Red Sox may get creative with payroll freedom
Boston sheds quarter of a billion in salary with blockbuster deal
Hey, brother, can you spare a quarter ... of a billion?
General manager Ben Cherington and the rest of the Red Sox front office have executed a massive overhaul of the team's roster and payroll, unburdening the franchise of approximately $260 million in payroll obligations over the remainder of the decade. But saving money is never a goal in and of itself in Boston, so the question immediately becomes what to do with the savings.
It's not as though Boston suddenly receives $260 million in cash. The savings are spread out over a number of years, but they start right away. For 2013 and 2014, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett were the highest-paid players on the Red Sox roster. They are owed about $59.7 million in '13 and just a hair under $60 million in '14. That's the bulk of the savings, and then Gonzalez is signed through 2018 and Crawford through '17.
Clearing $60 million in payroll for each of the next two seasons has the potential to be transforming, even for a team willing to push up against the luxury-tax threshold. The problem is, they may have to get creative. Baseball has changed in recent years, with fewer and fewer top players hitting free agency. Just this year, Cole Hamels, Andre Ethier and Yadier Molina have been locked up to long-term deals before ever reaching the market.
The top two players available this year both come with significant questions. Josh Hamilton is certainly a high-reward player, but his health remains a constant worry. He has played more than 133 games in a season once in his career. Zack Greinke has been a more dependable performer health-wise, but his performance since his 2009 Cy Young season has been inconsistent.
And then of course there's the question of whether Greinke would even want to pitch in Boston, which is far from a given. No fan of media interaction, it's easy to see him wanting no part of the Fenway fishbowl.
Outside of those guys, the free-agent market is somewhat dire. There are certainly a few intriguing starting pitchers, guys like Kyle Lohse, Shaun Marcum, Francisco Liriano and Anibal Sanchez, but not a lot on the hitting side. Beyond Hamilton, the top offensive player available might just be Michael Bourn, but Boston has a center fielder.
Mike Napoli could make some sense either as a catcher or a first baseman, or a hybrid as he's been in Texas, but Napoli isn't coming off a good year. Torii Hunter could man a corner-outfield spot and add a top-flight clubhouse presence to boot. Still, these aren't the kinds of players for whom a team creates a massive amount of payroll flexibility.
The Sox could choose to spend on their bullpen if they're scarred by how this year's relief corps came together. There are certainly some excellent relievers available, such as Casey Janssen and Matt Belisle. However, the problem with this year's 'pen wasn't the strategy, it was the execution. Spending big dollars on relief help is often a mistake.
One area where the Sox can put the money to use has nothing to do with player acquisition. They're now better positioned to keep some of the guys they have. David Ortiz is eligible for free agency, and it's difficult to see him getting much less than the more than $14.5 million he's making this year. Jacoby Ellsbury is up for arbitration this year and can be a free agent following 2013. Alfredo Aceves and Franklin Morales may soon start getting expensive.
Still, if all the Red Sox do is retain what they have, this deal won't sit nearly so well with the faithful. Moreover, it won't be good enough for the Sox to achieve what they expect to achieve -- getting into, and playing deep in, October on a yearly basis.
Enter the trade market. Boston was aggressive in trades this past winter and could get even more so in the coming offseason. Some of the players rumored to be on the block in July might well be available in December, and other intriguing names could become available for the first time.
Cleveland held firm at the Trade Deadline, holding onto Shin-Soo Choo and Chris Perez. And what do you know, a corner outfielder with on-base skills and a late-inning reliever might be right up Boston's alley. The Red Sox could use some rotation help, and it's entirely possible that Philadelphia might put Cliff Lee on the market.
Or maybe, dare to dream, Red Sox fans, the club might aim even higher. One area of need for Boston is shortstop, where Mike Aviles has been adequate but not an answer. Shortstop doesn't look like an area of abundance in free agency, but one star could conceivably be available in a trade.
The Rangers have never been shy to make a bold move, and they have arguably the game's top prospect in shortstop Jurickson Profar. It's not completely outlandish to think that Texas could move Elvis Andrus to make room for Profar. More likely, they'll find a new position for one of the two young stars, but you never know what can happen.
After all, who saw a nine-player, quarter-billion-dollar blockbuster coming, even a few days ago?
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.