BOSTON — Dave Dombrowski sat behind a desk in a hotel suite at the winter meetings last December, a hot-off-the-presses copy of the new collective bargaining agreement in his hand, and claimed the Red Sox “don’t have a driving force to make a big deal.”
A day later, they traded for Chris Sale.
The point here isn’t to rail against Dombrowski for being misleading. He hasn’t survived 40 years in major league front offices by telegraphing every move. Sometimes, it’s actually better for business if the Red Sox president isn’t entirely transparent.
Let that serve as context, then, for what Dombrowski said last week. As industry insiders guess which marquee slugger — J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer or Giancarlo Stanton — the starving-for-power Red Sox will acquire this winter, Dealin’ Dave suggested they might seek a less expensive option and save the big bucks to make long-term contract offers to their young players.
Believe him? You shouldn’t.
Only an astronomer loves stars more than Dombrowski. And he isn’t afraid to make big moves. So, with the Red Sox still lacking a true middle-of-the-order bopper 13 months after David Ortiz played his final game, there’s really only one name that should be at the top of Dombrowski’s offseason wish list.
“Stanton,” one American League talent evaluator said this week when asked to choose, based strictly on their talent, between Martinez, Hosmer and Stanton.
This is about more than merely talent, of course. Although the Derek Jeter-led Miami Marlins are serious about moving Stanton in order to reset their payroll, the 28-year-old outfielder has a no-trade clause and a strong preference to play in California. One source said last week that Stanton is open-minded about a trade to any team, but another major league source guessed it’s “less than 50-50” that the Los Angeles native would approve a trade to the Red Sox as long as all West Coast options haven’t been exhausted.
Maybe Stanton won’t come to Boston. But for a slugger of Stanton’s caliber, even with 10 years and $295 million left on his contract, the Red Sox need to find out for sure.
After all, if anyone can replace Big Papi, it’s Bigfoot — Stanton’s nickname in the minors.
Homers were hit at a record pace last season, but the Red Sox missed the memo. They went deep only 168 times, fewest in the league. Of the 74 players who hit at least 25 homers, none was part of Boston’s lineup. Deposed manager John Farrell used seven players in the cleanup spot, evidence he had plenty of No. 2 and No. 6 hitters but no true middle-of-the-order force.
Stanton is more than that. He’s a unicorn, the kind of hitter who keeps fans from spending an inning at the concession stand if there’s a reasonable chance he might come to the plate. He’s a transcendent slugger — and not just because he just hit 59 home runs, including 33 in 73 games (272 at-bats) after the All-Star break, and was crowned National League MVP.
Consider this: Since he debuted for the Marlins in 2010, Stanton has 267 homers, fourth most in the majors. And he’s fourth all time in home run rate, averaging one per 13.4 at-bats. Only Mark McGwire (10.61), Babe Ruth (11.76) and Barry Bonds (12.92) went deep more often than Stanton through his first eight big-league seasons.
A right-handed hitter with immense size (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) and brute strength, Stanton has been an equal-opportunity masher, crushing lefties with ferocity (.293/.393/.632) and doing ample damage against righties (.261/.350/.532). And at age 28, he’s firmly in his prime.
The acquisition cost might not be overly steep, either. Indications are the Marlins are more concerned with moving Stanton’s salary than getting back a raft of talent. Dombrowski has drained the Red Sox’s farm system over the past two years with trades for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Thornburg and Sale, but there’s likely enough left to build a deal for Stanton if the Sox pick up the majority of the $295 million.
Dombrowski is familiar with making a 10-year commitment to a player. Miguel Cabrera had two years left on his contract with the Detroit Tigers in 2014 when Dombrowski signed him to an eight-year, $248 million extension, a deal that now looks like an albatross for an organization seeking to rebuild. At the time, Cabrera was coming off back-to-back MVP awards, although he was three years older than Stanton is now.
“When you build around that type of person, you have to feel very comfortable to do that,” Dombrowski said last week. “You’re looking at how you think a player will age — durability, the aging process, their willingness to do it, what the dollars will cost you. There’s a lot, philosophically.”
Durability has been an issue for Stanton. He has reached the 145-game mark only three times in eight years, and one NL talent evaluator expressed concern for how “large humans like Stanton” tend to age. But while Stanton has dealt with hamstring, knee, abdominal, shoulder and groin problems, his most serious injuries — a fractured jaw in 2014 and a broken wrist in 2015 — were the result of freak hit-by-pitches and not indicative of alarming fragility.
The Red Sox also shouldn’t be scared off by the money owed to Stanton, especially when they consider what Martinez and Hosmer — both of whom are represented by agent Scott Boras — are bound to receive on the free-agent market. Boras already has dubbed Martinez “the King Kong of Slug” and is selling Hosmer as the player who can get any team to “Playoffville.”
Martinez is a nice player who hit 45 homers and slugged .690 in his walk year, causing his stock to boom like Microsoft’s in the ’90s. If anyone can say they saw Martinez’s success coming, it’s Dombrowski, who scooped him up for the Tigers in 2014, after he got released by the Houston Astros. But considering the 30-year-old outfielder averaged 28 homers and a .540 slugging percentage from 2014-16, it’s worth wondering if his 2017 production was a new norm or merely an outlier.
Hosmer is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman, a World Series champ and a clubhouse leader, all of which is surely attractive to the Red Sox. One thing he’s not: a true slugger. Hosmer’s numbers were impacted by playing in Kansas City’s cavernous Kauffman Stadium, but the fact is, the 28-year-old has never hit more than 25 homers or slugged .500 in a season.
Nevertheless, one NL scout guessed Martinez and Hosmer will wind up signing contracts that pay them an annual salary comparable to Stanton’s. And the biggest names in next year’s star-studded free-agent class — Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson — could well wind up with deals in excess of $400 million.
In that case, Stanton’s salary will suddenly seem, well, almost reasonable.
It’s true the Sox have other payroll considerations, including 13 arbitration-eligible players who will get raises and a young core of players who are candidates for long-term deals. But there’s also no guarantee Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts or Andrew Benintendi will have any interest in signing an extension any time soon. Betts and Bogaerts already have indicated they prefer to go through the yearly arbitration process.
For a player like Stanton, it’s worth putting everything else aside.
Dombrowski won’t come out and say it, but you know he’s thinking about it. It would be foolish not to.