Although the 2020 season proved to be a rough one for the Red Sox, they did reset their Competitive Balance Tax situation, which means Boston is better positioned to be a big player in the free-agent market this offseason. And of all the top names available to sign, there’s arguably no one the team needs more than the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, Trevor Bauer.
The Red Sox’s rotation had the third-highest ERA (5.58) in the Majors last season, while Chris Sale (Tommy John surgery) and Eduardo Rodriguez (COVID-19, myocarditis) missed the entire campaign. Sale and Rodriguez are expected to contribute in 2021, but the rest of the rotation is filled with question marks, putting a lot of pressure on both pitchers to rebound.
Taking those factors into account, MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand placed the Red Sox fourth on his list of the most likely Bauer suitors. While Boston has other issues to address -- namely, center field and the bullpen -- it’s hard to imagine any move having as large of an impact as a Bauer signing would. Here's what might ensue if Bauer joins the Red Sox.
Trade market heats up; Angels get aggressive
There’s a steep dropoff among free-agent starters after Bauer, especially with the Braves signing Charlie Morton, the third-place finisher in the 2019 American League Cy Young Award race.
If Bauer heads to Boston, it would leave Jake Odorizzi, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Corey Kluber, José Quintana and J.A. Happ as the best available arms on the free-agent market.
Odorizzi, Paxton, Kluber and Quintana all dealt with injuries in 2020, making a combined 11 starts. And although Tanaka and Happ each recorded a sub-3.60 ERA, the advanced metrics didn’t back up their surface numbers: Tanaka had a 4.42 FIP while Happ posted a 4.57 FIP.
Given those underwhelming choices, we could see the trade market for starting pitchers pick up in the wake of a Bauer signing.
The Rays are open to the idea of trading Blake Snell, sources told Feinsand, and MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal recently reported in a story for The Athletic (subscription required) that the Reds and Rangers would consider offers for Sonny Gray and Lance Lynn, respectively.
None of those pitchers would break the bank. Snell is owed $39 million over the next three years, Gray is set to make $30 million in that same timeframe and Lynn is signed for one more year at $8 million.
Another potential trade candidate? The Cubs’ Yu Darvish, who finished second to Bauer in the 2020 NL Cy Young Award voting. With Chicago reportedly looking to trim payroll and shake up its roster, moving Darvish would make sense.
Getting the righty’s contract (three years, $59 million remaining) off the books would help the Cubs’ financial situation, and he could fetch more in a deal than Kris Bryant, who is also a trade candidate with free agency looming a year from now.
If the Angels don't land Bauer after failing to sign his former UCLA teammate, Gerrit Cole, last offseason, they could be the most aggressive club on the trade front as they try to solve their pitching woes. The Halos haven't had much success trying to plug holes with mid-level free-agent starters (Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill in 2019, Julio Teheran in '20) in recent years.
Increased competition for second-tier arms
If Bauer signs with the Red Sox, there would be a number of playoff hopefuls still in need of one or more starting pitchers, including the Angels, Blue Jays, Giants, Mets, Padres, Reds, Twins, White Sox and Yankees. With a limited number of trade avenues available, there could be significant competition for the aforementioned free-agent starters, despite the obvious red flags.
ESPN’s Buster Olney gets the sense that Odorizzi “might be the most coveted” option in the second tier.
Happ, meanwhile, has been getting looks from the Angels, Blue Jays and Rangers in addition to the Red Sox, sources told MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi.
Paxton and Kluber could also start to draw significant interest if both prove they’re healthy. Paxton underwent back surgery last February before missing much of 2020 due to a flexor strain in his left forearm, and Kluber suffered a Grade 2 teres major muscle tear in his right shoulder in his first start of the season and didn’t make it back.
The two-time Cy Young Award winner also missed considerable time in 2019 after fracturing his right forearm on a line drive back to the mound.
Yankees respond with …
Although the Yankees are focused on catching the Rays, who won the AL East and defeated New York in the AL Division Series, you can be sure the Bronx Bombers always have an eye on what their longtime rivals in New England are doing.
The Yankees signed Cole to a nine-year, $324 million contract last offseason, but their rotation is in limbo with Tanaka, Paxton and Happ hitting free agency.
As bad as Boston’s pitching staff was in 2020, a Bauer signing would suddenly give the team a better rotation than New York’s. The Yanks would be left to play catchup, but there wouldn’t be anyone left on the free-agent market with the upside of Bauer. We could see the team ramp up efforts to re-sign Tanaka or look to swing a trade for Lynn, a former Yankee.
If Boston signs Bauer, it would also turn up the pressure on general manager Brian Cashman to get a deal done with DJ LeMahieu, the team’s top position player over 2019-20.
What about Boston’s bullpen?
If the Red Sox open up the checkbook to sign Bauer, it would send a message that the club is serious about getting back to contention as soon as possible. While a Bauer deal would help the rotation, the club’s relief corps still needs a lot of work.
Boston’s bullpen had a 5.79 ERA last season, the fourth-highest mark in MLB. Matt Barnes, Darwinzon Hernandez, Phillips Valdez and Ryan Brasier are the most notable holdovers among relievers on the 40-man roster.
A Bauer signing would likely price the Red Sox out of the Liam Hendriks market, but we could see them pursue a veteran closer such as Brad Hand or Alex Colomé to shore up the back of their ’pen.
Thomas Harrigan is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @HarriganMLB.