Within the next two years, David Price and J.D. Martinez will have the right to opt out of their Red Sox contracts, current deals with Chris Sale, Drew Pomeranz, Rick Porcello and Craig Kimbrel will come to an end, and even homegrown shortstop Xander Bogaerts will be eligible for free agency in two years.
All of that seems to put the Red Sox firmly in the middle of a window of opportunity. They’d better take advantage of their talent now, because this roster isn’t necessarily built for the long haul.
That’s the idea anyway.
Window of opportunity became an easy talking point when Martinez signed his front-loaded deal. It was a sensible justification for re-signing Eduardo Nunez, even though he’ll have no obvious place to play once Dustin Pedroia is healthy. It was a key part of the argument that suggested the Sox should have spent more, not less, this winter.
Some teams are ready to win. Some teams are not. And knowing whether the window is open or closed is vital part of a successful franchise. Unless . . .
“I never heard that,” Pedroia said. “We always have the pieces to win.”
If you’re looking for some particular sense of urgency in the Red Sox clubhouse this spring, you might be surprised to find free-agent-to-be Pomeranz playing ping-pong against out-of-options Deven Marrero while a large group of relievers — all of them jockeying for late-inning roles — play another round of their daily card game at a back table.
Pressure to win this season? Sure. Window of opportunity? If you say so. The Red Sox want to win, they think they have the pieces to win, and anything beyond that is just words in a newspaper.
“I don’t think I buy into the window thing, to be honest,” Jackie Bradley Jr. said. “I mean, you know that you have a good team. There’s too many variables (to say for how long). You can’t predict anything. You can, but all of that stuff might not play out. There’s too many variables and injuries, performance, execution. Things come up.”
Tools of the trade
Window of opportunity may be more of an analytical tool than a true predictor. It’s not so much about what to expect in the future, but about taking stock of what’s in place and how a team might have to adjust moving forward.
Individual team windows — whether they’re open right now, how soon they might open, and how long they might stay open — surely were driving factors in this winter’s unusual free agent market.
The Marlins, Rays and Royals clearly see their windows closed, and they spent the offseason preparing for an opening in the future. The Giants, Phillies, Brewers and Angels see their windows open, or believe they will be open soon, despite missing the playoffs last season. The Yankees’ window opened more quickly than many expected last season, while the Astros, Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox are among the teams whose windows have been open for a few years now.
When the Red Sox decided to get below the luxury tax threshold last year, they reset their financial penalties in a clear effort to keep their window open a little longer with future spending power.
“I’ve talked about (how) we have payroll projections five years into the future,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “And you try to see, as you project players’ performance, you try to project young players coming into your ballclub and what their salaries will be. It was something we felt was important last year to get under the luxury tax. We were able to accomplish that. Our people worked hard in making that happen. Our scouts, and really it was a good combination of young players coming in and letting us do that because we felt that we were in a spot that we were going to go back over.”
So, when Kimbrel becomes a free agent next winter, and if Price opts out at the same time, the Red Sox will have money to spend on the much-hyped 2018 free agent class. But if Sale reaches free agency after 2019, and Martinez opts out at the same time, there could be a void too big to fill.
Again, assuming you buy into the window of opportunity idea in the first place.
“If both of those guys are extended that you mentioned,” Pedroia said. “Then the window, do we open it more? It’s an unrealistic (way to look at it). There’s no real answer to that. You play with the team that you have, and you go from there.”
It all hinges on Sale
Any suggestion of a Red Sox window surely begins with Sale.
It’s irrefutable that his contract ends after a 2019 club option. Whether that affects his own motivation, or impacts the Red Sox’ decision making, is not so definite. Does Sale’s contract give the Sox a defined window, or does it simply give them a good shot for the next two years?
“That’s a little too businessy for me,” Sale said. “I want to win every year. I don’t look at my contract. I don’t look at other people’s contract. I don’t look at when this guy is going to be a free agent. I show up every day trying to win. So, I guess to answer your question, no, I don’t look too far into that.”
That’s all good and well for Sale, but the Red Sox surely owe it to themselves to surround Sale with winning pieces while they can. Price and Martinez have opt-outs that are a bit difficult to predict, and homegrown players Bogaerts and Mookie Betts are perpetually candidates for long-term extensions.
Sale, though, was an obvious win-now acquisition with specific parameters. The Red Sox sacrificed the future of Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and two other prospects for a player with three years left on his contract. Of course, they could sign Sale beyond his current agreement, but they could have done that without losing the prospects. To make that deal worthwhile, the Sox need to win within Sale’s window.
Doesn’t that make sense?
“It’s just noise, you know?” Sale said. “You talk about this guy’s free agency, this guy’s contract. Trying to meet all of them to sync them all up, that’s not me. If I was smart, I’d be a scientist. I’m good at playing baseball, so I’m going to stick with what I do. All that other stuff just kind of gets in the way of that. I don’t look too far into that. It’s just not my style.”
Perhaps Sale’s own sense of urgency will change next year when free agency is within reach.
“I highly doubt it,” he said. “It’s so far away from what I believe in. I play to win, and I’ve always done that. I don’t think it’s a secret when you watch me pitch that I’m leaving everything I have out there. I don’t think anybody’s ever looked at me and said, ‘Oh, he’s pitching today because he’s thinking about something else.’ That’s just not for me.”
Open and shut case
Because we’re all smart baseball-minded folks, we can spot the contenders and pretenders. We can tell which teams have wide-open windows of opportunity, which teams have their windows slammed shut, and which teams have windows open just enough to let a breeze slip in but not enough to fit a championships.
We know these things, right?
“I would have never — I wouldn’t say never — but I didn’t know the Royals and the Mets were going to play in the World Series (three years ago),” Bradley said. “It’s one of those things where sometimes teams can come out and surprise you out of nowhere.”
That seems to be the definitive reasoning for keeping window of opportunity talk out of the clubhouse. The game is decided on the field, and any talk of contract limitations or performance projections is for someone who’s not playing the game.
“For an example, we picked up (Nunez) and he shot off like a cannon as soon as he got over here (last year),” Bradley said. “Probably one of the hottest players I’ve ever seen in that stretch, and those things you just can’t predict.”
Fair enough, but the Red Sox also traded for Nunez in July because they saw an opportunity to win, and the Mets-Royals World Series of 2015 fit well within windows of opportunity for each franchise. The Mets had been building a championship pitching staff for years, and the Royals had been similarly building around a core of young position players.
That each team had a flash of championship caliber talent before falling back below .500 last season might prove the window of opportunity rather than discredit it, but that’s for someone else to debate.
For Bradley, all that matters is the here and now. He stepped into the Red Sox spring training clubhouse last month and believed his team was good enough win. Then he saw Nunez show up, then Martinez a few days later. Contract length and opt-out provisions are for Dombrowski to figure out. For the Red Sox players, it seems, the only window of opportunity that matters is whether they have enough to win right now.
“(Martinez) just made us better,” Bradley said. “Obviously, he was a big-time free agent signing for us. He was the best hitter this free agent class had. We know how vital he is for our team, and our goal isn’t to win in his window. Our goal is to win every year. That’s just our mindset.”