The Red Sox have shown restraint with spending in free agency
The weeks leading up to the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement saw a free-agent frenzy as several teams rushed to throw buckets of cash at the top available talents before the lockout brought baseball operations to a screeching halt. While some teams were spending with reckless abandon, the Boston Red Sox took a more conservative approach.
Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom hasn’t exactly been sitting on his hands all offseason. He’s been busy even if the moves he’s making aren’t flashy. The Red Sox signed a pitcher who will spend most of next season rehabbing from surgery and another who is little more than a reclamation project being given a chance to fight for a rotation spot. They essentially bought prospects by absorbing a bad contract while shipping out one of their starting outfielders.
These are drips in a pan, not the big splash fans were counting on. These crafty moves might pan out in the long run but they aren’t going to pay immediate dividends. For a team that was two wins away from going to the World Series, the efforts to build upon last season’s success have been underwhelming.
So, what gives? Why haven’t the Red Sox joined in on the spending spree to fill their remaining holes with stars who can put them over the top in their pursuit of a championship?
To answer that question, we first must look at the teams that did most of the spending.
The Texas Rangers have spent over half a billion dollars this offseason, with most of those funds going to revamping their middle infield with Corey Seager (10-year, $325 million) and Marcus Semien (7-year, $175 million). The Rangers also upgraded their rotation with Jon Gray (4-year, $56 million).
The New York Mets gave $130 million to Max Scherzer on a three-year deal, a staggering average annual value for an aging starter. They also remodeled their outfield with Starling Marte (4-year, $78 million) and Mark Canha (2-year, $26.5 million) while adding infielder Eduardo Escobar (2-year, $20 million).
Eduardo Rodriguez was lured away from Boston by the Detroit Tigers (5-year, $77 million), who also snagged potential Red Sox infield target Javier Baez (6-year, $140 million).
The Toronto Blue Jays added one of the best starting pitchers on the market when they signed Kevin Gausman (5-year, $110 million) but they also lost reigning Cy Young award-winner Robbie Ray, who signed with the Seattle Mariners (5-year, $115 million). Toronto also lost Semien to Texas so their roster is trending backwards despite landing one of the top free-agent pitchers.
Those teams spent wildly before the lockout froze transactions across the league but it’s important to note that they were facing entirely different circumstances than the position the Red Sox find themselves in.
Bloom often gets criticized for chasing values instead of splurging on flashy free-agents. A common narrative among the ignorant is that he’s transforming the Red Sox into the Rays by refusing to spend. That completely overlooks that the Red Sox had the sixth-highest payroll in baseball last year at over $189.5 million, per Spotrac. When accounting for salary owed to players who are no longer on the roster, benefits and other expenses that count toward the luxury tax, Boston barely managed to slither under the $210 million threshold. In terms of payroll for luxury tax purposes, the only team that outspent the Red Sox was the Los Angeles Dodgers ($275 million), the only club to cross the threshold this year.
Despite their relative inactivity on the free-agent market, Boston still has the sixth-highest payroll with over $164 million committed for next season. That’s before accounting for salaries for arbitration-eligible and pre-arbitration players plus other expenses.
The Red Sox aren’t outspending everyone in free agency because their current payroll is already higher than most teams. Their payroll remains well above the teams that have been the most active, with the exception of the Mets who are run by a wealthy owner hellbent on climbing out of mediocrity. Texas, Detroit, and Seattle all had bottom-10 payrolls last year and even after their outrageous spending sprees, those clubs haven’t cracked the top-10 in payroll. Toronto is basically treading water, remaining just outside the top-10.
Perhaps even more important than analyzing the teams that are spending this offseason is a review of the teams that are not. Boston isn’t the only big-market club that has been quiet. The Yankees, Phillies and Padres haven’t made much noise after finishing inside the top-10 in payroll last season.
The Dodgers lost two of their best players to free agency, proving their financial resources have limits. Houston re-signed Justin Verlander but appear likely to lose Carlos Correa. The Angels gambled on a lucrative one-year deal for Noah Syndergaard but their only other significant move was re-signing closer Raisel Iglesias. San Francisco has mostly been focused on retaining their own free agents. The Cardinals upgraded the back of their rotation with Steven Matz.
The teams with the 10 highest payrolls last season have mostly shied away from spending unless it was in an effort to keep their own players. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Red Sox have shown similar restraint.
Why the Red Sox aren’t rushing to drastically increase payroll
There’s an obvious reason why the high-payroll teams aren’t eager to increase their budget. Until a new CBA is in place, teams are operating without knowing what the terms of the agreement will be.
Will the luxury tax threshold rise or could it be lowered to further prohibit spending? Could we see a hard cap implemented? If there is still a luxury tax, it’s possible the penalties for exceeding the threshold could be steeper. We’re not just talking about financial penalties either. We tend to roll our eyes at billionaire owners worrying about tax penalties that amount to pocket change by their standards but exceeding the tax can also come with draft pick and international signing penalties. If MLB were to drastically increase those penalties, it would make exceeding the tax almost unfathomable.
Boston can’t spend on the top free agents without drifting near last season’s threshold and we have no idea if that tax line will remain approximately the same next year. Diving head first into free agency without even knowing the rules is a foolish strategy that could end in disaster.
The lockout has forced teams to hit the pause button for now but the offseason isn’t over. There are still several appealing free-agents available on the market. It’s possible that Bloom won’t view any of them as a solid long-term investment, in which case he may explore the trade market as an alternative to upgrade the roster. There are many paths he can still take to improve this team before next season.
The Red Sox aren’t done making moves, we just need a new CBA in place to dictate how far they can reasonably afford to stretch their budget.