Look, I’m not the Oracle of Delphi. I’m not even that octopus that picked Super Bowl winners. I’m just a guy with spreadsheets. Predicting things is incredibly hard, and everyone is bad at predictions. That having been said, I love all the senseless guessing and off-chance predicting that comes with the offseason. It’s almost as much fun as seeing what teams actually do.
In everything I read, in everything I hear, the Red Sox seem to come up as a team who would be willing and able to spend big money this offseason as they attempt to change course of the S.S. Fenway. And my goal, at least for today, is not to try and prognosticate what the team will do, but rather what they can do. It’s a small difference, but perhaps an important one.
How much money do the Red Sox have, and what options does that give them?
According to the Cot’s Contracts page for the Boston Red Sox, the team had a payroll at the start of 2015 of approximately $184 million. That’s the highest payroll the team has ever fielded, and not by a small amount. Currently, according to Cot’s, the team also has about $153 million committed in salary for the 2016 season, before arbitration raises.
While I don’t believe the Sox’s payroll will hit the heights of the 2015 season, I do think the team will likely return to the top of the pack when it comes to total dollars spent, especially as new GM Dave Dombrowski is looking to make a sudden U-turn back to respectability. He’s said that the team payroll is “not going backwards.” My rough guess is $180 million in 2016, which is about a $5 million dip from the previous season, and leaves the team plenty of room to maneuver mid-season.
So … the Sox have about $153 million committed, and my guesstimates for who will stick in arbitration based on Matt Swartz’s arbitration projections (Tazawa, Kelly and Ross) run the bullpen bill up another $7 million. That leaves a grand total of $160 million (give or take a few bucks) committed, and leaves the Sox with about $20-30 million dollars to spend. Of course, my total payroll estimate could be conservative … there could be more cash available. Or everything we hear could be lies, and the team could scale back after the 2014-2015 offseason free agent fiascos. Who knows?
(Note: the team’s top three payroll earners for the next three seasons are Hanley Ramirez, Rick Porcello, and Pablo Sandoval. In 2016, they’ll earn approximately $60.4 million of the team’s projected $180 million payroll. One third of the payroll! 2015 WARP: -1.8! Whoops!)
So, what could the team do with all that scratch?
Option 1: Sign Zack Greinke. Maybe.
Greinke is, in my view, the best possible starting pitching option available on the free market … for the Boston Red Sox. I’m not convinced he’s a better starter than David Price over the next five years, but he’s right-handed (the team already has Ed, Henry, and Brian Johnson on staff), and I’m convinced he can adapt to Fenway Park due to the way he’s constantly made adjustments throughout his big-league career. Having said that, if you want to swap Price’s name for Greinke’s above, have at it.
Either name mentioned above is likely to command top dollar. Truthfully? I’m not sure that either player will settle for less than $25-$30 million per season. Both challenged for Cy Young awards this season and are still at or near their primes. Other teams will be looking to spend on pitching from New York to Los Angeles. Greinke has been paid $26 million in a single season before, and I doubt he’s looking to take a pay cut. David Price is two years younger and, arguably, better than Greinke.
This expensive option takes nearly every other cash-added option off the table, unless the Red Sox move salary some other way. While that’s an option, sure, keep in mind that the Red Sox’s big contracts are albatrosses, and would require the team to give up good talent to move them.
Option 2: Sign Multiple Lower-Tier Free Agents
Instead of buying the $80 steak from the white-glove steakhouse, perhaps the Sox are in the market for a couple of really tasty entrees at the bistro. To find these guys, I’m looking at the lower end of the qualifying-offer list: guys like Wei-Yin Chen. The team could use some offense as well, so perhaps a Chris Davis or a Dexter Fowler might fit in here. And then, of course, there are the various and sundry players at even a lower level-your Doug Fisters and David Freeses, your Jerry Blevinses. Blevii? Whatever.
This is certainly an option as well, though I have a bit of concern that if the team inks an Orioles combo platter of Chris Davis and Wei-Yin Chen, the team will be on the hook for a similar amount of money as they might be to an ace like Greinke or Price. Instead of having one (hopefully) transcendent star, they’d have two good-but-not-great players, and perhaps the same amount of risk.
