When the Red Sox traded for Craig Kimbrel, much of the focus not given to the big boost to the bullpen was on the cost in terms of prospects.Little attention, generally speaking, was given to the fact that the Red Sox had just agreed to pay a closer eight figures for the next two-to-three years.
In many ways, that only makes sense. Craig Kimbrel's contract, after all, is actually kind of perfect. Yes, he's expensive on a year-to-year basis, but not by any means overpriced. At three years, the length of his deal is right in that sweet spot, too, with the third year being an option year just a nice bonus. No, Kimbrel isn't some nearly-free 24-year-old fresh from the minors, but this really isn't the contract anyone should be worried about.
In context, though, Kimbrel's contract and trade should give Red Sox fans pause. After all, the Red Sox now have a closer, but they've used up a big chunk of their budget and, in the process, traded away some of the mid-level prospects who might have made it possible to avoid giving up too many of their top guys (Moncada, Devers, Benintendi, Espinoza, and the various young players in the majors) if they were to go after their ace in a trade. That second part might not seem like it matters now that Dave Dombrowski has said the Sox are likely to get their next ace via free agency, but here's the thing: aces are expensive.
Coming into the offseason, most pretty much took it for granted that the Sox would have to make a trade at some point in order to put their team together. But that expectation was in no small part based on the idea that a trade would land the Red Sox a cost-controlled player, allowing them to focus their financial resources on whichever of the two major needs (relief and starting pitching) the trade didn't fill. That's not proven to be the case, which begs the question: just how much money do the Red Sox have to work with?
First, though, we should mention where they stand. Currently, John Henry is cutting his biggest checks to these players (by average annual value, with some minor rounding for simplicity's sake):
Hanley Ramirez: $22 million
Rick Porcello: $20.625 million
Pablo Sandoval: $19 million
David Ortiz: $16 million
Dustin Pedroia: $13.75 million
Clay Buchholz: $13 million
Rusney Castillo: $10.35 million
Craig Kimbrel: $10.5 million
Koji Uehara: $9 million
Wade Miley: $6.35 million
Ryan Hanigan: $3.6 million
The Red Sox also have four players in arbitration, three of them for the first time. After mediocre-to-poor seasons, none of the four should produce exceptional figures, but all four are still worth taking into consideration. Here are my estimates:
Junichi Tazawa: $3.25 million
Joe Kelly: $3.5 million
Anthony Varvaro: $1 million
Robbie Ross: $1 million
Throw in the typical contribution to the league's benefits program, and league-minimum and 40-man contracts, and we're looking at a Red Sox payroll that's probably pushing $170 million in average annual value already. Even if the Red Sox manage a bargain of an ace at $20 million annually (small chance of that happening), they're at around $190 million against a CBT threshold of $189 million.
Keep in mind, of course, that that's before adding the extra reliever many expect them to go after, as well as a fourth outfielder and any mid-season additions the Red Sox would want to make. It's also completely ignoring how much they're paying Allen Craig. While the damage he does to their CBT figure might be mitigated, the damage he does to Henry's wallet is not.
Red Sox free agent targets: Jeff Samardzija
Shark struggled in 2015 and he is burdened with the cost of draft pick compensation, but those factors make him the best buy-low candidate of the offseason.
With that in mind, one of two things seems clear: either the Red Sox have a plan to dump some salary, likely in eating a big chunk of Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval's deal to get a team to take the rest in trade, or they're saying goodbye to the days of tiptoeing around the luxury tax. This is especially true when you consider that the Red Sox aren't shedding much in the way of contracts after 2016 unless David Ortiz winds up retiring and/or Clay Buchholz doesn't prove worth his last option.
Which is it? It's hard to say. All we know, frankly, is that we don't know. But it does seem safe to say that some of the more extravagant suggestions made by fans in recent days are likely out of reach so long as the Red Sox aren't going all Yankees/Dodgers on us. Any of these trades, especially, that aim to make upgrades with position players--replacing someone like Jackie Bradley Jr. with a more expensive player, or adding another name to the first base/third base mix--need to consider where the money is coming from. Because while the Red Sox might be willing to go above and beyond their usual limits to answer the immediate needs of the team in the rotation and bullpen, it's hard to envision them then taking yet more money on for what might be seen as luxury purchases. Especially given that it looks like tighter financial times might be around the corner, and every season brings its share of twists.