Never has a team needed a player more than the Boston Red Sox needed David Price – his record-shattering contract a signal to fans that a volatile era in team history has given way to an intent to win.
But that certainly doesn't mean they'll win.
Dave Dombrowski, the team's new president of baseball operations, wasted no time bringing about an identity shift. Before the Winter Meetings began, he had signed the best available pitcher to a 7-year, $217 million contract with an opt-out after three seasons – transforming a bad rotation into a very top-heavy one – and shipped out two highly-regarded prospects in a deal for closer Craig Kimbrel.
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The team, though, is a work in progress. Pablo Sandoval – still owed $77.5 million – is sitting on the bench to start the year. Slugging-shortstop-turned-abysmal-outfielder-turned-first-time-first-baseman Hanley Ramirez has a lot to prove. Rick Porcello, who will make more than $20 million a year after Boston traded Yoenis Cespedes to get him, did very little to inspire confidence in a bounceback with his 9.77 ERA this spring. Dustin Pedroia will look to stay healthy, and Jackie Bradley Jr. will look to repeat the offensive successes of last season.
Flip a coin and see which Clay Buchholz you get.
The Red Sox are a team of question marks and exclamation points. Beyond some very bright spots – Price, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, David Ortiz's swan song and a potentially stacked bullpen – there is a lot of upside, but a lot of risk. A lot of young, talented players, but a lot of dead money.
A lot of urgency.
An unprecedented number of elite players are due to become free agents after the 2018 season. This can make any team scary – but none more so than the New York Yankees, who have been avoiding taking on salary to bring the team under the luxury tax threshold. Mark Teixeira's $22.5 million hit will be off the books after this season. C.C. Sabathia will make $25 million this year and could make the same next year if his option vests, but that's the end of it. And the great albatross that was Alex Rodriguez's $275 million deal will finally have run its course at the end of 2017.
Many are already predicting that the Yankees will be the team to give Bryce Harper a $400 million contract one year later. But I'm not so sure – they may opt to diversify their assets with some combination of Jose Fernandez, Manny Machado, Matt Harvey, Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel, Andrew McCutchen, A.J. Pollock, Adam Jones and Charlie Blackmon.
Clayton Kershaw can opt out that season. So can Price and Jason Heyward. And below the stars, fantastic depth pieces abound.
There will be contract extensions, so not all of these players will hit free agency. Not all of their names will be as attractive in three years. And the Red Sox will likely get in on the action – particularly if Price walks. But the Yankees' clearing of financial commitments is nothing short of a perfect storm, and now is the time for the team to pounce.
And pounce they have - after adding Price and Kimbrel, the team traded a redundant rotation piece in Wade Miley and acquired Carson Smith, a 25-year-old reliever who was quite impressive in his rookie season. He opens 2016 on the disabled list, but is expected back soon. While it's not as dynamic as the Yankees' pen, the Red Sox' relief core went from a weakness to a strength this offseason.
The current Yankees squad is aging, with some talented young players mixed in, but with top prospects like Jorge Mateo and Aaron Judge not ready to contribute. The best bullpen in baseball, alone, is not enough to make them the favorites. The Blue Jays have an admirable lineup, but not much starting pitching. And the Rays have loads of upside, but could finish anywhere in the running.
So the Red Sox have holes. But they're in a division full of holes and have an aggressive baseball ops leader.
Dombrowski is not afraid to make huge moves. If, early in the year, he makes the assessment that the rotation behind Price won't get it done (not a tough scenario to imagine), he will think outside the box.
Look for the Red Sox to go for it in 2016. If it's not a complete disaster out of the gate, look for them to make the tweaks to go for it in 2017.