If the Red Sox aren't planning to go crazy in free agency, that's OK. For every J.D. Martinez they nail, there's a Carl Crawford, Jack Clark, and Pablo Sandoval they don't.
Sitting out the high-end market doesn't mean they must settle for marginal upgrades, however. There are other ways to add impact talent, and if the Red Sox want to most efficiently exploit their financial advantages, they probably won't do so in big-name free agency, where players tend to skew older and contracts rarely qualify as bargains.
The winning combination in today's game, generally, is youth plus cost control. It may sound unseemly and cheap, but it is reality. Teams are increasingly willing to pay a premium for young talent, which is why the Padres have already signed Fernando Tatis to a contract worth more than $300 million, and the Rays are reportedly attempting to lock down 20-year-old Wander Franco for upwards of $200 million.
The Red Sox face a similar decision with third baseman Rafael Devers, but in the meantime, there's the matter of improving the current roster, and their focus should be on rising stars who might be pricing themselves out of their current markets.
Here are five names to consider. Any one of them would tell fans that even if the Red Sox don't spend extravagantly this winter, they're still going for it.
1. Byron Buxton, Twins
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft isn't yet a household name, but he should be. A Gold Glove center fielder in 2017, Buxton is the kind of five-tool talent teams dream of, and he's still only 27. The problem is health. Outside of 2017, when he appeared in 140 games, Buxton has never topped 92 appearances in a season.
Last year was typical. He earned AL Player of the Month honors for April after hitting .426 with eight homers. Then he strained a hip and missed 40 games. He returned just long enough to get hit by a pitch and break his hand, costing him another two months. All told, he appeared in only 61 games, hitting .306 with 19 homers and a 1.005 OPS.
But the talent is undeniable, which is why the Twins have been trying to work out a long-term extension before he hits free agency next fall. The Twins have reportedly offered $80 million, and Buxton seeks at least that and incentives, pushing the deal over $100 million. That's a stiff price to pay for a player with Buxton's injury history, but if the Red Sox acquired him now, they'd have a year to make a decision on his long-term viability. If he stays healthy, he's an MVP talent, though obviously that's a big, giant if.
2. Jose Ramirez, Indians
The Indians have already begun facing the reality that they're rebuilding. Last winter, they traded franchise cornerstone Francisco Lindor to the Mets before he could reach free agency. This winter, they face a similar decision with Ramirez, a perennial MVP candidate with two very reasonable option years remaining on his contract.
The time to maximize Ramirez's value is now, and the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder is a proven middle-of-the-order force. Though he has mostly played third base over the last four years, he has experience at second, too. Acquiring him to play there would mean accepting subpar defense across the infield, although it should be noted that he graded well at third last year in a bounce-back season.
The three-time All-Star smashed 36 homers and drove in 103 with an .893 OPS despite being the only hitter of note in Cleveland's lineup. The switch hitter would give the Red Sox the best lineup in baseball, and he'd fill a hole at second base, too. With options totaling only $24 million for 2022 and 2023, he'd be an absolute bargain, although the prospect cost to acquire him would be high.
3. Luis Castillo, Reds
The Reds telegraphed the direction of their offseason when they didn't bother picking up Wade Miley's reasonable $10 million option, putting him on waivers, where he was claimed by the division-rival Cubs. Cincinnati is going to cut payroll this winter, and their most valuable chip is Castillo, a durable All-Star right-hander with two years of arbitration eligibility remaining.
The Red Sox have already shown a willingness to eat money to facilitate a deal, as they did last winter when acquiring reliever Adam Ottavino from the Yankees. Perhaps they could assume one of Cincinnati's bad contracts, like the two years and $38 million remaining on infielder Mike Moustakas, to make something happen.
Castillo owns one of the hardest fastballs in baseball, averaging over 97 mph, and few pitchers miss more barrels. He has made at least 30 starts in each of the last three full seasons, and the 28-year-old has yet to spend a day on the injured list. He'd upgrade a rotation in need of a replacement for Eduardo Rodriguez.
4. Sandy Alcantara, Marlins
As long as we're talking pitchers, Alcantara is sure to draw interest this winter. The 6-foot-5 right-handed sinkerballer throws even harder than Castillo, averaging over 98 mph. An All-Star in 2019 when he led the league in losses (14) and shutouts (2) while pitching for the woeful 57-win Marlins, Alcantara is an old-school horse who topped 200 innings and 200 strikeouts in 2021.
The Marlins are reportedly at a stalemate in extension talks, but there isn't exactly a rush, since they retain three more years of team control. Still, an organization that's perpetually rebuilding will be looking to deal this winter, and starting pitching represents a surplus.
Alcantara just turned 26 and is entering his prime. The prospect cost would be steep, but if the Red Sox want to add a long-term piece to their rotation, Alcantara might be the perfect option.
5. Ketel Marte, Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks just won 52 games, which would be a problem in any division, but particularly in the murderous NL West. Since they don't project to be competing with the likes of the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres anytime soon, they must plan for the future.
Their best trade asset, by far, is Marte. An All-Star who finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2019, Marte owns one of the best contracts in the game. He's finishing a five-year, $24 million extension that includes a $10 million team option for 2023 and a $12 million option for 2024, when he'll be 30.
He'd be a perfect fit for the Red Sox, given his ability to play second base and outfield. He has reached 30 homers once while developing advanced plate discipline to the tune of a .374 on base percentage over the last three seasons. Like Ramirez, he's a switch hitter with power to all fields, and like Ramirez the cost would be high.
But with the Red Sox farm system suddenly bearing fruit, climbing to No. 9 in Baseball America's rankings, the pieces may be in place to make a big splash without breaking the bank.