RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: Red Sox' direction comes into focus after weekend moves

RED SOX INSIDER

The Red Sox made four pieces of news this weekend: J.D. Martinez opted in to the final year of his contract, Kyle Schwarber declined his mutual option and became a free agent, Eduardo Rodriguez received a qualifying offer, and the Red Sox picked up their option on Christian Vazquez.

Let's break down what it all means.

1. J.D. Martinez stays put

It never made sense for the slugging DH to decline the final $19.35 million remaining on his contract and test the market, since the Red Sox could slap an $18.4 million qualifying offer on him and thereby reduce his bargaining power on said market.

Thanks to CBA negotiations that likely won't begin in earnest until the owners lock out the players next month, Martinez would've faced too much uncertainty in free agency. When will the two sides agree to a deal? Will the universal DH be implemented in the National League? What kind of draft pick compensation would be attached to players with qualifying offers?

Could Red Sox retain Martinez and Schwarber? Bloom weighs in

Martinez decided not to chance any of it, which means he will actually complete the five-year, $110 million contract he signed in 2018. Given all the opt outs, as well as his continued All-Star production, that contract has to go down as one of the best in Red Sox history, and he's not done yet.

 

Even though he didn't maintain the production of April and May, when he looked like the second coming of David Ortiz, Martinez still hit .286 with 28 homers and 99 RBIs. He followed that up by hitting .344 with three homers and 10 RBIs in the postseason.

There are worse things than penciling him in at DH for the 2022 season.

2. Schwarber hits the market

No shock here whatsoever. The Nationals designed Schwarber's contract in a way that allowed them to defer $3 million that the Red Sox ended up paying in the form of his buyout. There was no chance of both sides agreeing to an $11.5 million mutual option, which Schwarber significantly outperformed in June alone, when a home run binge sent him to his first All-Star Game.

There's no overstating Schwarber's significance to the Red Sox lineup once he returned from a hamstring injury in August. He brought not only left-right balance, but a patient approach that trickled down to the rest of the batting order and transformed the offense from pretty good to nearly unstoppable.

With Martinez on the roster, the fit becomes tougher to justify, especially if Schwarber's defense at first base remains as limited as it was in the postseason.

John Tomase

We have to say "nearly" because Schwarber disappeared like everyone else over the final three games of the American League Championship Series, going 0 for 12 after his game-breaking grand slam in Game 3 as the Red Sox fell to the Astros.

There's no clear answer on how to proceed with the 28-year-old, however. Had Martinez opted out, Schwarber would be a ready-made DH who could play some first base and outfield. With Martinez on the roster, the fit becomes tougher to justify, especially if Schwarber's defense at first base remains as limited as it was in the postseason, when he doffed his cap and pumped his fist after making a routine underhanded toss to the pitcher covering.

On Sunday night, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said the team will remain in contact with Schwarber, who could easily command $80 million over five years.

"We've been engaged with Kyle," Bloom said. "We're going to stay engaged. Knowing J.D. is here changes how we look at the lineup and position player group generally. But as I said after the season, we played some of our best baseball with both of those guys. They both fit."

One possibility that shouldn't be discounted -- the Red Sox sign Schwarber to play first, trade incumbent Bobby Dalbec, and then shift Schwarber to DH in 2023 when Martinez hits free agency and first base prospect Triston Casas arrives in the big leagues.

3. E-Rod receives qualifying offer

This was never worthy of debate. Even if the Red Sox had no intentions of negotiating with Rodriguez, you still give him the qualifying offer to guarantee a draft pick if he signs somewhere else. And if he decides to play out next season for $18.4 million before becoming an unfettered free agent next winter, even better.

On the surface, E-Rod's year was a disappointment. He went 13-8 with a 4.74 ERA and then didn't even survive the second inning of Game 1 of the Division Series vs. the Rays. But look under the hood, and there's reason to believe Rodriguez pitched better than his numbers.

 

He set career-highs in strikeout rate (27.4 percent) and strikeouts per nine (10.6) and his average exit velocity of 86 mph was the lowest of his career. However, because he put so many balls on the ground, he paid for Boston's weak infield defense, allowing a .364 batting average on balls in play that's about 65 points higher than league average. Red Sox fielders did not turn many of his groundballs into outs.

Still only 28, Rodriguez will be in demand among organizations that value the numbers beyond the numbers, so if the Red Sox want him, he won't come cheap.

Ranking the 10 best free-agent fits for Red Sox

"Recognizing the year didn't play out even as I think he would have wanted it to, there were definitely reasons for optimism under the surface, as has been well documented," Bloom said. "There are certain ways in which we felt he was a little snake-bit or we didn't have some of our best defensive games behind him."

While it's understandable to want off the Rodriguez roller coaster, it's also important to recognize where the Red Sox are as a staff. They hope that ace Chris Sale rebounds in his first full year back from Tommy John, and they'll be counting on Nathan Eovaldi to anchor the rotation in the final year of his contract.

But they need arms for the present and future, and despite his warts, Rodriguez just made 31 starts and even delivered two solid playoff appearances after his Game 1 clunker. He recorded what turned out to be the final victory of the season in Game 3 of the ALCS, and the Red Sox aren't yet in a position organizationally where they can simply wave goodbye.

4. Christian Vazquez returns

Don't let this decision fool you -- Vazquez is by no means guaranteed to open the 2022 season on the roster, and he still has much to prove. The catcher very quietly authored the worst season of his career, hitting .258 with a .659 OPS. After homering twice in his first six games, he managed just four homers the rest of the way.

We would've been harder on him, but he had a knack for delivering in the clutch, whether it was a game-tying homer in the ninth vs. the Rays in April, the winning RBI single off a 100-mph fastball from Mets ace Jacob deGrom later that month, or the walk-off two-run homer that won Game 3 of the ALDS in the 13th inning.

Perhaps the 31-year-old just had a down season, but also concerning was his defense. He led the American League with 10 passed balls and he threw out a career-worst 25 percent of opposing runners -- less than half the 52 percent he erased during his rifle-armed rookie campaign in 2014.

Still, catchers are hard to find and Vazquez's $7 million option was eminently reasonable for such an experienced backstop. It's also easily tradeable.

"We value Christian," Bloom said, but the catching position bears watching this winter, especially if the Red Sox see an opportunity to upgrade.