Next Winter’s Woes

There are different views on what the heck is going on with free agency this off-season. It’s complicated and antagonistic and likely speaks to greater labor problems down the road than we fans have prepared ourselves for. So we’re going to skip right over it all! This is an article about looking ahead, ahead to next off-season. See how we did that? Pretty good, right?

But this isn’t a simple case of passing the buck. The 2018-19 off-season promises perhaps the biggest free agent class ever. It’s such a promising offseason that I can remember hearing about it three or four years ago, which, when you think about it, is ridiculous. Still, there’s a reason for the extreme foresight. In case you’re unaware of the specifics of this class, here is a list of players who will hit the open market after this upcoming season.

  • Josh Donaldson
  • Charlie Blackmon
  • Drew Pomeranz
  • Elvis Andrus
  • Brian Dozier
  • Andrew Miller
  • Craig Kimbrel
  • A.J. Pollock
  • Daniel Murphy
  • Marwin Gonzalez
  • Gio Gonzalez
  • Andrew McCutchen
  • Nelson Cruz
  • Zach Britton
  • Cody Allen
  • Adam Jones

Pretty nuts, right? And here’s the part about it that is crazy, bizarro, extreme, Vince-McMahon-rebooting-the-XFL-level nuts: that’s not really the list. Sure, all those guys are going to be free agents after the 2018 season, but I didn’t include three guys of particular note. I’m talking about Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Clayton Kershaw. Those three guys are the reason people have been talking about this free agent class for half a decade.

Those are some huge names, some huge players. The thing is, in the case of the first two, both will be 26 years old in 2019 — the first year of their new contracts. Not since Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers as a 25-year-old-to be in 2001 have we seen a player with this level of talent enter the market at such a young age. This free agent class has two of those guys. Oh, and also the best pitcher since Pedro Martinez in Kershaw. It’s truly a stacked class, and teams have been planning for it since fans became aware of it, or maybe even before that.

We’re 400 words into this thing and I haven’t yet brought up the Boston Red Sox which is odd since this is a Boston Red Sox website. Like every other team, the Red Sox are aware of this class of players. Like every other team, the Red Sox would love to have many of those players. The luxury tax is preventing that from happening. The total salary expenditure that teams must be below is $197 million. After that, penalties aplenty are levied, which increase each season teams that are over. The Red Sox kept below the luxury tax threshold last season, meaning if they go over this season the penalties aren’t too steep.

Like every other team, the Red Sox would love to have many of those players. The luxury tax is preventing that from happening.

With arbitration raises though last season’s payroll has gone up even though the roster is basically the same, putting the Red Sox over the threshold in 2018. Signing Bryce Harper or Clayton Kershaw would certainly put the Sox over again in 2019 and, considering they’d likely have to put a huge AAV towards doing so, it would contribute to putting them over again in 2020 as well. Should the Red Sox go far over they could lose their first round draft pick in addition to paying a ton of extra money as a tax for spending so much (seriously, players union, WTF?).

The effect of this on the Red Sox is to incentivize them to spend below the tax threshold. The Red Sox already have $92 million locked up in player salaries for the 2019 season, and that’s for just four guys in David Price, Dustin Pedroia, Rick Porcello, and Mitch Moreland. (They’re paying $18.45 million to a fifth in Pablo Sandoval but he’s no longer on the team.) Things get tighter if the Red Sox do shell out another $100+ million deal for J.D. Martinez or another free agent this offseason. That would likely put the Sox over the tax threshold for a second consecutive season, even without signing Harper or another big name from next off-season’s free agent class.

Now, the Red Sox could say, “Screw it, we’re going to put the best team on the field regardless of the luxury tax limit.” But that seems unlikely. The team has spent liberally over the years since John Henry bought them back in 2002, and there’s little reason to expect that not to continue, but asking the team to pay millions for the privilege of paying millions years into the future seems unlikely.

The problem as it stands now is that the team doesn’t have minor league talent that can step in for veterans on expiring contracts, meaning if everything else stays as is, free agents will have to replace free agents. For example, Rick Porcello’s deal is up after the 2019 season which sounds great. Hooray! The Red Sox will have $21 million to use. Except what do you think the going rate for a decent starting pitcher will be in two seasons? I’m guessing it’s going to be a lot, maybe something around $21 million a year. And the Red Sox will also have to replace (or re-sign) Chris Sale and they’ll have already replaced (or re-signed) Drew Pomeranz the season before, likely requiring more money. Boston’s dollars aren’t endless is the point, and guys on cheap deals can’t all be replaced at the top of the market.

One way out for the Red Sox is if David Price opts out of his contract after the 2018 season. If he does, the Red Sox are off the hook for the remaining four years, $127 million. That money could be spent directly on a Kershaw or, probably more likely, Sale.

While the Red Sox could make a run at Kershaw, and damn the luxury tax, the other two generational talents are less likely to sign in Boston. Both Harper and Machado play positions the Red Sox already have covered for the significant future. Machado plays third base where the Red Sox are hoping Rafael Devers will be for the next six seasons. Sure Boston could move him to first or deal him and try to add Machado, but doing that is a significant step towards the luxury tax threshold. Harper seems the more realistic of the two at least in terms of fit, as one of Jackie Bradley or Andrew Benintendi could be moved to make room. And that would be fine. Harper is that good. But the thing is the Red Sox don’t have to do that. They don’t have a hole at third or a hole in the outfield corners, which means they’d be both replacing a good player and doing so by adding one of the biggest contracts in baseball history. Considering their place against the cap (we’re just going to call it what it is, a soft salary cap), doing that seems unlikely.

You never rule it out though. This is the Red Sox. This is Dave Dombrowski. These are great, great players. You never rule it out. But right now, where the Red Sox are, with David Price’s deal on the books until it isn’t, and $18.5 million due to Pablo Sandoval this coming season and the one after it, the arbitration raises coming due, and the lot, it doesn’t seem like the right time for the Red Sox to make a huge addition. All of which means they may just sit out the greatest free agent market of all time.

Or, you know, not.

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2 comments on “Next Winter’s Woes”

Horace Fury

Perhaps the Sox should throw in that 6th year for JDM to get him done at $140 or $150MM. The alternative should not be hoping to enter the Harper/Machado sweepstakes, which will cost 3 times as much for a position player who is not really needed. Bill James is very down on Machado, anyway, so that’s not going to happen (on top of Sox pitchers having thrown at his head and behind him in 2017). And it’s not really that compelling a list of near-future FAs in spite of the ballyhoo–where on the Sox do you put any of those 2018-19 position players? Additionally, to put it bluntly, as suggested above, the Sox are in a real salary jam. Why the same uninspiring team from 2017 should now cost $210MM is not only a mystery, it’s ultimately a travesty of lost opportunities, even though few of those are listed above (Andrus, Blackmon, Pollock, Murphy–really? No.). The 2018-19 off-season is not the answer for the Sox.


The gifts of Ben Cherington just keep on giving.

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