For the last few offseasons, the Sox have had major contract after major contract disappear off their payroll. Mike Lowell, Julio Lugo, the odd combination of Jason Bay and Manny Ramirez...It's been a constant thing that, when the year draws to a close, the Sox will have money to spend on upgrades.
Not so much this year.
The Sox are certainly still dropping contracts, yes. The outfield alone will provide nearly $22 million in salary relief as Mike Cameron and J.D. Drew both drop off the payroll. Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield could free up $4 million more for players who can arguably be replaced by the system, and another $3 million can probably be expected from Dan Wheeler, whose option seems a non-issue at this point.
But then what?
Let's just call it $30 million off to give ourselves a nice, round, generous number.
Now let's start the cuts.
You can remove half of that figure by way of Adrian Gonzalez' salary bump alone. The delayed extension of Gonzalez' contract has allowed the Red Sox to avoid feeling the pain of his contract for this year, but it kicks in for 2012 in force at nearly $22 million. Minus the six they were already paying, and we're left with just $14 million left to spend.
Alright, so that's still one big signing. But then we get to Carl Crawford, whose deal quickly bumps up to $20 million. That's a $5 million jump. Pedroia and Lester will take off another $4.5 million, and Clay Buchholz accounts for another $3.2
Add those up, and the Sox are left with under $2 million in flexibility.
But we're still not done. Because now we have the cases of Jonathan Papelbon and David Ortiz. Two free agents having big years. David Ortiz could ask for a pay raise, Jonathan Papelbon absolutely will, and we still haven't touched on the eight arbitration players. Sure, you can drop Albers and McDonald, but how much more will Jacoby Ellsbury, Alfredo Aceves, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Daniel Bard cost this year.
The simple fact of the matter is that the Red Sox are up against the wall financially, at least if they're looking to stay within the boundaries they've typically set. Realistically, they'll have to go above and beyond that limit just to keep the same team together.
But what if they want to cut costs? How can they do that?
The answers aren't entirely pleasant.
1) Let Daniel Bard Close
The easy answer for many people, Papelbon has been fantastic this year, but still costs $12 million as a closer whose job is simply to pitch one inning. Looking at the talent-filled free agency class of relievers coming up, the Sox could potentially fill up on middle relievers, allowing Daniel Bard to move on to closing.
It's not going to realistically be a positive to the team, given our recent troubles with middle relievers, but if the Sox can spend $6 million to bring in some reasonable seventh and eighth inning arms, then this might be somewhere they can "get away" with something.
2) Say Goodbye To Papi
It's hard to imagine that this one will ever happen, simply because of the reaction of the fanbase, but by bringing up Ryan Lavarnway, the Sox could potentially let David Ortiz go, shaving another $12.5 million off their budget. It would mean the loss of one of the single best bats both in Red Sox history and in the league this year in exchange for a relatively unknown quantity, but Lavarnway is perhaps the most sure thing the Sox have in the high minors.
3) Avoid Free Agency, Make A Trade
One thing that's often overlooked in the current situation is that the Sox have some really interesting, nearly Major League ready pieces. Junichi Tazawa, Felix Doubront, Alex Wilson, and Kyle Weiland are all pieces that could bring decent return value-wise. Ryan Kalish had a down year, but is still interesting, as is Josh Reddick and even potentially Che-Hsuan Lin and Jose Iglesias.
These are the types of guys who could help the Sox not to shave dollars off their budget so much as to upgrade at a very low price. As it happens, the end of 2012 could offer a rather larger amount of salary relief. Daisuke and Jenks are sure things to depart, Kevin Youkilis could be moved or have his option declined should Will Middlebrooks prove an answer at third, and the Sox won't have the sudden surprise of $20 million in salary bumps between two players. Deals for players about to hit free agency or even higher levels of arbitration could provide more upgrades that don't really cost the Sox until the 2013 season.
4) Bump Up The Payroll
The preferred answer for pretty much everyone, but one that might not be possible. John Henry and co. have deep pockets, but baseball is, as always, a business, and bumping up payroll another 10% to, say, resign Papelbon and Bedard, extend Ellsbury, and solve any potential problems at both shortstop (which would allow the Sox to shed another few million off with Scutaro) and in right field could prove entirely untenable.
The Sox have shown an increased willingness to spend on the levels of the Yankees in recent years, but when we get into that territory, luxury tax becomes a very real deterrent. The average annual value of all the contracts adds up to a lower amount than the figures already provided, but then you chip in that extra $10 million in benefits, and there you go.
I guess what I'm saying here is that, if the Sox seem to have a typical, expensive offseason, we should remember that the increased ticket prices that follow aren't unearned.