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The looming impact of the Free Agent Class of 2018

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The superstars available next winter could make Boston less aggressive this winter

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We’ve almost reached the Winter Meetings and we are still waiting for essentially all of the big moves of this offseason to happen across the league. Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani appear somewhat closer to finding new destinations, and once they are traded/signed, the rest of the offseason can start. The assumption is that this is when the big bats that Boston has been connected to — e.g. J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and Carlos Santana — will start to begin their movement. After winning two straight division titles but failing to make it beyond the ALDS in both seasons, it’s always seemed likely that the Red Sox would make their big move this year as a way to strengthen the team for a third straight division run and hopefully a longer run through the postseason.

Of course, there’s also the possibility of a quiet offseason from Dave Dombrowski and company. Granted, expecting a quiet winter from one of the loudest (transactionally, at least) front office leaders in the league is always going to come with some skepticism. Still, he’s indicated that it is a very real possibility, and I’ve written about what a quiet offseason could possibly look like. There’s a few different reasons this Red Sox team would be content with a quiet winter, but one of them stands out above the rest. With a potentially legendary class of free agents waiting in the wings for next winter, it’s entirely possible Boston is saving it’s big dollars for the class of 2018 rather than blowing it now.

World Series - Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Seven Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Before we get into the financial factors at play, let’s just take a quick look at the players who could be available next winter in free agency. “Legendary” isn’t an exaggeration when some of the best players in the entire game are possibly going to be available, with many of them still in their prime. The following is a list of players I deem to be “star-level”: Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon, Andrew McCutchen, A.J. Pollock, Nelson Cruz, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. You can see the full list of potential free agents here, and there are some other very good players to be had.

So, yeah, those are players the Red Sox are going to want to target next year. Could you imagine an outfield of Harper, Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts together for a decade? Could you imagine an infield with Machado, Bogaerts and Devers? Could you imagine a rotation with Kershaw and Sale throwing back to back? What about Kimbrel and Miller together at the back of the bullpen? Even if there’s not an obvious spot for many of the players above on this Red Sox roster, they are the type of guys that you make room for by any means necessary.

Of course, the Red Sox aren’t going to be the only team vying for these players. Anyone who can afford free agents will be heavily involved in the market next winter, and prices are not going to be cheap. The Red Sox can afford anyone, and if it was only about money they’d have no excuse to do what it takes to sign whatever target they have. Unfortunately, the new CBA has taken further steps to punish the teams willing to spend their money, so teams climbing more than $40 over the luxury tax threshold causes a team’s top draft pick to fall by ten picks. That is a fairly significant penalty, and one worth considering when any move is made.

Division Series - Boston Red Sox v Cleveland Indians - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

This is the biggest reason the Red Sox would keep quiet this offseason in order to participate in next offseason’s frenzy. The thought is that, if they went big this winter they would be pushing right against the threshold to lose value on their draft pick without even signing a player next year. Let’s take a look at where they stand right now in terms of salary. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Red Sox have about $112 million committed in 2019 without even factoring in arbitration costs. The team is projected to spend $35 million in arbitration this year (not counting Drew Pomeranz and Joe Kelly, who are free agents next year), and with raises next season combined with a few players leaving, a safe projection would likely be somewhere around $170 million in committed salary between guaranteed contracts, arbitration and minimum-salary players. The threshold for moving the pick back would be $246 million, giving them a whopping $76 million to spend. Note that this does not include Hanley Ramirez, who would add another $22 million to the payroll if his option vests.

So, that brings us to this winter. Any big free agent (*cough* Martinez *cough*) would be brought in on a multi-year deal and thus affect the payroll for 2019 and beyond. If the Red Sox made multiple moves this winter they could potentially add $35 million or more to their payroll, significantly cutting into next year’s money. This is also without considering long-term extensions for players like Mookie Betts and Chris Sale which would certainly raise their average annual value and thus the team’s payroll relative to the luxury tax.

There are a few reasons for them to not worry about the next free agent class just yet, though. For one thing, there is a segment of the fan base who is desperate for some type of big bat to be brought in this year, and there is value in keeping this segment happy. Of course, you can’t plan an offseason based around how fans feel. There is also this key window the team is in with Sale under contract and so many key players on team-friendly arbitration deals. Finally, there’s no guarantee any specific player from next year’s class will hit free agency. With the sheer number of great players available it will be a strong class no matter what, but any individual player is liable to sign an extension with his current team at any point. It’s tough to count your chickens before they hatch.

In the end, there are a few points that I think are key here. For one, if the Red Sox do plan to be big players in 2018, they likely need to do what they can to prevent the Ramirez contract from vesting. This contradicts what I’ve said in the past, and I think it will be harder than some think because I believe he’s in line for a bounce back year. Additionally, I believe they will be able to afford both Martinez this year along with a big player next year. If Martinez starts to enter the $30 million per year area they should back away, but as long as his AAV stays in the low-to-mid 20’s they would still have about $50 million to spend next winter. Finally, and I think this is the most important point, it’s not the end of the world if the team moves back ten spots for a year or two. If the difference between putting together a World Series contender and a wildcard team is ten spots in the draft, I’m willing to make that sacrifice. It’s not something anyone should get in the habit of, but the Red Sox are in a unique window and should be willing to do whatever it takes to capitalize on its talent. At the end of the day, that doesn’t mean they need to get Martinez or someone similar, but they shouldn’t let next year’s class scare them away from this year’s.