Jackie Bradley

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Red Sox plan to slash payroll

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A year ago the Boston Red Sox were finishing up a 108-win season and were about to buzz through the playoffs and win the World Series, completing perhaps the greatest season in team history. Today their owner announced that he intended to slash payroll.

That’s the word directly from Sox owner John Henry, who told reporters that he wants the club’s payroll to be below the first threshold of the Competitive Balance Tax.  Currently their payroll for CBT purposes is just under $242 million. The first level threshold for the CBT in 2020 will be $208 million. Which means they’ll have to cut around $20 million while still giving raises to players in arbitration, seeing certain players under contracts get raises per their terms and acquiring new players.

Some of the work on that cutting will happen automatically. As Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe notes, the team will lose around $56.2 million with Rick Porcello hitting free agency and Pablo Sandoval‘s, Steve Pearce‘s, Mitch Moreland‘s and Eduardo Núñez’s salaries coming off the books. Abraham identifies a few other players unlikely to return — Bock Holt, Sandy León, and Steven Wright — who will save the Sox another $7 million in change. Heck, even count Dustin Pedroia‘s salary going down $2 million if you want to. Assuming Abraham’s identified cuts at least, the Sox will start with a $179.2 million figure, leaving around $26 million to spend.

Of course, the Sox still have to field a team in 2020 and thus still have some choices to make. And they may have some choices made for them.

That $179.2 million assumes that J.D. Martinez does not opt out of his contract. If he does not, he’ll make $23.75 million. If he does, and if the Sox want to keep him, it’ll cost more than that $23.75 million in all likelihood, pushing that $179.2 million higher. Mookie Betts is making $20 million this year. He’ll either get a raise in his final year of arbitration — likely a hefty one — or he’ll negotiate an extension with Boston that’ll have a higher average annual value than $20 million. Either way, bump that up even higher.

Of course, if the Sox intend to be competitive — and Tom Werner said in today’s press comments that they do plan to be — Boston will need pitching, as both their rotation and pen were hot messes at times this year. Porcello’s innings will need to be accounted for and, quite frankly, some better pitchers will have to come into the fold. Between those things and the fact that several other guys on the roster will get a raise and/or new guys will need to be acquired, it’s hard to see how the Sox can really get and stay below the $208 million CBT threshold without moving a big contract.

Does that mean trading Mookie Betts? Or Jackie Bradley, Jr.? Does that mean hoping that Martinez opts-out and, if he does, making no effort to re-sign him and try to get some bargain basement power? Given the other big contracts the team has — Chris Sale and David Price spring to mind immediately — aren’t easily tradable, it’s hard to see where else that room comes from.

Figuring that out is the job for whichever sucker takes the Red Sox’ currently vacant GM job. A job that is far less alluring now that it’s going to involve coming to one of the wealthiest and biggest money-making sports franchises on the planet, and . . . launching an austerity plan. One that is gonna be hard to sell to a fan base that is not used to their sports franchises going cheap.

Finally, let us observe why all of this is happening from a big picture perspective.

The Competitive Balance Tax is now and always really was a stealth salary cap. A system that has been in place for years but one which, alongside draft pick compensation for signing free agents, has been ratcheted up to the point where it acts as a punitive measure for clubs who spend big. Or at least one that can be cast as one by owners looking for an excuse to cut payroll even if their clubs remain highly profitable, which I suspect the Red Sox would be even if they raised payroll rather than slashed it. The players unwisely agreed to this system, of course, and now it’s going to lead to one of the richest teams in the sport to send off existing stars or decline to bid for new ones. All of that works to depress player salaries overall.

And of course, this is no fun for fans who like to root for winning teams with famous stars for which they like to root. Most teams will try to sell austerity moves to fans by saying they are unable to win or win consistently with the team as currently constructed, but that’s going to be a massively hard sell for a Red Sox team that, again, is less than a year removed from a 108-win rampage to a World Series title, fueled primarily by cost-controlled stars they could very well still have in 2020 if they felt like it.

But hey: this is the era of “financial flexibility” and other such buzzwords of front offices who give fans very good reason to ask whether they truly value winning. And if financial flexibility isn’t good enough for you, Red Sox fans, well, root for someone else. I’m sure there’s at least one or two teams who aren’t beholden to that mantra.

Are there?