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What the Red Sox’ payroll means for their offseason plan

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I mean, yeah, Encarnacion is probably coming to Boston.

ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Five Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

We’re in that awkward time period that no team wants to face but almost all do year-in and year-out. The Red Sox’ season is over, but the offseason has not yet begun. As the last three teams in the race duke it out, we are left to wait, dreaming of the team that might get us to that point in 2017.

While their success or failure in that regard comes down to what happens on the field, the four months that we face now are about anything but. Baseball is a business, as they (correctly) say, and that’s never more apparent than during the offseason. Until winter is over, it’s all about money, so let’s see where the Red Sox stand in that regard.

These 2016 Red Sox were far from cheap. The major league payroll for 2016 came in at nearly $200 million, and that’s before factoring in major league castoffs Rusney Castillo and Allen Craig, who account for some $20 million between them.

That, it’s worth noting, is going based on actual 2016 salaries. The Red Sox, however, have often been known to care more about their luxury tax figure than their actual payroll—a number which is calculated based on the average annual value of a player’s contract, rather than what they might be making in any given year. While there’s been a regime change in management, ownership are the ones setting the payroll, and it seems unlikely they’ll have changed their opinion on that. Savings in one year can offset expenses in another, and vice versa. It makes sense a financial-minded guy like John Henry won’t focus too hard on the small picture of a year when looking at a franchise that’s lasted over a century.

So where did the Sox stand there? Well, the picture actually gets a little uglier. Often the Sox have seen that number prove lower than their actual payroll, but this year it nudges up over $200 million with benefits and the like involved. They’ll likely be paying a couple million dollars in taxes. Not so bad, but also not a figure they’re likely to exceed much going forward.

Making things a lot less clear: nobody knows what the luxury tax figure will be for 2017. Or the penalties. Or if there even will be one. The current collective bargaining agreement expires in December, and while there’s been little smoke to suggest that there will be significant difficulty in producing a new one (which should thankfully mean no stoppage come March and April), we can’t say for sure what it might end up looking like.

If, however, we assume that things don’t change too dramatically, and that Dave Dombrowski will have about as much payroll to work with to build the 2017 team, then we can say this will neither be a particularly flush or tight year for the Red Sox.

As ever, the focus lies on what’s coming off the payroll. For 2017, the names of greatest import are David Ortiz ($16 million) and Koji Uehara ($9 million). Aaron Hill ($12 million) and Brad Ziegler ($5.5 million) are also off, but the Red Sox were only on the line for parts of their contracts. Coming in under $5 million are Junichi Tazawa ($3.375 million) and Ryan Hanigan ($3.7 million, though he will still draw an $800,000 buyout).

All told, the Red Sox are on the line for only about $125 million in 2017, and slightly less than that looking at average annual values (again, before considering Castillo and Craig, who do not count towards the luxury tax figure). But that’s also without factoring in arbitration eligible players. It’s a pretty safe bet that Joe Kelly doesn’t get a huge bump after an unsuccessful stint in the rotation and a shift to the bullpen, but Drew Pomeranz should see a noticeable jump from his $1.35 million, possibly up to about $4 or $5 million. Robbie Ross will get bumped up a bit to around $2 million. And joining the ranks of the arbitration eligible for the first time will be Brock Holt, Sandy Leon, and the big ones: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts, two Boras clients who could threaten to pull similar salaries to Drew Pomeranz even in just their first rodeos.

Taking those guys into account (and assuming the Sox don’t bother with Fernando Abad), we’re probably looking at around $25 million more, bringing us up to about $150 million.

Then there’s the question of what to do with Clay Buchholz. Right now it seems very likely that the Sox will pick up his $13.5 million option. He was a playoff starter at the end of the year, and let’s face it, the guy works in cycles. We’re probably in line for three really good months before the next injury if history is any indicator. That leaves us somewhere around $160-165 million (because let’s not pretend we can manage precision at this point).

If we assume, then, that the Sox are spending the same amount in 2017, Dave Dombrowski probably has something like $30 or $40 million to work with.

