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Red Sox can contend now, challenge Yankees for Bryce Harper later

The Yankees are "saving" for Bryce Harper. The Red Sox might not have to.

Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Bryce Harper is, barring a shocking turn of events in Washington, going to be a free agent after the 2018 season. It is not hyperbolic to say he might end up the most coveted free agent in the history of the sport, so it's no wonder that you're already seeing articles discussing what it might take to get him to sign. On Thursday, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports wrote one such piece about the not-so-secret desire of the Yankees to lure Harper to New York, and how his free agency is causing them to go the austere route in the present.

Passan used the word "inevitable" to describe a future union between Harper and the Yankees, and it's worth pointing out that he was explaining the feeling around the league more than his own. It's a little early to toss that word around, though: remember when David Price seemed destined for first the Yankees then the Dodgers because of their budgets? A lot can change in the next three years, and the Yankees might not be able to wait around, drawing up all of their plans around Harper, for the whole of that time.

In this paragraph -- one that isn't about Harper, really -- Passan writes about what the Yankees are actually trying to accomplish by avoiding adding much in the way of payroll:

Here is where the Yankees' resolve will be tested. The free agent class of 2017-18 is far better than the previous mess, with Jake Arrieta, Tyson Ross, Todd Frazier, Eric Hosmer, Justin Upton, Lorenzo Cain, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Belt, Lucas Duda, J.D. Martinez, Alcides Escobar, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Mike Moustakas, Trevor Plouffe and others available. If the Yankees can manage to stay competitive enough in 2016 and '17 to ward off compulsively spending in the offseasons after, the confluence between their patience and the bonanza awaiting in the class of 2018-19 could save them tens of millions of dollars in luxury-tax payments.

Saving up for Harper is a convenient excuse for owners who are tired of making less in profit than they would like. Reshuffling how the Yankees do business in the years before Harper could help them hold onto a whole lot of money, especially if the luxury tax threshold climbs over $200 million, as Yahoo! has heard it will in the next collective bargaining agreement. With the right tweaks (or enough standing in place), the Yankees could see their tax penalty reset for finally sitting under the threshold. Given that, per Passan, they were only $8.1 million in the black in 2015 thanks to revenue sharing, luxury tax payments and so on on top of the whole enormous payroll thing, you can see why they would want to refocus things.

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

This plan is all well and good now -- use Harper as the reasoning for why the Yankees didn't sign a single free agent from the impressive 2015-2016 class -- but if New York fails to make the playoffs in the next couple of seasons, things could change in a hurry. It would be difficult to avoid the temptation of the free agent class quoted above if all the Yankees have to show for 2013 through 2017 is one Wild Card Game appearance. Passan says that, "Getting under the luxury tax is a nice benefit. Getting Bryce Harper is the real prize", but you could probably reverse those and be closer to the truth. Baseball owners aren't saints, you know. Not even the ones who own your favorite team.

This is just one reason why trying to plot out who will sign Harper for 2019 is a bit of a fool's errand at this stage. In a related (and foolish!) story, the Red Sox have as good a chance as the Yankees of signing Harper in three years, and without all the free agent temptations and dire need to get under the luxury tax before then.

What? Do you have something better to discuss while it's snowing?

The Red Sox don't have to play this austerity game that the Yankees do in order to "save" for Harper. They're already over the luxury tax threshold for 2016, but they might not be losing anyone to free agency in a year who also needs an expensive replacement. Junichi Tazawa could walk, but could also be re-signed without breaking the bank. Koji Uehara might retire, and David Ortiz is definitely retiring, but the Sox might have in-house replacements for both -- Hanley Ramirez only needs to play first base for one year, and the Sox are capable of trading for, signing, or promoting a Uehara replacement if need be, again, without spending tens of millions.

Boston Red Sox v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The 2016 and 2017 rotations might be the same, except maybe with pre-arbitration Henry Owens in place of Joe Kelly in the fifth spot. A spot doesn't open up because of contracts until 2018, when Clay Buchholz is officially out of options -- the Sox might have to dip into free agency to do something about that, or maybe Anderson Espinoza -- who will be in his age-20 season by then -- could be ready for the bigs.

Under Ben Cherington, that would seem aggressive. Under Dave Dombrowski and his history of promoting young arms to the majors rather than wasting their bullets in the minors, we're talking about a different world. If Espinoza looks ready by then, he'll be in the rotation. If not, then expect the Sox to be in on Tyson Ross or whomever for the rotation.

Without going play-by-play on this, at the start of the 2018-2019 offseason, the Red Sox could very well have this group of position players under control...

  • Blake Swihart, C
  • Dustin Pedroia, 2B
  • Pablo Sandoval, 3B
  • Xander Bogaerts, SS
  • Yoan Moncada, LF
  • Andrew Benintendi, CF
  • Mookie Betts, RF
  • Hanley Ramirez, DH

...and at least the start of a rotation thanks to Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, Anderson Espinoza, and Henry Owens, if things go well with the three youths. David Price could opt-out and join the 2018-2019 free agent class, but he could also be re-signed without it being a burden on Boston's finances, just like he isn't a burden on them now. So, the Sox will have some purchases to make, sure, but the lineup is hypothetically good to go barring a disaster in either Moncada's or Benintendi's development, and the rotation should be far from empty. Hell, Rafael Devers might even be ready at that point, and his bat projects to be more than enough for first base, so the entire lineup might already be set. While we're being hypothetical, anyway.

Which makes you wonder if the Sox even have room for Harper, but before you can finish asking yourself that question, of course they do: He's Bryce f'n Harper. If the Sox have the money for Harper and no immediately open space for him, they will make space if he's interested. Prepare yourself for Yoan Moncada, 2019 third baseman and Pablo Sandoval, $18 million bench player if that's what it takes to get Harper into Boston's lineup. If Panda doesn't rebound, that won't even be a question -- he'll already have been on the bench by that point, and Moncada would have been trained to play third long before 2019 rolled around.

The Sox have, as of this writing, $97 million in obligations for 2019. The luxury tax threshold should be over $200 million by then, Hanley Ramirez will be in his option year, and both Sandoval and Porcello will be in their final seasons. Bogaerts will be in his final year before free agency, but if the Sox want him back, they'll be able to afford him. The youth that's now on the roster will be more expensive than it is at present, but not prohibitively so, and there should be newer inexpensive talent (Moncada, Benintendi, as well as maybe Espinoza and Devers) in the mix at that point.

The Sox should, in theory, be able to contend for the next few years without the same hardline avoidance of external upgrades, in part because they already spent that money, and in part because of what their farm has developed and is still developing. It's a pretty great place to be in.

They should also be able to afford Bryce Harper's mega-deal when the time comes, in large part because of the above. Will they afford it, though? That's a question with no answer at this point, and the way things are going with contracts nowadays, Harper is going to have an opt-out every winter anyway, so don't get too attached to him even if he does end up in Boston. For now, enjoy that the Sox don't have to worry about balancing the present with 2019 in the same way the Yankees apparently have to. Maybe it'll give the Sox a leg up on their rivals over the next few years.

Or maybe Bryce Harper is destined for New York, they're getting their finances in order now so they can pay him $500 million over 10 years, and the Red Sox have absolutely no chance at him even if they have a way to afford him without harming their present-day. Oh well, then they'll just have to settle for Jose Fernandez at $250 million. And you know, Giancarlo Stanton is probably opting out after 2020...