Why Red Sox' next offseason could be very different: A look at 2015 payroll

January 06, 2014 - 8:24 am

 

It's been a relatively quiet offseason for the Red Sox. The roster holes have been few, the changes unsurprising. Indeed, the most significant "drama" to date has involved the long-anticipated departure of Jacoby Ellsbury and the question of whether the team would re-sign Mike Napoli and/or shortstop Stephen Drew

That fact is a reflection of a couple of factors. First, the Sox finished the year with a strong roster (you may recall some events in October…), with in-house replacements available for Ellsbury (in Jackie Bradley Jr.) and, if they do not re-sign him, Drew (Xander Bogaerts). Secondly, the team remained true to the same hesitancy to commit to deals of extreme length and size, effectively taking the team out of the high-end free-agent sweepstakes for players like Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. Additionally, the fact that the Sox are nearing the limit of how much they can spend while remaining comfortably beneath the $189 million luxury tax threshold (thus permitting in-season changes while trying to reap the considerable financial benefits of avoiding the luxury tax) has also limited activity. 

But next offseason could be very different. The Red Sox have a staggering amount of money coming off the books, something that could position the team not only to re-sign franchise linchpins Jon Lester and David Ortiz but also to pursue nearly any player on the market should the team choose to do so, at a time when a flourishing farm system could offer inexpensive solutions to a number of roster spots. 

Four of the team's six veteran starters will arrive at free agency following the 2014 season. That means the 2014 commitments to Jon Lester ($13 million, but a $9.37 million salary as calculated for luxury tax purposes), John Lackey ($16.5 million), Jake Peavy ($14.5 million/$16.5 million) and Ryan Dempster ($13.25 million) will all come off the books. Those expiring commitments -- at a time when the team expects one or two of its current prospect inventory to enter the rotation -- could liberate about $55 million to play with, even assuming that it exercises Lackey's no-brainer option at the major league minimum (assuming his arm remains attached to his shoulder). In the bullpen, Koji Uehara, Burke Badenhop and Andrew Miller will likewise be free agents, though their collective salaries in 2014 should tally roughly $8 million. 

On the position side, the team faces the free agency of David Ortiz ($15 million salary, $17 million luxury tax calculation), Jonny Gomes ($5 million), A.J. Pierzynski ($8.25 million) and David Ross ($3.1 million) after 2014 -- a total of roughly $33 million of funds that will go from committed to discretionary. 

Overall? The Sox have about $96 million coming off the books -- more than half of its currently committed payroll for 2014. 

Unquestionably, the team will face a number of needs given the number of free agents, but a number of those could be filled internally. Players like Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa and Drake Britton should be ready to help in the big leagues, rounding out a number of spots in the rotation and bullpen. The signing of Edward Mujica this winter to a two-year, $9.5 million deal offers the Sox one potential fallback option if Uehara leaves in free agency. 

It is no longer a stretch, meanwhile, to imagine an entirely homegrown shape up the middle by 2015, with Christian Vazquez (at the major league minimum) joining shortstop Xander Bogaerts, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and, of course, Dustin Pedroia at second base. Or, if the Sox end up re-signing Drew to a deal of more than a year, Bogaerts could move to third and provide a solution for little more than the league minimum of $500,000. However, if Bogaerts is the shortstop, there remains an excellent chance that either Will Middlebrooks or Garin Cecchini could offer an answer as an everyday third baseman for little more than the major league minimum. 

Some of the team's financial freedom will be chewed up by arbitration-fueled salary increases -- but not a ton. The team's most prominent arbitration-eligible players for next year, as the roster currently stands, will be Felix Doubront, Daniel Nava, Junichi Tazawa and Mike Carp, who collectively may account for roughly $10 million or so. 

The net result? If the Sox' prospect pool does indeed position the team to identify a number of homegrown contributors, the team will have the ability not only to re-sign Lester and Ortiz if common ground with those players emerges, but it will also to have a significant amount of spending money beyond those two players to address any emergent holes, whether at closer, shortstop, the rotation or elsewhere. For instance, if the team could re-sign Lester for roughly $20 million a year, Ortiz for another $15 million salary and one of its veterans (Ross or Pierzynski) to work with Vazquez for about $3 million, it would still have about $50 million less in payroll commitments than it has dedicated, at this moment, to the 2014 payroll. 

Of course, it's fair to ask what the team might do with that potential flexibility. Next year's free agent pool features some dazzling starters -- though Lester, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer all represent candidates for extensions -- and a notably unimpressive group of position players that likely will ensure some terrible contracts with demand rapidly outstripping supply for the likes of Hanley Ramirez (if he does not re-sign with the Dodgers), Brett Gardner, Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley. 

Perhaps the next sensation from Cuba or Japan will emerge to give the Sox a more promising focal point for their money. Or perhaps the team will be able to set its sites on trading for an established star to round out its roster -- a search that could commence to address any needs that start to emerge during this season. 

Regardless of what the Sox do with the money, however, it appears likely that the team will have a striking degree of flexibility thanks to both its available payroll and its prospect pool that could make for a very different offseason than the one currently unfolding.