With Yoshinobu Yamamoto off the board, where do the Red Sox go from here?
The Yoshinobu Yamamoto waiting game is over, and the Red Sox missed out on the coveted right-hander.
So what now?
While many have labeled Yamamoto’s signing with the Dodgers as a best-case scenario for the Red Sox compared to Yamamoto signing with a division rival like the Yankees, the reality is the Red Sox are in an increasingly precarious situation regarding their roster as the league faces a supply-and-demand pitching crunch.
Indeed, 23 teams weren’t even among the finalists for Yamamoto, who’d narrowed his list to seven teams following Winter Meetings. But that the Red Sox chose not to push out of their comfort zone to solidify their rotation for years to come with Yamamoto has many questioning their self-proclaimed “full throttle” commitment.
What can they do now that qualifies as full throttle? Chairman Tom Werner promised a better team in 2024 and so far the organization has yet to make any significant improvements to their biggest area of weakness, the rotation. The fan base is already at a breaking point in supporting a team that has finished in last place three of the past four seasons.
What avenues can Chief Baseball Officer Craig Breslow pursue now that Yamamoto isn’t an option?
Top free-agent pitchers
LHP Jordan Montgomery or LHP Blake Snell
The most obvious pivot is a full-court press for Montgomery. Unlike Snell, he does not have a qualifying offer attached so the Red Sox would not have to give up a second-round pick or international pool money to sign him. The Red Sox have clearly been in the mix for Montgomery, meeting with his agent Scott Boras (who’s also Snell’s agent) at the general manager’s meetings in early November. Montgomery has been living in the Boston area this offseason and working out at Boston College while his wife completes her dermatology residency at a Boston-area hospital. Again, money will be the biggest factor and while Boras and most agents for the top pitchers on the market were waiting for Yamamoto to sign, locking up Montgomery would be one step toward fortifying the rotation alongside Brayan Bello, Chris Sale, Nick Pivetta, Kutter Crawford and Tanner Houck. The Athletic projects him to receive a contract of five years at $105 million. Snell is coming off a Cy Young Award season but historically has been a less durable pitcher and saw his walk rate tick up this season. Montgomery has made 30 or more starts in three straight seasons and pitched in the American League East with the Yankees from 2017-22. While he’s not a strikeout machine, he limits hard contact and doesn’t issue many walks. Meanwhile, he’d be cheaper than Snell, whom The Athletic projects as signing for five years, $135 million.
LHP Shota Imanaga or RHP Lucas Giolito
Adding Montgomery and Imanaga or Giolito might not qualify as full throttle, but would certainly improve the rotation. Imanaga gained the attention of a worldwide audience with a strong performance in the World Baseball Classic and while he’s not Yamamoto, he’s still projected as a mid-rotation or back-end starter. In 159 innings last year in Japan, the 30-year-old posted a 2.66 ERA and 29.5 percent strikeout rate. Those numbers won’t translate as well against stronger major-league lineups, and he’ll have to adjust to pitching every five days versus the customary once a week in Japan, but he would nevertheless deepen the Red Sox’s rotation. The Athletic projected Imanaga would receive a four-year, $52 million deal. Giolito is coming off a strange year in which he dominated early, was traded, released and then claimed off waivers. After the trade, he struggled to regain his early season dominance and therefore his market has dipped a bit, but he could still be a strong secondary option for the Red Sox and seems primed for a bounce-back season, at least a rebound from his rough second half. The Athletic projects him signing for four years, $70 million.
Part of the problem with the free-agent route is the supply-and-demand issue noted above. Nearly half the league is looking for starters and five other teams missed out on Yamamoto, so the bidding figures to escalate for the remaining free-agent pitchers. The Red Sox will at least be competing against the Yankees, Giants, Cubs, Padres, Rangers and Braves for pitching while they’ve already watched the Royals, Cardinals, Phillies and Dodgers add aggressively.
If the Red Sox don’t spend big, they’ll need to trade big if they want to compete. The Dodgers — them again! — already nabbed Tyler Glasnow from the Rays, though realistically Tampa Bay likely would have never traded Glasnow within the division.
So what are the other options?
At the Winter Meetings, Breslow said ideally he’d prefer to trade for controllable pitchers rather than those on expiring contracts. That strategy, however, might have changed as the market shrinks. Breslow also noted the market for controllable pitchers has been expensive prospect-wise as teams realize they can ask for bigger packages from desperate suitors looking to upgrade.
Among the highly coveted controllable pitchers on potentially rebuilding teams, the Mariners feature George Kirby and Logan Gilbert. Seattle’s front office said at the Winter Meetings they’re unlikely to entertain trades for their young starters and The Boston Globe reported the Red Sox inquired about both, but were rebuffed. Still, as the free-agent market continues to unfold, it’s worth keeping an eye on Seattle.
RHP Dylan Cease
The rebuilding White Sox have floated Cease for a while and with two years of control, it seems likely the Red Sox would be interested in him. The 28-year-old is expected to make roughly $9 million in arbitration this winter. His overall numbers took a step back in 2023, thanks in large part to a rough White Sox club behind him, but he’s logged 200 strikeouts in each of the past three seasons. The White Sox would probably be looking for at least two or three top prospects in return and the Red Sox will have to weigh if parting with Marcelo Mayer, Kyle Teel or Roman Anthony is worth it. A package headlined by Nick Yorke, Ceddanne Rafaela and Luis Perales probably isn’t enough given the competition for Cease’s services.
LHP Jesus Luzardo or RHP Edward Cabrera
The Marlins’ pair of starters won’t become free agents until after 2026 and 2028, respectively, and would offer a prime top-of-the-rotation pairing alongside Bello. If the Red Sox are going to give up Mayer, Teel or Anthony, doing so for several years of a young pitcher would be the most prudent approach. Interestingly, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the Marlins considered a trade at Winter Meetings of Luzardo to the Royals for first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino. The Royals opted to sign Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo for their rotation. Pasquantino owns a career 122 OPS+ so if the Marlins are targeting a similar return, maybe they’d prefer Triston Casas over a prospect.
RHP Corbin Burnes or RHP Shane Bieber
Burnes and Bieber fit into a similar category as good trade candidates, but with the caveat that each becomes a free agent after the 2024 season. In theory, that typically means teams are willing to give up less in exchange for just one year of a pitcher, but because the market is so tight, the Brewers and Guardians are likely to ask for more. Again, teams will always start with the top prospects, but it’s hard to see the Red Sox parting with Mayer, Teel or Anthony for one year of either pitcher. Burnes is a stronger candidate than Bieber, whose strikeout rate and velocity have dipped a bit, meaning the Red Sox would likely be inclined to give up more for Burnes. But again, how much for one year is the big question.
Strengthen the offense in the meantime
The Red Sox clearly need pitching and that has to be a priority if they plan to compete in 2024. But the offense is still lacking with Justin Turner and Adam Duvall departing in free agency. The market for pitching figures to be fierce, so the Red Sox might take an opportunity to add to the offense first while agents are sorting through pitching offers and teams are mulling trade options. We’ve noted that adding at second base is a necessity, but adding another right-handed bat to further deepen the lineup would only help. Among the free agents available who could rotate through the designated hitter spot are corner outfielders Teoscar Hernández and Jorge Soler and first baseman Rhys Hoskins. A reunion with Turner also still seems possible.
In a perfect world, the Red Sox figure out a way to add a front-line pitcher like Montgomery and a mid-tier starter like Imanaga in addition to bolstering the offense. But the Red Sox have been far from perfect of late, and that all leaves them with plenty to figure out in the coming weeks.
(Top photo of Cease: Joe Robbins / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)