In the last 24 hours, the Red Sox added two of the best position players on the market in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. In doing so, they have shored up third base in a big way, and depending on where they want Hanley Ramirez to play, could go in a number of different directions in the months to come.
No matter which direction they choose, however, it has to end in the same place: with at least one new starting pitcher. As crowded as the offensive side of Boston's roster is at the moment, the starting rotation is something of a wasteland at this point. If the season were to start tomorrow, Clay Buchholz would take the mound on Opening Day, with Joe Kelly and a string of young, unproven arms following close behind. Even with big (and, frankly, not at all unrealistic) bounce back performances from Buchholz and Kelly, that's the sort of rotation that could derail any team, no matter how good the lineup is.
So the Red Sox need pitching, but they've just committed $42 million in contracts to next year's payroll. How do they fit that into the budget?
There are a few possibilities:
1. They can trade some established players to free up some money
Before the news broke that Hanley Ramirez would be getting $22 million rather than $18 million per season, the Red Sox were still in a position where they could simply drop a huge deal on Jon Lester's lap without technically exceeding the collective bargaining tax threshold that has acted as something of a salary cap to them for years now. It would have been largely unfeasible, since they would have had no room to make necessary midseason maneuvers or sustain any injuries whatsoever. But by shaving off a few million dollars owed to, say, Juan Francisco and Daniel Nava, the numbers did technically work out.
That $4 million actually makes a pretty big difference. Now the Red Sox absolutely have to create breathing room if they're going to stay under that cap and add a top-tier free agent pitcher. And even if they do, they're going to have trouble getting far enough under with just one move that they can afford to add the other pieces (backup catcher, second starter, maybe a reliever) that they could really use.
The Red Sox are paying quite a few players quite a lot of money who could be traded in some way, but there are four in particular who jump out as both semi-expensive and somewhat valuable on the trade market: Yoenis Cespedes, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and Allen Craig.
The first two names are the most easily dealt. If the Red Sox wanted to be rid of their contracts today, they could probably have it over-and-done with before the sun sets. At $9 million and $16 million respectively, trading away either Cespedes or Napoli would give the Red Sox the breathing room they need to make that top-tier signing a realistic option if the Sox intend to stay under the CBT threshold, and both are players that a number of teams would love to have on one-year deals at their current salary.
Photo credit: Darren McCollester/Getty Images
The second two are a little more complicated, but it's easy to imagine the Red Sox finding suitors for either one. Shane Victorino is coming off an injury-riddled season that would seem to have shot his value, but when you consider the fact that he, too, is on a one-year deal, suddenly it's very easy to imagine any number of teams jumping at the opportunity to take on his contract. Think of all the times Red Sox fans have looked at a player in the midst of a down year since the Adrian Beltre signing and hoped against hope that they would be willing to sign a one-year deal for big money in an attempt to rebuild value. That's Victorino, but pre-signed and ready to go to any willing team if the Red Sox really need to make the move.
Allen Craig may be a bigger question mark than Victorino, and given his lack of defensive skills, also doesn't carry quite the same upside looking back at, say, 2013. That being said, Craig will cost any team that trades for him an average of just $8 million over the next three seasons. Again, just imagine Craig as a free agent with big numbers in his past coming off a down year due to injury. In this market, a three-year, $24 million deal just isn't terribly significant to many teams. His value may be at an all-time low, but it's still not hard to imagine the Red Sox being able to unload him to free up some money.
Whether it's Craig's $6 million (against the CBT), or Napoli's $16, the Red Sox could certainly find ways to free up some money. Given that we've now heard that Hanley Ramirez will be playing left field, Yoenis Cespedes is very much the obvious choice, but the outfield could always shift in another way to make room...
2.They can trade young players for cost-controlled pitchers.
I'll preface this by saying it's my least favorite option, and it's not really all that close. But...the Red Sox do have Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and some fairly high-level prospects in the minors who represent big trade chips. If the Red Sox wanted to, they could probably find teams with talented young pitchers who are looking to trade for some talented young position players.
It wouldn't be impossible to fill in for Bogaerts or Betts if they were traded. The Red Sox can change their plans and stick Hanley Ramirez at short the same way the Dodgers did last year (and the same way the Yankees stuck Jeter there for years, and the Tigers stuck Miguel Cabrera at third for a while there). It's possible, just not good. Mookie is the easier fix, since the Red Sox could slot Cespedes into right field, or even trade him away all the same and utilize Shane Victorino and Jackie Bradley Jr. along with Rusney Castillo to make center and right work.
