MLB free agents

In appreciation of Brock Holt, whose job with Red Sox might be gone, but whose legacy is secure

In appreciation of Brock Holt, whose job with Red Sox might be gone, but whose legacy is secure

The transactions came in quick succession as the winter meetings wrapped on Thursday in San Diego. First, the Red Sox selected infielder Jonathan Arauz from the Astros in the Rule 5 draft. A couple of hours later, they inked infielder Jose Peraza to a one-year, $3 million deal.

Both are utility infielders, and their arrivals increase the likelihood that we'll be saying goodbye to Brock Holt this winter. 

From a bottom-line perspective, it's hard to argue. Holt turns 32 in June, has battled injuries the past four years and should make more than $3 million annually on a multi-year deal. The Red Sox need to get younger and cheaper, and that includes the bench.

If this is it, though, Holt deserves more of a sendoff than a line in the transaction wire, because his impact on the field, in the clubhouse, and especially in the community far outstripped his modest 5-foot-10 frame.

From high school (where he barely broke 100 pounds as a freshman) to junior college to Rice University to the major leagues, Holt beat long odds each step of the way. That a throw-in acquired with Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan before the 2013 season could earn Rookie of the Year votes and then make an All-Star team defied reason. That the same player would hit for the cycle not once, but twice -- including in the postseason -- while winning two World Series and becoming a gritty heart-and-soul fan favorite, let's just say guys hit that lottery maybe once in a generation.

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"I know and I've kind of gotten a taste of it coming here that certain players just really seem to bond with the fan base," said new baseball boss Chaim Bloom. "He's certainly been one of those. That's not something that's lost on any of us."

Holt brought a fun-loving energy to a clubhouse that needed it in good times and bad. Boston can be a meat grinder even when things are going well, and supporting players who take the edge off are essential. Kevin Millar mastered that role in 2004, while Jonny Gomes followed suit in 2013. That was Holt's job, too, whether he was serving as Andrew Benintendi's All-Star publicist, re-christening the 10th month on the calendar as Brocktober, or wearing a Cobra Kai-inspired headband around the locker room that others soon copied.

Holt had a knack for cracking up his teammates. After Mitch Moreland's three-run homer delivered the team its first win of 2019 in Seattle, Holt sauntered past Moreland in the clubhouse with an ice cream cone, gave it a lick, and said, "Hey Mitch, my mom says, 'Way to go,'" and then just walked out. (His mom later confirmed this account on Twitter).

He famously asked a shorts-wearing Bill Belichick if he was, "going to put some pants on," before facing the Packers on a cold October night in 2018 when the Red Sox were honored by the Patriots as World Series champions.

The night he completed the first cycle in postseason history with a ninth-inning home run to complete a rout of the Yankees, the megawatt smile on Holt's face as he rounded third and returned to the dugout could've powered the sun.

Holt's joyful persona extended to his toddler son, Griff, a glasses-clad Instagram star who developed a cult following for giggling while raiding a box of Life Cereal in the pantry, or pointing at a billboard of David Ortiz and exclaiming, "Big Papi!" or hitting what he called, "Big bomb!" with an oversized whiffle ball bat.

Holt's many viral moments with his son became all the more poignant when viewed through the lens of his tireless devotion to children's causes. He's a four-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee for community service, and he routinely leads the Red Sox in charitable appearances. He served as Jimmy Fund captain for the past five years, and his Brock Stars ticket program brought a Jimmy Fund patient to every Tuesday home game for batting practice. Director of community relations Sarah Narracci has long referred to Holt as her "go-to guy" who never says no.

"He has a great heart," manager Alex Cora said when Holt was nominated for this year's Clemente award, and if this is indeed the end of Holt's Red Sox career, he'll leave an outsized legacy that "5-10, 180" doesn't begin to capture.

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There can be only one: Why it makes more sense for Red Sox to keep J.D. Martinez than Mookie Betts

There can be only one: Why it makes more sense for Red Sox to keep J.D. Martinez than Mookie Betts

Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez complement each other as well as any two players in baseball. Since the start of 2018, no one has scored more runs than Betts (264) or driven in more than Martinez (235). That's no coincidence.

But now the Red Sox face a stomach-churning dilemma: choosing between them.

Martinez's decision not to opt out of the remaining three years on his contract means that not only will he return in 2020, but the Red Sox will have $23.75 million less to spend on Betts, were they feeling inclined to keep him.

With ownership declaring it hopes to see the payroll drop below $208 million for luxury-tax purposes, it's hard to envision a scenario where both Martinez and Betts open the season on the roster. And so the next three months will be spent trying to find a new home for one of them.

It's a choice that feels like a loss no matter what the Red Sox choose, but if they can only keep one, it should be Martinez.

It sounds crazy, because Betts is clearly the better all-around player and he's in his prime. What big-market team trades a 27-year-old barely a year removed from winning the MVP?

But the Red Sox need to start thinking long-term after three years of loading for bear. Bad contracts to David Price, Chris Sale, and Nathan Eovaldi will almost certainly hamstring the franchise for the next three years at $79 million per. That's no way to sustain success, and I don't begrudge John Henry for setting limits.

