FORT MYERS, Fla. — It wasn’t meant to be a guarantee or even a prediction. Think of it as just a friendly reminder from Chris Sale to anyone who is more focused on players not in camp with the Boston Red Sox than those who are.
“We basically, for the most part, have almost the same team that we did last year, and we were the best team in our division,” the ace lefty said Wednesday. “I know people like to talk about this and that, but we were the best with what we have.”
By “this,” Sale might have been referring to Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League MVP who never indicated he would waive his no-trade clause for the Red Sox before approving a deal to the rival New York Yankees. And by “that,” Sale most certainly was talking about J.D. Martinez, the marquee name among more than 100 free agents still unsigned even as spring-training camps open this week across Florida and Arizona.
The Red Sox have been most often linked to Martinez by virtue of their extreme need for a middle-of-the-order slugger. But president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and agent Scott Boras are at odds over a five-year contract offer reportedly worth between $100 million and $125 million. Martinez is believed to be seeking a seven-year deal for about $30 million annually.
Dombrowski declined to discuss whether the stalemate will eventually break. Indications, though, was that the situation between the Sox and Martinez was unchanged.
“I do not know if we’re close to doing anything or not,” Dombrowski said. “It’s been a long, lengthy process, this wintertime. I don’t think it’s really changed a great deal. We continue to have conversations with a lot of clubs and agents. We’ll see what happens. But I don’t know that answer.”
Dombrowski didn’t plan on bringing back the same lineup that hit fewer home runs than any team in the American League last season. After the Red Sox were knocked out of the division series for a second year in a row, he admitted he didn’t provide the team with enough offense.
If it was up to Dombrowski, Martinez would already be here.
“From a positional player perspective, no, [standing pat] wasn’t, per se, our plan,” Dombrowski said. “As I’ve said every single year of my career when people say, ‘What do you think the winter time will bring,’ I’ll say, ‘I don’t know. I have no idea.’ Because I don’t. And this year’s free-agent market is much different, and it’s led us to be at this point now.”
Regardless, most Red Sox players who have reported to camp like their chances to win a third consecutive AL East crown. They won 93 games in each of the past two seasons, including last year despite the fact that they never found a power hitter to replace retired David Ortiz.
The Yankees figure to be the popular pick after pairing Stanton with Aaron Judge in an offense that was already packed with power. But the Red Sox are built on pitching, and if former Cy Young Award winners David Price and Rick Porcello can rebound from injuries and ineffectiveness, respectively, last season, they will join Sale and lefty Drew Pomeranz in a potentially formidable rotation.
“We said it in our clubhouse the entire year last year: We never felt like we really peaked and played our best baseball,” Porcello said. “At the end of the day, we had a tough first few games against Houston in the postseason, and if you want to break it down, we were 10 innings away from potentially moving on. And that’s with two games where we weren’t ourselves at all. If you look at it that way, if we clean up some of the games where maybe we didn’t play well and put the pedal to the metal the entire year, I think we’ve got some special things in this clubhouse that we can accomplish.”
Dombrowski claims he heard much of the same from fans every morning when he stopped at his favorite coffee shop on Beacon Street in Brookline on his way to Fenway Park this winter.
“I sit at a Dunkin Donuts and I bet you I have about 10 people a day that talk to me,” Dombrowski said. “It’s really split. You [reporters] must hear that, and probably that’s a louder voice. But people are very supportive — ‘Don’t do anything if you think it’s unwise.'”
And so, Martinez and the other unsigned free agents continue to work out either on their own or at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, after a historically sluggish offseason. In another sign of these odd times, Dombrowski said there has been an unusual volume of trade talk for the start of spring training, and it has involved “names of prominence.”
The market for Martinez isn’t particularly competitive. The Arizona Diamondbacks would love to re-sign him, but unless they can unload pitcher Zack Greinke’s hefty contract, it’s doubtful they will be able to outbid the Red Sox for Martinez and still have enough money to keep All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt before he reaches free agency after the 2019 season.
It has all left the Red Sox to wait for Martinez and Boras to come back to the table while being careful not to bid against themselves.
And that’s just fine with the players in the clubhouse.
“I like exactly where we are right now,” Sale said. “I think we’re right where we need to be.”