Red Sox can compete without outspending everyone else

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 09: John W. Henry, owner of Liverpool ahead of the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Norwich City at Anfield on August 09, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 09: John W. Henry, owner of Liverpool ahead of the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Norwich City at Anfield on August 09, 2019 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) /

Other large-market teams have managed to remain competitive without exceeding the luxury tax every year and the Boston Red Sox can do the same.

The narrative building ever since the Boston Red Sox revealed their intent to slash payroll is that we’re in store for a massive rebuild that could take years to climb out of. Fans have lashed out at ownership for being too cheap to assemble a competitive roster, accusing Boston’s brass of favoring the bottom line over winning a championship.

Frustration is understandable in the wake of a disappointing season but these fears are far overblown. The Red Sox may be forced to take a small step back in 2020 if they truly intend to dip under the luxury tax but they aren’t blowing up the roster and starting over. There will still be enough talent remaining on the roster to put Boston firmly in the playoff hunt and there’s little reason to assume that we’re looking at the beginning of a long rebuilding project.

Large-market teams can reel in their spending habits and remain competitive. Chaim Bloom is tasked with trimming the payroll to under the $208 million tax threshold, not with proceeding as if he’s still running the Tampa Bay Rays. Boston will still be among the top handful of spenders.

For a blueprint of how to cut costs without costing the team a chance to compete, Bloom can look to his former boss. Andrew Freidman inherited a massive payroll of around $300 million when he took over the Los Angeles Dodgers prior to the 2015 season. He steadily reduced the budget until the Dodgers were under the tax in 2018 with a payroll just shy of $200 million. Los Angeles has avoided the tax in consecutive years but remained among the top-four spenders in baseball.

The Dodgers have also won their division in each of the last five seasons since Freidman took over, making two World Series appearances. They don’t have a championship banner to show for it but there is no foolproof way to buy a title. All you can do is build a roster capable of competing for a title and Freidman has managed to do that while cutting more than one-third of the budget he started with.

The New York Yankees have a reputation for trying to outspend everyone. Red Sox fans bemoaned the “Evil Empire” for years for their free-spending ways, claiming they were trying to buy a championship. Wait, isn’t that what the Red Sox did in 2018 when they won with MLB’s highest payroll?

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The Bronx Bombers were back at it again this winter, inking free-agent pitcher Gerrit Cole to a record-breaking $324 million deal. Fans are further irked by Boston’s reluctance to pay the luxury tax when their greatest rival is smashing through the threshold but we need to have a bit of perspective here.

Yes, the Yankees are shelling out an unfathomable amount of money for the top free agent but when’s the last time they did so? It had been almost six years since the Yankees spent $100+ million on a free agent, with Masahiro Tanaka‘s $155 million deal in 2014 being the last.

New York paid the luxury tax this year but their bill wasn’t as steep as Boston’s. The Yankees dipped well under the threshold in 2018, dropping out of the top-five highest payrolls in baseball. They still won 100+ games and made the postseason in each of the last two years.

Even the Dodgers and Yankees are mindful of their budget, ensuring they are able to get under the tax every few years to reset the escalating penalties. Spending deep into the tax every single year simply isn’t feasible from a business perspective – and make no mistake, these owners are running a business.

Paying the tax annually shouldn’t be necessary either. It’s not about how much money you spend, it’s about spending it wisely. Fans were excited when the Red Sox handed David Price the richest contract in MLB history for a pitcher. They won the offseason by signing the top free agent! Now those same fans can’t wait to dump his contract. Yankees fans may feel the same way about Cole in a few years.

The Red Sox have backed themselves into a corner with some bad deals over the last few years and they’re paying the price of overspending on free agents. That doesn’t mean they are going to give away Mookie Betts for 10 cents on the dollar just because he’s expensive. He’s worth it! They have been frugal with their spending this winter and will make every effort to unload an expensive veteran or two but the majority of the roster will remain intact.

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Boston may not have the best team on paper entering the season but it’s impossible to be the favorite every year. That’s not the goal. The Red Sox want to achieve sustainable success. Cutting payroll doesn’t have to mean punting on the 2020 season. They can still be a competitive team while creating future flexibility that will enable them to remain in the mix for the foreseeable future.