Option 3: Buy A “Bad” Contract
Like the Sox, plenty of teams have contracts that they wish they could shed. With the free agent class looking like one of the best in years, I’m fairly certain that several teams would be over the moon to drop a pricey contract in the hopes that they could spend that money in a different area. Examples include the Padres’ pricey James Shields contract ($65 million over the next three seasons) or the Rockies’ pact with Carlos Gonzalez ($37 million over the next two seasons).
There are several performers who have contracts that don’t exactly track with their recent performances — as mentioned before, the Red Sox have three of them themselves — but the idea of paying top dollar for players who aren’t performing up to high expectations could be a bit much for a team already on the hook for “dead money” over the next few years.
But … while I’m here, can I throw out an interesting possibility? I love the idea of the Sox making a play for the Twins’ Joe Mauer, provided that Minnesota would eat about half of his contract. The Twins were the team that added Park, and seemingly have a logjam at first base now. The Sox could certainly use another bat with OBP potential, and Mauer could ideally fill a number of roles (first base, DH, even right field and catching instructor) as he transitions away from a superstar role into a complementary one.
(Of course, if Mauer is just replacement-level again in 2016, nearly any investment in him would be a bad one.)
I’m not sure that taking on a bad contract fits inside the old Red Sox wheelhouse, where they typically added players on shorter contracts and gave up guaranteed money in the legendary Adrian Gonzalez / Carl Crawford deal. But Dombrowski hasn’t shied away from taking on money in his previous regimes. This is definitely an option in play.
Option 4: Swap Future Value for Present Value
This is the type of thing that can get you fired in Toronto, but it is the hallmark of past Dombrowski teams. The Sox are positively loaded in the minor leagues, even after the Craig Kimbrel trade, and they have the unique ability to add major league talent — talent that could be expensive in terms of dollars, or much cheaper — to their roster. These are not deals that any team could make — but the Sox are in a position all teams wish they could at least consider: using talent instead of money to add stars.
If any player at all is on the market, the Red Sox are in play. If the Mets are sick of Matt Harvey’s attitude, the Red Sox are one of the few teams that could pay the freight to move him to Boston. He could be the new Massachusetts Bureau Chief. The same is true with Yasiel Puig in Los Angeles. These are players who won’t come cheap, but the Sox have the prospect depth to be able to make these deals … if that’s what they decide they want. This way, they could acquire impactful talent at a fraction of the cost a top-tier free agent would bring in.
Is this kind of move a good idea? Of course, that’s almost impossible to say up front. It has certainly worked for some teams — don’t you think that the Red Sox would have loved to have traded for Josh Donaldson instead of signing Pablo Sandoval? At the same time, not all of these types of trades work out — think the Padres and their acquisition of Wil Myers, which has been a mixed bag to date.
Option 5: Some Combination of No. 2 – No. 4 Above
In the end, I think this is the team’s most likely option. While I would absolutely love to see the Sox go out and get Zack Greinke or Jason Heyward, logic dictates that the team will use Dombrowski’s trading acumen and avoid linking themselves to one huge contract when they already have so many on the books. Especially with the free agent market a bit top-loaded, I could easily see the Sox being aggressive in the trade market to bring in one or two talented mid-tier players (think 2-4 WARP types), before reloading in the middle-to-bottom tier of free agency.
In today’s baseball economy, $30 million is hardly a fortune. The Twins probably have at least that much to spend this season. The Twins! The Red Sox could commit all of that to a single player, or they could leverage a creative trading GM, spend some of their prospect currency, and make that money fill more holes than just one.
The real takeaway here is that, unlike many teams, who are locked into a roster core and/or may not have the resources that the Sox do, all of these options are on the table. Other teams looking to rebuild may find themselves with some money to spend, but without the prospect resources, or the flexibility, to improve in other ways. No matter what ends up happening, you can’t say that the Red Sox don’t have choices during this critical offseason.
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