Boston Red Sox can be frugal, but they shouldn’t be cheap

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 31: The Boston Red Sox 2018 World Series Championship banner hangs outside Fenway Park on October 31, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 31: The Boston Red Sox 2018 World Series Championship banner hangs outside Fenway Park on October 31, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

The Red Sox are trying to get under the luxury tax and spend less, but fans shouldn’t accept them being cheap and putting a subpar product on the field.

As one of the most valuable and successful franchises in Major League Baseball, both on the field and financially, the about-face of the Boston Red Sox into bargain shoppers has been quite shocking. They were never shy about spending money and trying to remain a competitive club year in and year out for decades, but once it became clear over the summer that the 2019 season was a disaster, there was a change in approach to running the franchise.

As I wrote earlier in December, there are indeed some valid reasons for the Red Sox needing to trim payroll. They’ve made mistakes and committed a lot of money to players who didn’t pan out; still, recent events seem to suggest that they intend the pendulum to swing completely in the other direction and for Red Sox fans, this should be completely unacceptable.

As we all know, the Red Sox have been well over the luxury tax threshold for the last several seasons. In doing so, they’ve fielded competitive teams that have won four AL East division titles (including three in a row) and two World Series championships this decade.

They’ve never been shy about attempting to sign big-name free agents for a lot of money; sometimes it’s worked out well (JD Martinez, David Price) and sometimes it hasn’t (Carl Crawford, Pablo Sandoval). Regardless of the outcome on the field, the team has always been willing and able to absorb the salary hits and operate as though having one of the highest payrolls in all of Major League Baseball is simply the price of being competitive year after year.

For reasons that are known only to the Red Sox, though, there was a seismic shift in philosophy approximately halfway through the 2019 season which, combined with the firing of Dave Dombrowski and hiring of Chaim Bloom from the small-market Tampa Bay Rays, suggested that the team is indeed serious about their new way of operating.

A recent article from AP Sports reported that the Red Sox just received their luxury tax bill from the league for the 2019 season. When taking benefits into account (as Alex Speier pointed out), the team’s total payroll in 2019 was $243.7 million which amounted to a whopping $13.4 million tax bill, double the $6.7 million bill the Yankees will have to pay (keep in mind the Red Sox missed the postseason while the Yankees made it to game six of the ALCS).

Since the luxury tax system was introduced in 2003, Boston has paid a total of $50 million in tax penalties, third behind the Yankees ($348 million) and Dodgers ($150 million). Clearly, the numbers show that the Sox have been willing to spend to remain competitive and fans can’t complain with the four World Series wins over the last fifteen years.

However (and there’s always a “however”), it was reported on Friday that the Fenway Sports Group, the sports conglomerate owned by John Henry of which the Red Sox are the crown jewel, is now valued at $6.6 billion dollars according to Forbes. Since they bought the team in 2001, they’ve seen an 837% growth in their value. That makes the Red Sox the third most valuable sports conglomerate in the world, even ahead of the Yankees (who are in fourth place at a value of $6.1 billion).

What does all of this talk about financial matters have to do with the Red Sox heading into 2020? Here’s where I’m going to get a bit more personal and subjective: it shows that while the Red Sox have a right to curb spending and run their business as they see fit, they really don’t have an excuse to be miserly and put a subpar product on the field.

Bloom came to Boston from the Rays, a team that consistently does more with less and has for its entire existence. Tampa is coming off of a 96-66 season and won the American League Wild Card before they fell in five games to the Houston Astros in the ALDS.  He’s going to have a diametrically opposite approach to team building than “Dealing” Dave Dombrowski did.

That’s already been borne out this offseason in his letting free agents Rick Porcello and Brock Holt leave while replacing them with cheaper (if also less talented) alternatives in pitcher Martin Perez (1 year, $6 million), utility infielder Jose Peraza (1 year, $3 million), and Rule 5 draft choice infielder Jonathan Arauz.

There’s been constant trade chatter surrounding David Price, Jackie Bradley, and Mookie Betts, all attractive potential moves for the Red Sox in order to unload big contracts (Price) and avoid paying a lot in arbitration for soon-to-be free agents (Bradley and Betts).

Regardless of what the team does, it looks likely that the Red Sox are going to take a few steps back in terms of the on-field product over the next couple of years. Replacing talent with lesser talent from the league’s scrap pile is not typically a formula for success For fans pointing to the 2013 Red Sox as proof of this approach working, it’s not an apt comparison. The players brought in for that team were all better than who the Red Sox are approaching this offseason and they all happened to have career years at the same time, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. The Red Sox can be frugal, but it’s beginning to look more and more likely that they’re going to go beyond that and be cheap when it comes to the next couple of seasons. As fans, we should not accept this.

The Red Sox already had the most expensive ticket prices in all of baseball and announced shortly after the season ended in October that they’ll be raising them 1.7 percent. While teams usually raise prices after a successful season (as the Sox did with a 2.5 percent increase after 2018), it’s rather insulting for the Sox to have done it after a miserable season in 2019. True, we as fans have the freedom to choose whether or not we’ll pay those prices and as one of the most rabid and loyal fanbases in the league, Red Sox fans have continued to pack Fenway Park year after year regardless of how the team finished. However, if the team is going to become cheapskates and purposely put subpar teams on the field just to save money, then fans would be wise to perhaps stop going to games (or at the very least not as many as before).

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With the amount of money the team generates every year, it’s a slap in the face to not improve the team solely in the name of saving money, while at the same time raising ticket prices (death, taxes, and the Red Sox raising ticket prices…the three constants in life). I usually don’t disparage how private businesses spend their money, but in the case of the 2020 Boston Red Sox, it’s looking like perhaps fans should take a page out of the team’s book and spend less in order to save money just like the Sox are doing.