Red Sox pivoting from payroll mandate in favor of remaining competitive

The Boston Red Sox have been trimming payroll but they aren’t going to allow the goal of resetting the tax penalties get in the way remaining competitive.

Recent comments from Boston Red Sox owner John Henry have left fans puzzled regarding the future of the franchise.

In a recent column from The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, Henry indicates that the mandate to reset the escalating Competitive Balance Tax penalties by dipping below the $208 million threshold is media-driven noise.

“We are focused on competitiveness over the next 5 years over and above resetting,” Henry stated in an email exchange with Shaughnessy.

This statement contradicts a response that Henry provided during a Sept. 27 meeting with the media when he confirmed that the Red Sox intend to reset the tax penalties in 2020.

“This year we need to be under the CBT,” Henry said at the time. “That is something we’ve known for more than a year now.’’

As Shaugnessy points out, chairman Tom Werner and CEO Sam Kennedy appeared to be caught off guard by Henry’s spontaneous remarks, as if he had blurted out top-secret information.

The narrative ever since has focused on how the Red Sox will shed approximately $20 million in payroll to duck under the tax line. The rumor mill has been churning with speculation that expensive stars such as Mookie Betts and David Price could be sacrificed on the trade market in order to achieve this financial goal.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox have shown no desire to re-sign any of their players who hit the free-agent market this winter, instead focusing on low-cost replacements. The penny-pinching approach to filling out the roster has fueled the narrative that the Red Sox are hellbent on resetting the tax penalties.

Now ownership is backtracking by insisting that fielding a competitive team remains a greater priority than saving money.

Fans appear reluctant to take ownership at their word. Henry has been blasted on social media for contradicting his previous comments and pretending that spending enough to remain competitive has been the plan all along.

Isn’t it possible that the Red Sox owner simply changed his mind since September?

It’s certainly a reasonable explanation. Perhaps Henry underestimated the difficulty of trimming a significant chunk of payroll. The concept of resetting the CBT every few years is a sound business strategy considering the structure of the escalating penalties for repeat offenders. That doesn’t mean the Red Sox are prepared to make rash decisions that would be foolish from a baseball ops perspective simply because they are desperate to dip under the tax.

Trading Betts may have been an idea floated internally as a feasible way to get their budget in order but only if they could acquire a King’s Ransom in return. As it turns out, teams aren’t willing to trade their best prospects for a one-year rental who costs $27 million. If interested suitors aren’t going to blow them away with an offer, there’s little reason to entertain the idea of trading away one of the game’s brightest stars. The Red Sox will not be a competitive team without Betts so Henry’s clarifying comments regarding their desire to win should finally put those trade rumors to rest.

Boston would presumably be open to moving the $96 million remaining on Price’s contract but they aren’t interested in a pure salary dump. Yes, he’s overpaid, but Price is still one of the most talented pitchers on the staff.

The Red Sox aren’t going to be talked into making a bad baseball trade in order to save money. If the right offers aren’t on the table then they should stand pat. If that means they are stuck paying the tax, so be it.

So if paying the tax for a third consecutive year isn’t the crippling burden we were led to believe, why have the Red Sox been shopping in the bargain bin? That answer is fairly simple. Even if there is no mandate to reset the tax penalties, ownership can still insist on limiting spending that would drastically increase the payroll. Preaching fiscal responsibility doesn’t have to result in blowing up the roster.

While a few players have exited since 2018, the main core of the club that won 108 games and the World Series remains. The Red Sox didn’t need to splurge on high profile free agents. They are still capable of competing with what they have. If the team underachieves as much as last season, they can always explore salary-saving trades at the July deadline.

Fans are frustrated because they feel the team hasn’t done enough to improve a roster that fell short of expectations by missing the postseason last year. The truth is, no team can afford to go on a spending spree every year. The Yankees don’t do it, neither do the Dodgers. Boston will still end up with one of the highest payrolls in baseball next season after outspending everyone else over the last two years. They won’t “win” the offseason by signing the best free agents but that doesn’t mean they no longer care about winning.

Next: 2020 Payroll update

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The Red Sox may have started out with the intention of avoiding the tax in 2020 but when it became clear that the cost to the product on the field would be too steep, ownership was forced to pivot. Finding a path to financial freedom would have been ideal but this team has no intention of punting on their chances to compete next season.