Baseball and capitalism are two pillars of American culture. What makes MLB so fascinating to follow from an off-field, big picture perspective is the dynamic between competitors and how they build teams. Because MLB (unlike any other major American sport) has no salary cap, money plays a huge factor in roster construction. It also gives teams in big markets with deep pockets like the Boston Red Sox a massive advantage over smaller market teams, like their divisional rival Tampa Bay Rays, who have payroll limitations.
Back in the olden days, before the Competitive Balance Threshold was established, free agency would get out of hand. The Yankees were able to essentially buy championships, and it was bad for the game. Nowadays, franchises who spend over a certain amount are taxed, and can even be penalized in the draft for spending TOO too much, thus creating a faux salary cap that owners use as an excuse to stop spending at a certain point. The taxes for breaking the threshold are a drop in the bucket for MLB's billionaire owners, but that doesn't stop them from crying poor. Especially since the tax rate increases for teams who break the threshold in consecutive seasons, there is an argument to be made for periodically dipping under the threshold in order to reset the penalties for "repeat offenders" like Boston did in 2020, albeit a lame argument that still amounts to excessively wealthy decision makers acting cheap.
Having gotten that tangent out of the way, I'm making this post to weigh the merits of Boston exceeding the CBT in 2021, when the Red Sox figure to be, at best, a Wild Card contender. On the one hand, spending more money to add talent to the roster seemingly improves the chances of Boston contending for the postseason as early as next year. On the other hand, if this team has a ceiling short of a World Series title, spending money just to spend money can lead to ugly repercussions. After all, poor spending is supposedly what led to the Mookie Betts trade. Not to mention, the draft pick penalties for spending over the second threshold, as well as the free agents who rejected a qualifying offer, thus tying them to draft pick compensation.
So is there a way for this front office to flex Boston's financial muscles wisely? Better yet, is there a way to blow past the CBT during a rebuilding year, and do so without getting in the way of long term sustainability?
I believe there is, and here's how:
1. Avoid the 4 free agents tied to draft pick compensation.
Some will argue that current needs should take priority over a draft pick that may or may not impact the major league roster years from now. Normally, I would be inclined to agree. However, as it's been established, the Red Sox are not exactly contenders at the moment, nor are they one (or even 2-3) pieces away from being legitimate threats to the American League pennant. Also, the farm system is not in great shape - maybe average, but more likely in the bottom half of the league - and the Red Sox's 4th pick in the second round amounts to a top 50 pick in what should be a deep draft. That could easily turn out to be a top 20 organizational prospect by this time next year. Why give that up just to sign an aging veteran to a long term contract that runs the risk of looking bad by the time the Red Sox are back in the World Series conversation? With all due respect to Bauer, Realmuto, Springer, and LeMahieu, I wouldn't touch any of them. Not this offseason.
2. Scour the trade market for teams looking to unload bad contracts.
Last winter, the Giants received the Angels 2019 first round selection for practically nothing. All they had to do was take on the last year and the remaining $12M of Zack Cozart's bloated contract, as well as send back the human equivalent a lottery ticket. That money is now off the books, and San Francisco's farm system is better off for it. This is exactly the kind of move Boston should be pursuing, assuming there's a fit.
Many MLB franchises are trying to cut payroll after the pandemic impacted revenue. We've already seen multiple playoff teams from last season trade away impactful players for purely monetary reasons. If an aspiring contender or a struggling small market club is desperate to move an expensive player who isn't producing (especially if said player is on an expiring contract) then Boston might be able to command even more than the Giants did last year. Chaim Bloom can't use his budget to outright buy prospects from other clubs in a cash transaction, but I'm sure he wishes such a possibility existed. A trade like this would be the next closest thing.
3. Sign veterans with high ceilings to short term deals.
Whether it's someone like Corey Kluber, a multiple Cy Young Award winner looking to rebound from injuries, or one of the numerous players non-tendered last month - many of whom have an All-Star selection or other noteworthy accomplishments on their respective resumes - these bounce back candidates could help Boston in a variety of ways.
Let's stick with the Kluber example. If Bloom signs him to a one-year deal and it works out well, great! Maybe he gets us into the playoffs, maybe he just makes it less painful to watch a rebuilding team every fifth day or so. Even if the team stinks, he could be a valuable trade asset at the deadline. If he's not traded, he could be retained, or at the very least, Bloom could attach a QO to him and receive draft pick compensation in the event that he leaves Boston for another team next winter. Regardless, there are multiple ways for a veteran on a short term deal to help out the Red Sox and their long term goals, even if that guy is long gone in a year or two.
4. Take calls on players entering free agency in the next two years.
As much as I love Christian Vazquez, I certainly wouldn't say he's untouchable. In fact, once Realmuto signs, I might go so far as to reach out to his finalists that lost out and gage their interest in an affordable catcher with above average offensive numbers and plus defense. This isn't to suggest that I want to see Vazquez moved, but rather an acknowledgement of where this roster is in terms of its timeline, and the fact that a very talented player at a thin position might be one of Boston's best potential trade chips.
From my perspective, Devers, Verdugo, Bogaerts, and Sale each appear to be part of the long term plan for this front office, but almost everybody else has to be at least on the table. In particular, the players under contract for only one or two more years. The trade deadline might create some more urgency for players like Matt Barnes, but some groundwork can be laid before Opening Day. Players coming off down years like Benintendi and JDM will need to increase their trade value by performing well during the first couple months of the season in order for Boston to recoup meaningful assets. I understand that the notion of subtracting from the current rotation by shopping E-Rod and/or Eovaldi might sound insane to Red Sox Nation, but every team (except San Diego) could always use more starting pitching, and the two injury-prone pitchers might have already peaked by the time the Red Sox return to playing meaningful October baseball.
Again, I'm not advocating for making trades purely for the sake of making trades. But if other front offices express interest in any of the aforementioned players, and are serious enough to part with top prospects, Bloom should seize the opportunity. If Boston can add to the farm system while simultaneously offloading some money (thus increasing next winter's budget) then the team would be killing two birds with one stone, speeding up the rebuild in the process.
Sometimes in sports (and in life) when the masses zig, it's smartest to zag. While the rest of MLB is pinching pennies, Boston would be wise to open up the checkbook (responsibly) and use their spending power to set the franchise up for future success. That means no repeat of the 2014-15 offseason catastrophe, a willingness to take on more money in the immediate future without clogging up the books over the next several years, and looking for opportunities on the trade market as well as free agency. With Dustin Pedrioa's contract ending after this upcoming season, it's not entirely inconceivable that an improved 2022 Red Sox team could dip back under the CBT (after presumably going back over it in a rebuilding year) before ultimately bringing the hammer, financially speaking, once the core of this next generation (Verdugo, Devers, Casas, Downs, Houck, Mata, Hernandez, and potentially more) is entering their collective prime years. That is, of course, assuming the next collective bargaining agreement even includes a CBT and/or an actual salary cap isn't implemented.