Rosenthal: Red Sox ownership shares the blame for the team’s underwhelming offseason

I can’t defend Chaim Bloom. Not for his dud of a trade deadline. Not for his uninspired work thus far this offseason. But Red Sox ownership deserves as much if not more blame for the franchise’s current inertia. Bloom, the team’s chief baseball officer, should not be the sole punching bag.

The Mets are spending heavily because owner Steve Cohen is pushing general manager Billy Eppler. The Padres keep adding stars because owner Peter Seidler empowers GM AJ Preller. The Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner extended himself to keep Aaron Judge. Even the Cubs’ Tom “Losses of Biblical Proportions” Ricketts awakened from a long slumber to authorize a $177 million agreement Saturday with shortstop Dansby Swanson.

The Red Sox under owners John Henry, Tom Werner and Co.? They’ve failed to react to a changing marketplace, one in which stars are getting decade-long deals. Dating back to Mookie Betts, the Sox owners have been averse to such contracts. They will need to adjust their philosophy to compete for top talent, including their own third baseman, Rafael Devers. Otherwise, they will need to trust Bloom to thread the needle, which he has not been successful in doing.

Yet for all that, the Red Sox insist all is well.

“We remain optimistic that we are going to field a very competitive team with a chance to play baseball in October and win a World Series in 2023, absolutely,” team president Sam Kennedy told me Saturday before the Red Sox lost out on Swanson, a player in whom they had interest. (Kennedy is the member of the ownership group appointed to speak for Henry and Werner, who rarely speak themselves publicly).

Bloom talked at the Winter Meetings about adding “seven, eight, nine, maybe more players than we had after ’22.” To this point, the Sox have added six — four relievers plus infielder/DH Justin Turner, 38, and Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida, 29, whom many in the industry believe they overpaid at $90 million for five years. They struck out on early attempts to land first baseman José Abreu and right-hander Zach Eflin. And they were outbid by about $120 million on a player they claimed they wanted to retain, shortstop Xander Bogaerts.

It’s only Dec. 19. Bloom told The Athletic‘s Chad Jennings that the Red Sox are “very, very actively exploring trades.” But as so often is the case with the Sox, most vividly demonstrated by their “pursuit” of Bogaerts, a disconnect exists between their words and their actions.

The Sox, in theory, could put together the type of offseason they did a decade ago prior to winning the 2013 World Series, spreading out $100.45 million among seven mid-level free agents. But the 2013 club had stars such as David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury performing at elite levels. The 2023 club will feature Devers and … who exactly?

Of Jim Bowden’s top 25 free agents, the only ones still available are right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, whom the Sox have interest in retaining, and outfielder Michael Conforto, who sat out all last season because of a shoulder injury that required surgery.

Kennedy said, “We were top five in payroll last year. We’re going to continue to do that.” But according to Fangraphs, the Sox currently rank 12th in cash payroll at $183.6 million and 14th in luxury-tax payroll (based on average annual salaries) at $202.7 million. They are more than $30 million under the lowest threshold. And, at least in free agency, virtually all of the best players are gone.

It’s not that ownership lacks commitment — or at least, it hasn’t in the past. The Sox had the highest luxury-tax payrolls in both 2018 and 2019. They ranked sixth in 2021, when they came within two games of reaching the World Series, and fourth in 2022, when they finished last in the AL East.

In some ways, 2022 was a year in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong; the Sox began the season with the fifth-best playoff odds in the AL, according to Fangraphs, behind the Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros and White Sox. Injuries played a part in the Sox’s undoing, but Kennedy rightly called them
35-51 record after a 43-33 start “an unmitigated disaster.”

In Kennedy’s view, the current exasperation in Red Sox Nation is a direct reflection of that finish. Many fans would beg to differ, attributing their irritation to the aftermath of that finish — the Sox’s tepid offseason.

“We recognize what makes this market so great is that our fans care more than they care in any other market. And it’s not acceptable to our fan base when we don’t succeed at the major-league level,” Kennedy said. “That’s why you’re seeing and hearing anger, outrage, frustration. And we understand that.

