Red Sox owner John Henry adds new twist to team’s offseason

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) /

In an email exchange with Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, Red Sox owner John Henry downplays mandate to trim payroll to below $208 million.

It’s the middle of January, and spring training caravans are about to start their engines. Baseball’s offseason is beginning to wind down, and yet the mystifying plans of the Boston Red Sox continue to twist, turn, and apparently contradict.

What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on here?

The latest kink to a Red Sox transition from 2019 to 2020 came Saturday when Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy reported Red Sox owner John Henry as suggesting that the $208 million taxable payroll mandate isn’t really a mandate, at least not for 2020. More like a mirage, maybe?

Shaughnessy’s column, in large part based on an email exchange he said he had with Henry, was topped by a headline saying the Red Sox agenda to slash payroll was, in Henry’s words, nothing more than “media-driven noise.”

This is an apparent contradiction to a statement Henry made Sept. 27 during an impromptu meeting between media and the Red Sox brain trust – chairman Tom Werner and CEO Sam Kennedy were also present. When Shaughnessy asked that day if there were plans to cut payroll in 2020, Henry was quoted as saying, “This year we need to be under the CBT (MLB’s Competitive Balance Tax). That is something we’ve known for more than a year now.”

Henry’s statement immediately became the core narrative of an offseason of payroll austerity (although ticket prices are again rising) for the Red Sox and their recently hired baseball chief Chaim Bloom. Not long after Henry’s Sept. 27 proclamation, Kennedy chimed in, suggesting that the $208 million goal (which would reset the Red Sox tax rate at zero) wasn’t a firm edict, hinting there might be wiggle room. Back and forth we go.

Other than that brief Kennedy interlude, more than 100 days had passed with nothing new emanating from Red Sox leadership to counter Henry’s Sept. 27 statement – until now. Keep in mind, too, that almost everything Bloom has done (or hasn’t done) has suggested stringent penny-pinching and payroll cutting, reinforcing the apparent trek to Down Under $208 million, mate. No big free-agent contracts signed; no re-signing of departing free agents; disciplined signing of bargain-priced game-board pieces; and openness to trading a key player or two for prospects and salary dump.

That looks a lot like a CBT-reset mandate in progress. Actions speak louder than words, even for an MLB owner. This is not a strategy you expect from a wealthy franchise owner intent on staying competitive with the likes of the New York Yankees and Houston Astros, knowing you could still use a higher-quality No. 5 starter than Martin Perez, a back-of-the-bullpen boost, and a right side of an infield currently disguised as giant question marks.

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MLB teams are under no obligation – and it would be bad business practice anyway – to let the world know what their exact plans are relative to trimming payroll, discussing possible trades, or revealing details of a free-agent negotiation. At the same time, it shouldn’t be too much for the Red Sox to give the paying public at least a 35,000-foot overview headed into the offseason . . . and then stick to it. Fan interest and ticket sales are at stake here.

Instead, we get Henry sticking it to “the media,” even taking a shot at Shaughnessy. At one point in their email exchange, Henry, referring back to his off-the-cuff Sept. 27 declaration, said, “Your main point seems to be that I accidentally disclosed a secret plan but unlike you, I am honest about Sox issues. The question was asked and I answered it.”

Elsewhere in Shaughnessy’s column, Henry is quoted as saying (taking another swipe at Shaughnessy), “You might actually be right for once in that I don’t plan what I’m going to say before answering media questions in a live media event. But this focus on CBT resides with the media far more than it does with the Sox. . . . but just this week . . . I reminded baseball ops that we are focused on competitiveness over the next 5 years, over and above resetting, to which they said, ‘That’s exactly how we’ve been approaching it.’”

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Really? It doesn’t look that way. This Red Sox offseason continues on, dragging the line, mandate still apparently in place.