Chris Sale is a member of the Boston Red Sox, with only a $6.5 million footprint on their luxury tax figure. This will double to $12.5 million in 2018 and bump up to $13.5 million in 2019 given how team options work in these things, but whichever way you slice it, he’s going to have an awfully small impact on their finances for how much help he brings on the field.
After 2019, though, Sale will be a free agent, and the Red Sox will be left both without him, and without Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. Dave Dombrowski’s big trade has been called an “all-in” move by some, suggesting that the Sox might find themselves in sketchy territory once the star pitcher’s contract has run it’s course as their farm system stops feeding them talent at the same time some of their big underpaid talents hit free agency. Let’s see if that holds up under scrutiny.
The year we care about here is 2020. Here are Boston’s contract commitments for that season:
David Price — $32 million
Pablo Sandoval — $5 million buyout or $17 million option year
Dustin Pedroia — $13.125 million
Rusney Castillo — $14 million (sigh...but at least he won’t count against the luxury tax)
That’s the lot of them. And I don’t think any of them can be viewed in a positive light. If David Price hasn’t opted out by 2020, that has to be a bad sign for his performance in the intervening years. Dustin Pedroia, love him though we might, can’t be expected to be performing at a high level deep into his 30s. He could, but you can’t really count on it. Pablo Sandoval is probably a $5 million buyout unless he’s about to have one hell of a transformational season.
But that’s it. In most scenarios, the Sox have just $32 million of salary tied up for that season, with only $18 million of it counting against the luxury tax. That is, of course, before hitting up some arbitration players. Here’s who will still be under team control for that season:
Sandy Leon (4th year of arbitration)
Jackie Bradley Jr. (4th)
Mookie Betts (3rd-and-final)
Carson Smith (3rd-and-final)
Eduardo Rodriguez (3rd-of-4)
Blake Swihart (3rd-of-4)
Steven Wright (3rd-and-final)
Christian Vazquez (3rd-and-final)
Matt Barnes (2nd)
Roenis Elias (2nd)
Heath Hembree (2nd)
Andrew Benintendi (1st)
Of these twelve players, we’ll probably have forgotten about at least one of the three catchers by then. Roenis Elias is likely an afterthought, too. Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, who knows? But it does seem entirely likely that the Red Sox could have their entire outfield, one or two starting pitcher slots, and their starting catcher all under contract at under market value. 4th-year arbitration players especially will bring few savings, but this is still a good chunk of the team that will not have the financial footprint you might expect them to.
There are also, of course, still players in the minor leagues, if not nearly so many of them. Between Rafael Devers, Jason Groome, and the handful of promising players further down the system, the Sox will likely find at least one starting player and probably a couple bullpen arms or bench guys. Even Henry Owens and Brian Johnson are not quite dead just yet. The draft and international free agency will also give the Red Sox a chance to restock, if less of one than much of the rest of baseball. They’ll certainly have to be smart about where they allocate their picks and dollars.
Still, at least for 2020, you can probably bet the Red Sox will have a good chunk of their roster set with likely less than half of their payroll allocated.
There will, of course, be other names on the team by then. The Sox are currently setting themselves up to play heavily in the 2018-2019 free agency period, with Chris Sale’s $13 million and arbitration figures for Xander Bogaerts and Tyler Thornburg the only expenses of real note separating that offseason from the next. It would not be surprising to see them come away from that with one or two big names for their infield or rotation, which would probably leave them a lot closer to the $50 million range in terms of room to work with for 2020. Still, it’s not hard to see them putting together a strong team even in 2020 with what’s available to them.
It’s also, however, not too hard to see danger on the horizon for the Red Sox. First you have your specters of 2020. If David Price is still around on his old contract rather than opting out, that’s likely $31 million not coming close to pulling its weight. Alternatively, if they find that dead weight in free agency in the next couple years, they might well wind up in dangerous territory. The bad news is that the Sox can ill afford another expensive misstep. The good news is that they won’t have to take many chances, since so much of their team looks set for the next few years.
Beyond that, though, are the specters of 2021 and beyond. Because while 2020 is the first year without sale, 2021 is the year we might really start feeling the loss of the prospects Dave Dombrowski has surrendered starting all the way back with Manuel Margot last offseason. That will be the year we see Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley hit free agency. The exodus may have begun with Xander Bogaerts the preceding year, but the real flood starts after 2020. And the Red Sox are highly unlikely to be able to introduce new young players just as fast.
That’s not guaranteed to be some apocalyptic scenario, mind you. As it stands the Red Sox seem like the most talented team in the American League by no small measure. They can take some hits without actually ending up bad. They can also hold onto some of those players, ideally through extensions, though that’s going to be easier said than done and will inevitably force them to be stingier with their acquisitions to fill other holes.
The reality, though, is that the Red Sox’ ridiculous run of success in their farm system is far from normal. Their hit rate over the past few years has been every bit as good as their miss rate was bad in the period leading up to the arrival of Bogaerts, who in many ways proved the harbinger of this youth movement. Other clubs get by with a lot less than mega-teams like the Sox seem to have put together over the next three years. And that’s likely what the Red Sox will have to do once that stretch is over. The window won’t slam shut, but it won’t be as wide open as it once was, or as open as it could have been had the Sox decided to stick with their quiet offseason and held on to Moncada and Kopech. Maybe that was worth it. Maybe it wasn’t. But it’s the decision Dave Dombrowski made. All that’s left is to make the best of these three huge years ahead, and do what can be done over that period to ensure the Sox are still contenders even when they’re not favorites.