Really, some of this comes down to the irrational attachment fans tend to form to their prospects. Certainly both Bogaerts and Betts have received national acclaim in the last couple of years. That these are talented players capable of doing big things is not really a question. But if the Red Sox could make a one-for-one trade to add an equally talented young pitcher under team control, it shouldn't seem so wrongheaded to make what amounts to a lateral move.
That being said...the Red Sox have built quite the foundation for their team for the next five years, with Sandoval and Ramirez' contracts ending conveniently enough at the time when Bogaerts and Betts will be coming up for free agency themselves. And while the Red Sox could trade either one of their top young players and make it work, the simple fact is that pitching is very easily acquired right now if, indeed, the Red Sox can find the money. Given that it seems very likely they can find the money, why jump through the hoops of trading young player for young player?
Of note: the worst of both worlds in this situation would be trading top talent for Cole Hamels, who still costs quite a bit. The Red Sox should certainly be open to dealing some of their prospects for a mid-level pitcher to add to a top-tier acquisition, or even for Hamels to fill the role as that top-tier pitcher. But giving up their best young players (Betts, Bogaerts, Swihart, Owens, Rodriguez come to mind) for the privilege of paying Hamels as much as they would pay Lester seems wrongheaded from every angle.
3. They could just blow right on past the CBT.
The price of playing baseball is growing at a rate that the Collective Bargaining Tax threshold just hasn't kept up with in recent years. Contracts are getting bigger and bigger as television deals reach new heights year in and year out. As Red Sox fans, we generally only see the symptoms of this, since NESN cuts out the middle man in terms of television money. But if those rights are worth more and more around the country, it only stands to reason that John Henry and co. are seeing the same sort of bump without any splash CSN megadeal to really make it obvious.
If that's the case, we may just be playing by different rules these days. Red Sox ownership may view the cost of jumping over the CBT as more than worth it if it means keeping excitement up headed into 2015. And that would mean that adding a couple of pitchers to the mix is as simple as putting the pen to paper. They're still a long way away from the territory that the Dodgers and Yankees have been living in for the past few years, so it's not like they'd be breaking new ground either.
There's a sign, too, that this could be the plan for Boston. I mean beyond the simple fact that they're paying boatloads of money to players left and right. If the Red Sox do intend to go beyond the CBT threshold, they have to be looking at both their own mistakes before 2011 and the current situation faced by teams like New York as cautionary tales.
So how do you avoid winding up in that situation? You keep deals your big deals dense. The reason the Yankees are struggling right now isn't because multiple free agents ended up being huge busts. Mark Teixeira was just fine for his first three-to-four years, but after 2012 they were facing four years of an underperforming player getting paid better than $20 million. The same is true for CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez. Jacoby Ellsbury might well end up on that list in a few years time. Of the large contracts currently weighing them down, Brian McCann is the only one who really came in and just flopped.
There's no real way to dodge the Brian McCann situation without swearing off of big free agents entirely. Some will simply not perform, and no team is good enough at player evaluation to have a 100% hit rate. But if a team avoids these massive deals that last seven years or longer, it's going to take a really bad run of luck to accumulate the sheer volume of underperforming contracts that's necessary to really cripple a team willing to spend on New York or Los Angeles' level.
To that end, Hanley Ramirez' four-year, $88 million deal makes sense. Even if he pulls a Carl Crawford, the Red Sox will only have to work around one bad deal for a few years. Sure, if Sandoval, Ramirez, and whatever pitcher(s) the Red Sox add all completely flop, they'll be a train wreck. But that's the sort of terrible luck that no team can survive, and the only way to avoid it is to not play in the first place, so it's not really even worth thinking about.
Boston's decision to sign Hanley Ramirez and then immediately snap up Pablo Sandoval certainly doesn't follow any reasonable list of priorities the Red Sox might have. They needed pitching a lot more than they needed a second bat, and signing Sandoval certainly puts tighter constraints on the budget than many were expecting to face before a single arm was added to the rotation.
That being said, it's still a matter of "if" and "how" rather than "when" the Red Sox add an arm or two to the mix. There are more shoes still to fall in this offseason, and we can only guess what the team will look like by the time all is said and done.