deal now (which is likely what the above four players would command) may not ultimately hinder the Red Sox’s ability to re-sign the “3 Bs” when they reach free agency, it could certainly impact their ability to engage in early negotiations with them. Although they were legitimate contenders last year and look poised for another strong season in 2017, their #1 priority should be to invest in their uncommonly strong young core as they enter the primes of their careers, not to invest significant money in older veterans (Morales and Encarnacion are the youngest members of the aforementioned group at 33 years old). Furthermore, since hitting is clearly not the weakness of this Red Sox team, why not spend the money in other areas? While the back end of the Red Sox’s bullpen could be stronger than people expect with star closer Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith (career 2.00 ERA and 104 Ks over 82 innings) expected back in June, and Joe Kelly (1.02 ERA in 17.2 relief innings last season), adding a lefty specialist and additional middle relief depth could go a long way for a team that had issues finishing games down the stretch in 2016. This year’s World Series showed just how important having a good bullpen is (not a single starting pitcher recorded an out in the 6th inning of any game), and while the Red Sox don’t need another star, there’s undeniably room for improvement.
So, instead of trying to replace David Ortiz, the Red Sox should put the salary that his retirement freed up toward their young players and pitching help. This would make the Red Sox a deeper team as they seek to contend, and improve their long term outlook since they’d be investing in sustainable future success. They don’t even have to spend all of the $16 million that Ortiz was slated to make this season: there’s no sense in doling out money just because it’s available, as team circumstances change so much year to year that what’s palatable now could really hurt in the future. Spending big in free agency is inherently risky in baseball because you never truly know how a player will perform in a new situation on what’s often a fully guaranteed contract, and for many players the start of a big contract comes at the end of their “prime” years. The latter cause for concern is especially true for the Red Sox given that none of the top DHs are younger than 33 or provide even adequate defense when asked to play the field, and in my opinion it’s a risk that they simply don’t need to take with the talent they already have.
*Update: Now that the Red Sox got rid of both Shaw and Moncada, signing a DH may not be the worst idea as long as it isn’t someone overly expensive (12/6)