The best news for Dombrowski in this situation is that he doesn’t actually have all that much to do, however. Here’s what that ~$160 million has already bought him.

C: Sandy Leon / Blake Swihart / Christian Vazquez

1B: Hanley Ramirez

2B: Dustin Pedroia

SS: Xander Bogaerts

3B: Travis Shaw/Pablo Sandoval

LF: Andrew Benintendi

CF: Jackie Bradley Jr.

RF: Mookie Betts

UTIL: Brock Holt

OF: Chris Young

SP: Rick Porcello / David Price / Eduardo Rodriguez / Drew Pomeranz / Clay Buchholz / Steven Wright

RP: Craig Kimbrel / Carson Smith / Joe Kelly / Robbie Ross Jr. / Heath Hembree / Matt Barnes

They’ve also got Yoan Moncada waiting in the wings, and some reasonable sleeper candidates who could end up making an impact in the majors.

All told, the Red Sox are remarkably close to being a team that could contend in most divisions already. Of the 25 players listed above, chances are only 2-to-4 miss out on the opening day roster barring injury. One of the starting pitchers will end up traded or in the bullpen (my money is on the latter, with Steven Wright biding his time). One of the catchers obviously doesn’t end up in the mix immediately. God only knows what happens with Shaw and Sandoval. And one or two of the relievers maybe ends up pushed to the minors.

Realistically, though, that $30 or $40 million isn’t going to be spread around to all that many roster spots. And so it makes sense to expect the Sox to go big in finding that corner infield/DH bat to “replace” David Ortiz as best as possible. At this point, it feels like most are already photoshopping Edwin Encarnacion in a Red Sox uniform.

Depending on the cost for Encarnacion (most predictions have brought him down into relatively reasonable $20 million territory, if the years still seem to trend a bit long) or whatever replacement the Sox end up targetting, though, they might well end up with half their money left to work with.

One possible outlet for that would be third base, if the Sox were really determined not to go into the regular season relying on one of their three big question marks in Shaw, Sandoval, and Moncada. I don’t think the Sox are all that likely to push here, but the presence of mid-range options in Martin Prado, Justin Turner, and Ian Desmond will likely at least have them considering.

A more likely outlet, on the other hand, is the bullpen. Dave Dombrowski tried to assemble a monster unit this past offseason, but injury to Carson Smith, age catching up to Koji, overuse hitting Junichi Tazawa, and a lackluster season from Craig Kimbrel left them a lot shakier than expected, even with the likes of Heath Hembree and Joe Kelly stepping up at different parts of the year with significant contributions.

It seems a decent bet that Dombrowski will attempt to keep Brad Ziegler around given how much he helped the Sox late in the year, but don’t write off the possibility that he takes what he has left over and tries again at that monster pen. The Sox don’t seem interested in touching Aroldis Chapman with a ten-foot pole given his history of domestic abuse, but there’s a world out there where they try to assemble, say, Ziegler - Smith - Kimbrel - Jansen.

And those are just the more obvious scenarios. Things can get really interesting when you start thinking outside the box. You can never have enough starting pitching, to be sure, but in an extraordinarily weak market for starters, the Sox do have six arms before even touching the minor leagues. There are worlds out there where the Sox try to sell from a position of strength to desperate teams for big returns. There are worlds where they use that trade to escape from some portion of Pablo Sandoval’s contract and then use the funds to shore up third base. Hell, there’s even a world where the Sox trade all of their roster except Mookie and then build a professional bowling team around him.

It’s a strange world, that. Bowling shoe interests end up swinging the election for Evan McMullin. Long story.

But the upshot is that, if the Sox have somewhat less money to spend in the coming offseason than they have in years gone by, they’ve also got fewer vacancies, and ultimately more than enough to do what absolutely needs to be done. With Dave Dombrowski known for a more orthodox approach, expect him to spend big on the biggest hole—the one left by David Ortiz—and then play opportunistically with what’s left over.