While it's tempting to say that Betts is paying the price for those horrible decisions, it also ignores the truth: 10-year, $300 million contracts aren't good business. I wouldn't pay that to anyone. Even Betts.

Angels superstar Mike Trout will probably claim his third MVP next week after another absurd season that saw him blast a career-high 45 homers. That makes his 12-year, $428 million extension money well spent, right? Well, foot surgery ended his season in September. Maybe it's nothing, but he has missed at least 20 games each of the past three seasons. The Angels need no reminder of what his 30s might look like, because all they've gotten out of Albert Pujols's 10-year deal (signed at age 32, to be fair) since 2012 is one All-Star berth. Trout's on another level athletically, but that's part of the problem -- he plays like a freight train. If he wears down, it won't be reflected in his paycheck.

The same goes for Bryce Harper, who delivered solid overall numbers in the first year of his 13-year, $330 million megadeal with the Phillies, but was sitting at home when his former team, the Nationals, won it all. Last winter's other $300 million man, Manny Machado, hit .256 with a .796 OPS in San Diego, which is a big bag of meh.

Betts is better than everyone on this list except Trout, but he's also smaller than them at 5-9, 180. As great as he is now, signing him into his late 30s for more than $30 million annually is the definition of risky. What if he loses a step in the outfield, or the lightning in his wrists suffers a voltage drop? When the Red Sox signed Dustin Pedroia to an eight-year deal in July of 2013, they couldn't have imagined that he had just made his final All-Star team, or that he'd appear in more than 135 games just once before a degenerative knee condition effectively ended his career.

Maybe Betts is Manny Ramirez or Alex Rodriguez, two stars who delivered on massive deals. Then again, both of them were busted multiple times for using performance-enhancing drugs, and baseball's crackdown on those has led to a reevaluation of aging curves, which are steeper in their 30s than they used to be.

Martinez, meanwhile, represents cost certainty. He's signed for three more years, but can opt out of either of the next two. He plays a far less demanding position and style than Betts, and it's much easier to envision him delivering value commensurate with the $62.5 million remaining on his deal. He has averaged .317-40-118 in his first two seasons with the Red Sox, and he continues a trend that has existed since the heyday of David Ortiz, giving Boston far and away the best DH production in baseball. Paying him $23 million a year to mash while other teams split their DH slot among aging one-dimensional sluggers or glorified bench rotations feels like exploiting a market inefficiency.

I would argue that Martinez's presence is more important to the lineup than Betts', and I suspect Betts would agree. It's easier to be a table-setter than a table, to steal an old line from Pedroia, and Martinez is the latter, taking the heat off everyone else. Even in an era defined by analytics, the mental strain that Martinez eases by being The Guy means more than numbers can convey.

There's an obvious counterargument to all of this: keep them both. The Red Sox aren't poor, and Henry's desire to cut payroll is based on the artificial barriers created by the luxury tax. Outside of some minor draft order penalties, all that going over costs anyone is money, and Henry can afford it -- another $240 million payroll in 2020 might cost the Red Sox $20 million in tax payments, for instance. That's easy to dismiss when it's someone else's money and that someone else is a billionaire.

My counterargument to that counterargument would be that Henry has never been shy about spending, and if he looks at this past season's underachieving roster and sees more problems on the horizon because of bad investments, I can't blame him. After all, it's not like he hired Chaim Bloom from small-market Tampa to make it rain.

The next great Red Sox team won't be bloated like this one. Betts isn't part of that problem, but give him $350 million and he could be. Better to pay Martinez a more reasonable sum and trust that the team's considerable resources can be spread around to make up the difference.

 

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Mookie Betts removed from Red Sox season ticket web page

Mookie Betts removed from Red Sox season ticket web page

Are the Red Sox sending a not-so-subtle hint about Mookie Betts' future in Boston to prospective season ticket holders?

When you visit the portion of the team website seeking new season-ticket buyers, the illustration on the web page shows Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and Chris Sale.

Barstool Sports' Jared Carrabis pointed out earlier this week that Betts had been removed from the illustration. The Red Sox All-Star right fielder and 2018 AL MVP, the subject of much trade speculation as the team prepares to shed payroll this offseason, actually appeared on the page in mid-August. By last week, Eduardo Rodriguez had replaced him. The current graphic has Sale on the left.  

Just like the others pictured on the page, Betts isn't a free agent...yet. Bogaerts and Sale have signed long-term extensions and the Sox are reportedly ready to talk about an extension with Devers. Betts? He'll likely receive more than $30 million for the 2020 season in arbitration then command a long-term deal of $300 million or more when he tests the free-agent market after next season.

That kind of financial commitment due the soon-to-be-27-year-old (happy birthday on Monday, Mookie) - and Red Sox ownership's admission that their goal is to get under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold - has led many to believe that Betts will be traded this winter.

A report even emerged this week of what the Red Sox would be seeking in a Betts trade. 

Red Sox team chairman Tom Werner said last week the team remains hopeful of keeping Betts. Still, with his teammates assuming he'll be gone before next season begins, the Sox appear to be reluctant to promote a player to season-ticket holders who'll be in another uniform.

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