This off-season represents a fork in the road for the Red Sox franchise. Coming off a(nother) 93-win season, one with significant injuries and underperformance from key young players, the Red Sox could be forgiven for returning the same roster in 2018, perhaps with a few minor tweaks, in the hopes that better things lie ahead. However, it could be argued that the baseball landscape has changed in such a way as to make reassembling the 2017 Red Sox next spring an exercise in futility. In order to not just be competitive but to have a legitimate chance at the World Series, can the Red Sox afford to rerun the 2017 season, or are significant reinforcements required? This is the macro decision that Team President Dave Dombrowski will be faced with this offseason.
We’ve entered into a time when the talent base in Major League Baseball is as stratified as it’s been in a long time, possibly since free agency took hold. This 2017 season featured three 100-win teams, the Dodgers, Astros, and Cleveland. If you believe pythagorean record though, the Yankees should also be added to that list, as their runs scored and allowed numbers were those of a 100-62 team. That only intensifies the situation the Red Sox find themselves in. Over the past 14 seasons (as far back as I looked) there are two seasons with multiple 100-win teams: 2004 and this past season. Obviously there is only one season over that time period that featured more than two 100-win teams: the 2017 season. For Boston, this means three incredibly talented franchises are standing in the way of a World Series win, four if you include the Yankees, and really, why wouldn’t you? That’s a daunting landscape.
The fact that three of those four are in the American League should be downright terrifying if you work on Yawkey Way. This sets the bar extremely high to win a World Series. Just look at what the Yankees will have to do to win this year’s World Series. They beat the 102-win Indians, and they’re likely to beat the 101-win Astros. Their reward should they accomplish that? They get to play the 104-win Dodgers! That has to be about the most brutal stretch of postseason play imaginable! The only other team I can recall who bested multiple 100-win teams in a single postseason was the 2004 Red Sox, who beat the 101-win Yankees and the 105-win Cardinals, but also beat the 92-win Angels in the first round. Otherwise, this level of competition is unprecedented, yet this is exactly what the 2018 Red Sox are likely to face.
So how does a team deal with this kind of competition – a kind of competition that hasn’t been seen in baseball at least for the past few decades, if ever? There are multiple ways of looking at things. The Red Sox could subscribe to what we’ll call the Billy Beane Theory, which says, roughly, just make the playoffs and whatever happens after that is out of your control. The problem with that is it’s only sort of true. Luck plays a huge role in any small sample of baseball games, but even so, it’s incredibly infrequent that a bad team, or even a team you couldn’t make an argument for as one of the best teams in baseball, wins the World Series. It does happen (2011 Cardinals, 2006 Cardinals), but it’s infrequent at best. And just considering the competition, it seems like a poor bet to make. The other part is one of those 100-win teams is in Boston’s division, and the other two are in the other two divisions, so right off you’re competing with the rest of the American League for the Wild Card.
So perhaps the Red Sox should go out and sign J.D. Martinez and trade for Giancarlo Stanton and do more and more and become another 100-win franchise. The problem with that is where the Red Sox are financially. They managed to stay under the luxury cap in 2017 so the tax rate for going over has now dropped substantially, but there is still a penalty. The luxury tax threshold will be $197 million for 2018 and the Red Sox are at $146 million in guarantees before signing anyone eligible for arbitration. Cutting to the end of the page, Cot’s Contracts estimates the Red Sox to be at $202 million, or $5 million over the cap, before making any additions. For context, the Dodgers spent in the neighborhood of $245 million this season. If the Red Sox are going to go out and give Martinez $20 million and take on Stanton’s contract which will pay him $30 a season going forward, you’re talking about blowing past the Dodgers payroll. Maybe that’s doable for an ownership group that really wants to win another World Series. Maybe the finances are set now that the penalties have been lowered and the team is ready to go all in. Dave Dombrowski is an all-in kind of guy, as we’ve seen. But Pablo Sandoval is making $18.5 million next season and again the season after that. Then, in 2020, there’s a $5 million buyout, but you can take most of those savings and flush them down the nearest toilet because that is also the season that Rusney Castillo’s contract goes from $11 million a season to $14 million. The next is Rick Porcello’s last at $21.125 million per season. That’s a lot of money over a lot of years, and most of it isn’t likely to do much to help the Red Sox on the field.
Bringing on a player of [Stanton’s] caliber means the Red Sox are committing to spending over the luxury tax threshold for the foreseeable future.
Again, here’s that word “maybe.” Maybe the way the Red Sox dealt with Sandoval and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Castillo, is the new way forward. Damn the torpedoes and all of that, but that seems unlikely. It’s not as sexy, granted, but maybe there’s another win in Jackie Bradley’s bat, and two more in Andrew Benintendi if he can avoid an extended midseason slump, and two more in Mookie Betts’ bat while we’re at it, and I couldn’t tell you how many more but a lot more in every part of Xander Bogaerts. Take all that and add a healthy David Price – the guy the organization made a $217 million bet on, remember – and someone tell Rick Porcello to stop throwing belt high 90 mph heaters and before you know it there’s 98, 99, or 100 wins. Maybe.
Would J.D. Martinez help that cause? You better believe it. Would Stanton? A million times over, yes. But what would be the long term impact of bringing one or both or a similar player to Boston? The Red Sox are a New England institution to be sure, but Fenway isn’t growing more seats and NESN can only broadcast 162 games a year. Revenues might go up a bit, but bringing on a player of that caliber means the Red Sox are committing to spending over the luxury tax threshold for the foreseeable future. This of course only gets worse if you want to sign Mookie Betts or Benintendi or Devers to a long term contract.
It’s an extremely tough choice Dave Dombrowski finds himself with. Is it reasonable, or realistic even, to squeeze out seven or eight more wins from this roster that has seemed to peter out at 93 over the past two seasons? That argument can be made. But what is the cost of that not happening? What if this team doesn’t add those wins? What if Price isn’t healthy? What if he is?
The Red Sox are going to spend a lot of money in 2018, that much is for certain. What they get for it is less known. So maybe they should spend more. Or maybe that would sink them. The thing about forks in the road is you have to pick a direction because going straight ahead never works. If he’s not now, Dave Dombrowski is about to become aware of that.
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