On Thursday night, Edwin Encarnacion’s free agency saga finally came to an end with a 3-year, $60 million contract with the Indians. The contract is a bit of a coup for the Indians, especially when you consider that it comes with an option year for 2020.
Of course, the local response has been a bit heated. The Red Sox are seen as having missed out here and, yes, it’s hard to argue that they did not. Even with the price of a draft pick, Encarnacion is easily a $20 million player right now, and having that fourth year be a team option goes a long way in reducing the risk for the Indians. If a deal is a coup, yeah, you’d hope it’s your team making it.
The question is: why didn’t the Red Sox get in on this? The answer is likely that there just wasn’t room in the budget, and here’s where it gets hard to really criticize the Red Sox—at least the Red Sox of the present—for missing out.
The reality that we must face around this time every season is that baseball is a business, and that sometimes the decisions of general managers come down to more than “is this good value or not?” The Red Sox entered this offseason with, frankly, little room to spare in terms of money. Their Opening Day payroll in 2016 was about $198 million, and by season’s end that was up to $204 million. They dropped a few big contracts in David Ortiz, Clay Buchholz, and Koji Uehara, yes, but the reality is that $204 million was far-and-away the high-water mark in team history, nearly $20 million over the 2015 figure which was itself nearly $10 million over the previous high.
It’s true that we should generally expect payroll to go up given that’s how things have worked in baseball for decades now, but that’s really only in terms of a general trend-line. On a year-to-year basis, we should expect the number to fluctuate, and it seems entirely possible that these last two offseasons saw ownership increase the budget beyond where they were generally comfortable in an attempt to return the team to a competitive level in the aftermath of 2014 and 2015.
Now, that tactic didn’t really work. The last couple offseasons have seen the Red Sox spend quite a lot of money on players like Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and David Price. And while the latter two did contribute in 2016, the real reason the team played October baseball once more is mostly because of the farm system, with Rick Porcello the best example of money producing wins (and if he’s anything like he was this year in 2017 and beyond, his contract kind of puts Encarnacion’s to shame, though that’s neither here nor there). Still, whether the increased spending worked or not doesn’t change the fact that it’s on the books now, and not coming off for a while yet. And for all that we can bemoan some of the deals the Red Sox made in that time, well, they’ve already cost Ben Cherington his job. You’d be beating a horse that’s been dead for over a year now.
If you want proof that this really did come down to budget, look no further than the man the last two major moves the Red Sox have made. They signed Mitch Moreland for $5.5 million and dumped Clay Buchholz’ salary overboard for effectively nothing in return. This doesn’t happen if there’s $20 million left in the budget.And make no mistake, it’s not about paying a small amount of luxury tax on the overage. It’s about the actual $20 million that comes first.
Essentially, then, the complaint against not signing Encarnacion boils down to a complaint that the Red Sox have a budget that is not as high as some would like. That starts sounding awfully silly, though, when you look at other teams which passed on Edwin Encarnacion with payrolls that are tens of millions of dollars lower than Boston’s. The argument that a win-now Sox team shouldn’t be worrying about salary also falls a bit flat considering that they were trying to be a win-now team in 2015 and 2016 as well. Red Sox fans are never really going to be happy with the team saying they’re in win-later mode, so the argument of “spend now, save later” doesn’t really hold up. You can rage against the concept of baseball as a business all you want. It’s just not terribly useful to do so, and us Red Sox fans aren’t exactly in a position to complain.