The Red Sox are, as of this writing and by the simplest measure possible, the best team in baseball. No other team has won more baseball games this season, and no other team has won baseball games at a higher rate. Now, we know that things aren’t that simple and determining the best team in baseball is more than just looking at simple win/loss record. Regardless, the Red Sox are at the very least in the conversation for best team in baseball. The American League is full of teams in that conversation, however, and all of the top teams in the AL are going to need all hands on deck — along with a fair amount of luck — to make it to the World Series. The Red Sox are included in this group.
Of course, we have reached the time of year in which teams will address their weaknesses. Over halfway through the season, said weaknesses have become clear and it’s a matter of finding a trade partner to improve the roster before the July 31 trade deadline. Now, the Red Sox almost certainly won’t be getting star-level talent this season. They simply don’t have the prospect depth to pull off that kind of deal. They will still be looking to address holes, however, and they can pull it off with the right targets. The bullpen appears to be the most agreed upon area in which Boston will seek more talent, and given injuries they could also look for help at second base and/or behind the plate. They may be the best team in baseball, but there are weaknesses that need to and should be addressed.
There is, unfortunately, a black cloud hanging out over the team’s pursuit of help this summer. Any time a reporter discusses the team’s potential interest in a player, there is an addendum regarding the team’s payroll status. Depending on who you ask, the Red Sox are either just shy of or already above the $237 million mark in terms of luxury tax calculations. This is a significant number about which we’ve been hearing since last winter, as it is the level at which harsher penalties are triggered. We’ll get into the specifics of these penalties in just a minute, but keep in mind that they are always referred to as “harsh” penalties in a vague sense. It’s telling. Anyway, since the offseason this $237 mark has been looked at as essentially a salary cap with an assumption that the team just can’t go over it. Dave Dombrowski, for his part, has said that they can in the right move but that they’d like to avoid it. Now, with the team on the cusp of something great, there is a sense that they may have to send out payroll in order to bring in more talent. That’s absolute nonsense.
So, those penalties? The “harsh” penalties that are conveniently just labeled as “harsh” by every reporter without them explaining the penalties? Yeah, they aren’t that harsh. There is a higher rate of tax that ownership has to pay to the league, but you won’t hear me crying about John Henry and company having to pay a little extra out of their pocket to win a World Series, which would obviously put an almost incalculable amount of money right back in their wallets. No, the penalties that everyone is referring to is that the team would...move back ten spots in the draft with their first round pick. That’s not a big deal!
Consider that, right now, the team would pick somewhere around 33rd in the draft (some teams who failed to sign their first-round picks this year will get compensatory first rounders next year). Falling back ten spots would not impact the talent they can get in that range. Outside of the top ten picks or so, the dropoff in talent becomes smaller and smaller. Now, the argument is more about draft pool money rather than just the talent they can acquire with their first pick. That’s fair, but again it is not a huge deal. Using this year as an example, the Dodgers were the best team in baseball last season and picked last this past June. If they had moved back ten spots in the draft, they would have lost $489,500 in pool money. That’s not nothing, and is likely the difference between signing or not signing a late-round high school player like Nicholas Northcut this year. Northcut appears to be a solid prospect, but is someone of that caliber really worth not improving a team with a legitimate shot at a World Series? I would argue pretty emphatically that the answer is no.
One of the big issues with this strategy for some seems to be that if they go down this road now, they could be doomed to just keep going down it. I have a couple of issues with this. For one thing, that’s not true. Boston has money coming off the books next year in the form of Hanley Ramirez, Craig Kimbrel (maybe) and Drew Pomeranz, among others. Additionally, that $237 million mark is not static. It will rise to $246 million in 2019 and then by $2 million in each of the next three years after that. The Red Sox can get under that mark if they so choose. There is also the fact that we don’t know how much longer this penalty will be around. We all know there is tension between the league and the players right now, and the next CBA negotiation is expected to bring some sweeping changes. It would not surprise me one bit if the players found a way to get rid of these kinds of penalties that are very clearly affecting the way front offices do business.
The future is not the biggest concern right now, however. The issue at hand is winning the 2018 World Series, and that’s something the Red Sox have a real chance to accomplish. Completely mortgaging the future is never wise, but that is not what exceeding this $237 million mark is. It’s a minor bump for the future with a look towards massive short-term gains. The narrative around this luxury tax threshold can call it “harsh” all it wants, but the truth is entirely different. The truth is, it’s a minor price to pay in order to put the best possible team on the field when there’s a legitimate shot at a championship. Not doing so would be unacceptable, and an embarrassment for both ownership and the front office.