Boston Red Sox: DH options dwindling in free agent market

If the plan is for the Boston Red Sox to look for a short-term option to fill the DH void then they better act fast before the market dries up.

A year ago Dave Dombrowski entered his first offseason at the helm of the Boston Red Sox with a plan to turn a last place team into a contender virtually overnight. Like a man on a mission, he sprung into action early and checked off each item on his list, successfully completing a roster makeover that led to a division title.

This year the front office is taking a more patient approach, which could cost them the opportunity to fill their most pressing needs.

One of the top priorities this winter is figuring out how to replace the retiring David Ortiz in the lineup. While this doesn’t necessarily mean the Red Sox are focused on adding a defensively challenged veteran that is only capable of being the primary designated hitter, the impression we were given was that bringing in a bat to help contribute at least a portion of the offense Ortiz had provided was an essential part of the offseason game plan.

While plugging in a 40-homer slugger like Edwin Encarnacion seems like the easy solution (at least that’s what Big Papi himself is advocating), Dombrowski has made it clear that their preference is for a cheaper, short-term option. Red Sox ownership is hesitant to exceed the luxury tax threshold for a third straight season given the steeper penalties introduced in the new collective bargaining agreement and they have to be cautious about adding to their future payroll when they have a young core of position players to lock up over the next few years.

An alternative plan would be to go after veterans nearing the end of their career or looking to re-establish value following a down season, a market where a number of potential options were available – emphasis on were, as those options are quickly dwindling.

Carlos Beltran was a popular target coming off of a season in which he hit .295 with an .850 OPS and 29 home runs. The 39-year old is looking to follow the path blazed by Ortiz, who showed us this year that older guys can still get it done at the plate, making him an ideal fit on a one-year deal. Unfortunately the Houston Astros beat them to the punch, inking Beltran to a $16 million deal for 2017. That salary matches what Ortiz earned last season, so the Red Sox could have conceivably fit Beltran into their budget without committing anything to their payroll beyond next season.

Matt Holliday would have been a solid Plan B that could be obtained for a cheaper price, but the New York Yankees scooped him up with a 1-year, $13 million deal. The 36-year old is a bit less appealing coming off a season in which he set career lows with a .246 average and .782 OPS, but he has smacked 20+ homers in six of the last seven seasons while spending the bulk of his time in a more pitcher-friendly park. Injuries have taken a toll on Holliday in recent years, but being utilized primarily as a DH would help keep him healthy. Banking on a bounce back year at that price seems like a worthwhile risk, but apparently not one Dombrowski was willing to take.

It’s unclear how interested the Red Sox were in either of these options. Perhaps they made a play for both of them, only to come up short in the bidding. Maybe they offered contracts in the same ballpark as what those players ultimately signed for, only to be spurned for reasons outside of their control. We may never know for sure, but what we do know is that the pool of available DH options is a bit shallower now.

So who’s left?

Perhaps they can talk Jose Bautista into a one-year deal. The 35-year old may not find the big pay day he’s looking for following a season where his numbers dropped across the board, so a chance to re-establish value in a loaded Red Sox lineup could be just what he needs. He isn’t far removed from being an All-Star and MVP candidate, but those reasons are why another team might risk giving him a multi-year deal.

A return to Boston for fan-favorite Mike Napoli would be a hit with the fan base, but it’s hard to imagine the 34-year old accepting a one-year deal considering he blasted 34 homers and drove in 101 RBI this year. He’s an appealing pivot from the more expensive sluggers in the top tier of the market, but it might take at least a three year offer to lure him back.

Pedro Alvarez could add some pop to the lineup, but the lefty is more of a platoon option given his history against southpaws.

The number of options continues to drop and the longer the Red Sox wait, the more likely they are to end up with a group littered with flaws to choose from.

Perhaps Boston will surprise us by jumping in with a lucrative deal for Encarnacion, but that would be out of character for a straight shooter like Dombrowski who has repeatedly deflected those rumors.

There is always the trade market, which is where they turned to find their closer last year. They have more assets to spare, but the Red Sox don’t seem interested in dealing the most coveted prospects in their farm system unless the prize is an elite starter like Chris Sale.

It’s becoming increasingly likely that the Red Sox will look to fill the DH role internally. With Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Blake Swihart on the roster, they aren’t lacking in options. Rotating different players through the DH spot could ultimately be what’s best for the team, in which case adding another bat isn’t even necessary.

The Red Sox may not make a significant move to add to the lineup, but Dombrowski failing to come through in an area he identified as a need would feel like a bit of a let down after he swiftly addressed every weakness last winter.

There are still some options out there, but time is running out, leaving the Red Sox in danger of this free agent game of musical chairs ending without a seat for them.

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