The Red Sox could absorb a large salary via trade to “buy” a prospect
The Boston Red Sox face the difficult challenge of upgrading their current roster to vault the team back into contention while simultaneously rebuilding their depleted farm system. Those goals are typically opposites that don’t work in tandem with one another but there is a way to accomplish both.
The clearest path to a short-term fix would be diving into the free-agent market. Unfortunately, the top options that fill a position of need come with a qualifying offer attached, meaning the Red Sox would need to forfeit their second-round draft pick in order to sign them. Spending recklessly could send them back into the luxury tax hell they escaped from last year, which could result in further draft pick ramifications down the road if they choose to ignore the penalties.
These scenarios are counterproductive to the goal of rebuilding the farm system which is why the Red Sox must be careful about how they spend their money. Boston has approximately $40 million in payroll space beneath the luxury tax threshold so they can afford to absorb a large salary. Instead of splurging on a free-agent who might cost a draft pick, why not trade for a useful player while acquiring an appealing prospect along the way?
That’s the route that Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic suggests that the Red Sox are uniquely positioned for. While “buying” prospects typically isn’t easy to pull off, Rosenthal indicates that the financial pressure that some teams face following the loss of revenue during the pandemic-shortened season might create opportunities for Boston to take advantage of teams that need to slash payroll.
Rosenthal points out that the San Francisco Giants provided the blueprint last year when they traded for third baseman Zack Cozart and the $12.67 million remaining on his contract. The Giants also received shortstop prospect Will Wilson, whom the Angels had selected with the 15th overall pick of the ’19 draft, as their reward for taking on Cozart’s contract while shipping only a fringe prospect to Los Angeles to complete the deal.
The Giants ended up designating Cozart for assignment before he ever played a game in San Francisco. If the Red Sox were to follow their blueprint, they will want the over-priced player they acquire to be able to contribute as an upgrade to their 2021 roster. That makes this task more difficult yet not impossible, especially with more teams more desperate than ever to save money.
Boston was faced with a similar opportunity last winter when the San Diego Padres tried to dump Wil Myers and were willing to attach a prospect to entice a team to take his contract off their hands. The Padres weren’t eager to pay his $22.5 million salary in each of the next three seasons but due to the structure of his contract, Myers counted for significantly less against the payroll for tax purposes – which is all Boston cared about.
That deal probably isn’t on the table anymore since Myers had a strong-bounce back season in 2020 and the Red Sox no longer have a need for a first baseman/corner outfielder. However, it provides a strong example of the types of creative deals the Red Sox should be looking out for.
Rosenthal mentions several viable one-year rentals that the Red Sox could target from teams expected to cut payroll, including the Royals’ Danny Duffy ($15.5 million), Orioles’ Alex Cobb ($15 million) and Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez ($11.5 million).
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They aren’t worth those salaries based on current market conditions but each would be considered an upgrade at the back of Boston’s rotation compared to the replacement-level options they cycled through this year. Using their payroll space to plug in one of them at the back of the rotation while adding an appealing prospect to their farm system might be more favorable than spending a similar amount on one of the mid-tier starters available in free agency.
Zack Greinke is an interesting option who was also mentioned. He’s owed $35 million in the final year of his contract, $10.33 million of which will be paid by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He would account for less than $25 million for tax purposes, leaving room in the budget for additional moves.
The Astros are viewed as a contender but with their entire starting outfield hitting the free-agent market and the status of Justin Verlander uncertain following a lost season, Houston might be looking to save money in 2021 before retooling next winter.
More options could emerge as we see how the free-agent market develops and determine which teams are reluctant to add payroll.
Boston is one of the few teams with money to burn, putting them in position to take advantage of this rare opportunity to capitalize on teams desperate to shed payroll. If they can address one of their positions of need with a useful player while improving their farm system, a trade could provide the Red Sox with a way to kill two birds with one stone.