“But we are not going to be deterred. We are going to do our best to continue to make the right decisions for the organization in the short-term and long-term. And central to that is empowering our baseball people to do what they know how to do. That has been a recipe for success over 21 years.”

Asked if that meant Bloom was responsible for the decisions not to spend big on Bogaerts or even Correa, Kennedy said no, explaining ownership is always involved in big-money moves. Asked if Bloom was the subject of too much criticism, Kennedy said, “Absolutely. General managers in sports generally get too much criticism and too much credit.”

Bloom, though, has had more than his share of missteps. The Sox owners gave him a challenging task when they hired him from the low-revenue Rays in Oct. 2019, saying they wanted him to keep the major-league club strong while rebuilding the minor-league system. Everything appeared on track when the Sox advanced to the American League Championship Series in 2021. That season, however, now looks something like a mirage.

If the Sox were a fast-burning candle under Bloom’s predecessor, Dave Dombrowski, they are now a slow-burning candle, and at times the candle does not even appear lit. After Bogaerts agreed to his $280 million deal with the Padres, his agent, Scott Boras, alluded to the difference in the Sox’s approach under Bloom, saying “The decision-makers are different than before. It’s their process.” But free agency, the part of roster construction perhaps most influenced by ownership, is not the only area in which Bloom is falling short.

Consider Bloom’s returns in trades for Betts/David Price, Andrew Benintendi, Hunter Renfroe, Mitch Moreland, Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree and Christian Vázquez. To this point, those deals have yielded a slightly above-average corner outfielder (Alex Verdugo), backup catcher (Connor Wong), No. 4 starters (Nick Pivetta) and rotation depth piece (Josh Winckowski), plus a number of prospects who have yet to perform to expectations. Foremost among those disappointments: Infielder Jeter Downs, who arrived in the Betts trade and was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot for Yoshida.

Almost as damning are the trades Bloom didn’t make at the 2022 deadline, the subtractions of Eovaldi and designated hitter JD Martinez that could have dropped the Red Sox below the luxury-tax threshold. But Bloom, with the backing of ownership, took a half-baked approach at the deadline, not quite in, not quite out.

If the Sox truly believed they stood a chance of reaching the postseason, they should have kept Vázquez and left-hander Jake Diekman along with Eovaldi and Martinez. Instead, they tried to play it both ways, adding outfielder Tommy Pham, catcher Reese McGuire and recently DFA’d first baseman Eric Hosmer. For their efforts, they suffered the double ignominy of finishing above the threshold and missing the playoffs — by eight games.

The damage will carry over to the next amateur draft. Getting under the threshold would have enabled the Sox to receive a pick after Competitive Balance Round B for Bogaerts, and for Eovaldi if they end up losing him. Staying above means their compensation for Bogaerts and possibly Eovaldi will be after the fourth round. The first pick after Competitive Balance Round B last year was No. 75. The first pick after the fourth round was No. 137.

The trade for Hosmer, meanwhile, cost the Sox left-handed pitcher Jay Groome, whom MLB.com installed as the Padres’ 12th-best prospect, while bringing in two other youngsters who did not crack the Red Sox’s top 30. Not a productive exchange, but the Sox’s farm system has indeed improved under Bloom, at least according to the subjective rankings of various publications.

Still, what are we talking about here? As Kennedy said, the way to make fans happy is to win the World Series, not build the game’s No. 1 system. Besides, while the impacts of Bloom’s trades and some of his trades have yet to be fully realized, two of the Sox’s top prospects, first baseman Triston Casas and right-hander Brayan Bello, were players they added under Dombrowski.

But enough about Bloom. Any analysis of his shortcomings should start with the people who manage the Red Sox’s purse strings, the people who hold the ultimate power. It was ownership that hired Bloom to bring Rays-like efficiency to the Sox, ownership that bears the most responsibility for losing Betts, ownership that failed to go beyond $160 million for Bogaerts and is now on the clock with Devers, who is entering his walk year.

Back on Sept. 1, I wrote, “For Sox ownership and chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, the coming offseason looms as a turning point, if not a breaking point.” The offseason is still turning. But try to convince anyone who follows this team the Sox aren’t broken.

(Photo of John Henry: Billie Weiss / Boston Red Sox / Getty Images))

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