Ryan Dempster has decided to call it quits--at least for now--leaving the Red Sox with an unexpectedly large gap between their payroll and the $189 million collective bargaining tax threshold. Had the Red Sox known about the financial windfall coming their way months ago, they could have put that money towards any number of uses. Two weeks into February, however, the options have been cut down to a mere handful. Let's go over some of the most interesting ones available to them.
1. Stephen Drew
Drew was likely the first name to come to mind for most Red Sox fans. After all, the Sox have never completely withdrawn from the shortstop's free agency proceedings, and with Scott Boras struggling to find him a home, a second pillow contract might be just what the doctor ordered.
The appeal with Drew is obvious. The Red Sox will be starting Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks on the left side of the infield in 2014. In Bogaerts they have an incredibly exciting rookie, but a rookie all the same. And in Middlebrooks they have a massive question mark who seems as likely to provide nothing at all as to break out of his 2013 funk and find his way back to 2012 form. Drew would provide a huge insurance policy, and even if both Middlebrooks and Bogaerts performed well, could offer the starters plenty of rest and platoon options. Should he perform particularly well, the Sox could even still get their draft pick out of the bargain.
If the Red Sox had not acquired Jonathan Herrera, then having Dempster's money available might have prompted an immediate move for Drew from them. Having a viable backup at those positions is just that important given the way the roster is constructed. That being said, having Herrera in certainly does not preclude the Red Sox from bringing Drew back. While the former Rockie is not a bad player--he's not going to be the stone that weighs a good team down--he's certainly not on the same level as Drew. The Red Sox did not acquire Herrera with the intention of optioning him to the minors for Drew, but that road is open to them, and it's not all that unlikely they'll go down it now.
2. The starting pitchers
There's an unusually good crop of free agent starters left on the market this late. Of particular note: Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez. Having just lost a starting pitcher, wouldn't it make sense to go and get another?
Probably not. While Ryan Dempster would technically still have fit into the depth chart for the starting rotation, he was hardly an important piece of the puzzle there. Ryan Dempster was the sixth man in a rotation that was never going to go past five, and even that placement was likely more the result of the Red Sox' desire to get Brandon Workman consistent starting opportunities in Triple-A.
No, Dempster was destined for the limbo that is long relief. Not quite a starter, not quite a reliever, but expected to be able to do either on a moment's notice. Essentially the "take one for the team" guy. And while the Red Sox will still have to find someone to fill that role, a high-profile free agent pitcher is hardly the most efficient way to go about that, even if the ultimate effect would be to push Felix Doubront (who, frankly, has too much promise to be marginalized) into that sixth spot.
No, if the Red Sox add to their already impressive starting depth, it's hard to imagine they'll do by targeting a player worth anything close to Ryan Dempster's salary.
3. Nelson Cruz
Daniel Nava and Nelson Cruz aren't really all that dissimilar. Both are players with an impressive offensive skill that makes up for other offensive deficiencies and some very questionable glovework. Daniel Nava will cost the Red Sox about $500,000 and is a fun guy to have around and very easy to root for. Nelson Cruz entered the offseason expecting a four-year, $75 million deal, comes with obvious baggage, and would cost the team a draft pick.
4. Take on a bad contract
Now, this isn't at all likely to happen, but the Red Sox could always throw it out there that they're willing to take on an unappetizing short-term contract if they got something back for it. Usually this late in the year there wouldn't be anyone who really needed money, but given that so many other free agents remain on the market, there might be a team looking to make a move on one of them that wouldn't mind giving up a prospect or something of the sort in the bargain.
It's a bit fancy, I'll grant you, but if the Red Sox are actively looking to spend up to the CBT threshold year in and year out, this could be a way to make it happen, essentially buying a prospect. Even if the league was inclined to oppose this sort of thing, they might just look the other way if it meant a qualifying offer free agent found a home.
5. Save it for a rainy trade deadline
Alright, so the Red Sox have money now. That doesn't mean they have to spend it. The team was already beneath the CBT threshold by a bit before this Dempster news broke, and seemed in no rush to cover the distance. Leaving money unspent is a risk, but one that could provide serious rewards down the line if it leaves the Red Sox free to be big players at the deadline.
Right now, the team's needs just aren't all that obvious. Would Drew help? Absolutely. Is he a necessity? Not at all. And in a few months' time, perhaps it will become glaringly obvious that the Red Sox need an outfielder, or a starting pitcher, or a first baseman, or a catcher. The regular season always provides plenty of twists and turns, and making a trade in July, when some of those twists have made the team's needs clear, is more than just a matter of having the right prospects.
In all likelihood the Red Sox will not end up spending all that's available to them at the deadline. It's very hard to spend upwards of $20 million when you're only taking on about half the player's contract for the season. But depending on Boston's plans going forward, it might well be better to let some utility go by the wayside than to be forced over the CBT threshold after signing Drew and making a big deal at the deadline. And that's even assuming that option would be available to them. Every team has a budget to work with (yes, even the Dodgers. There's a reason they didn't sign Cano), and while John Henry and co. have generally been willing to open the wallet when it's called for, we can assume they will only go so far. 2012 is proof enough of that.
When it comes to problems, "how to spend $20 million" is probably one of the better ones to have. It can also be one of the more frustrating ones for fans. When a team needs a first baseman and there simply aren't any good ones available, they will eventually have to fill the slot with a less-than-ideal candidate. But fans can understand that. Sometimes there just isn't a solution available immediately, and it's better to go with a placeholder and wait the situation out.
But fans understand that. We find it relatively easy to accept that sometimes the market just isn't there. That's not the case with spending money. Particularly when, if that money isn't spent, it doesn't just roll over easily into the next year. No, we have the expectation that finding money is hard, and spending it easy, and so when resources are left fallow, if feels like a failure.
Let's just keep in mind that that's not necessarily the case here. At least not until July. Yes, if the year ends and there's money on the table and John Henry and co. don't take that into account for future seasons then it will have been a waste. But sometimes it just makes more sense to wait and see, even if that's not the most satisfying move.