LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — For most of the past three days, Boston Red Sox officials spoke with their counterparts from other teams and met with agents in an attempt to get closer to acquiring a middle-of-the-order power hitter.
Mostly, though, they watched as their boss and one of baseball’s top power brokers squared off in a staring contest.
Now that Shohei Ohtani has signed and Giancarlo Stanton has been traded, the standoff between Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski and agent Scott Boras is emerging as one of the offseason’s most intriguing story lines. And as the winter meetings wrapped up Thursday with little discernible break in the impasse, it’s apt to continue through Christmas and maybe into January, too.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Dombrowski said. “I was telling a couple of our [front office] guys, ‘Make sure you have your phones with you when you’re away for the holidays.'”
What a Grinch.
Here’s the thing: With their young core and all-world ace Chris Sale, the Red Sox are built to win now. But they have an urgent need for a slugger after finishing last in the American League in home runs for the first time since 1993, getting bounced in the division series two years in a row and seeing the power-packed New York Yankees muscle up even further by trading for Stanton.
But Boras needs the Red Sox as much as they need him. Martinez recently hired him and ditched longtime agent Bob Garber because he believes Boras can show him the most money. Hosmer has been with Boras throughout his career in preparation for this offseason when, at age 28, he’s one of the youngest players in free agency.
For more than an hour Wednesday, Boras held court with reporters at the winter meetings and hyped Martinez, Hosmer and other clients as only he can. He mentioned Martinez’s .690 slugging percentage last season, continued to dub him “the King Kong of slugging” and made sure everyone knew the 30-year-old outfielder doesn’t mind being a designated hitter. His sales pitch on Hosmer included the concept of “prestige value,” a metric Boras invented for intangibles such as leadership in the clubhouse, instincts on the field and a reputation as a winner.
Boras’ job is to drum up as much interest as possible in his players, which may be why he brought Martinez, a Florida resident, to the meetings on Wednesday. But he also knows Boston is a big market and owner John Henry is willing to raise payroll above the $197 million competitive-balance threshold. The easiest way for Boras to get a big payday for Martinez and Hosmer is to place at least one of them with the power-deprived Red Sox.
Dombrowski is known for being expeditious in identifying players he wants and closing deals, and indications are he’s ready to move on a contract, most likely for Martinez. Boras has a reputation for slow-playing the offseason, allowing other agents to set the market and then extracting more money or additional years from teams that finally get tired of waiting.
And the Red Sox have little choice other than to wait. After swapping most of their top prospects over the past two years to get closer Craig Kimbrel, left-hander Drew Pomeranz, reliever Tyler Thornburg and Sale, the farm system is no longer fertile enough to support another trade for, say, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu. The Sox asked about outfielder Marcell Ozuna and were told they didn’t have the upper-level pitching prospect the Miami Marlins wound up getting from the St. Louis Cardinals.
Dombrowski could pivot to a second-tier free agent (Carlos Santana, for instance), but the drop-off from Martinez is considerable. And so, the Red Sox face the tricky proposition of waiting for Boras to get down to business while also trying to explore other alternatives and keeping as many options open as they can.
“It’s something that we talk about all the time,” Dombrowski said. “I think it’s based upon feel and pulse and where you think the market is and when you need to make a decision rather than when you might have to make a decision. There’s a risk-reward attached to that. Because some players are going to start signing pretty soon, and if you wait, you lose some players that you may have interest in.”
The Red Sox and Martinez appear to be a perfect match, and they eventually might strike a deal. For now, though, Dombrowski and Boras will continue to sit on opposite coasts and stare at one another like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov over a chess board, each waiting for the other to flinch.
“When you’re in the bus, you don’t go anywhere without a road. And I don’t make those roads,” Boras said. “You don’t call a team and direct them. They control the labor force. They control the offers.”
Regardless, the time is coming for someone to make a move. The Dombrowski-Boras stalemate can’t last forever.