HOUSTON — For the second time in three years, the Red Sox will find themselves with an abundance of payroll flexibility in the offseason.
As of now, about $72.5 million will be coming off the books. That includes Jon Lester, Jake Peavy, Stephen Drew, John Lackey (whose salary plummets to $500,000), Jonny Gomes, Koji Uehara, David Ross, Craig Breslow (team option), Burke Badenhop, and Andrew Miller.
Obviously, the Red Sox would like to re-sign some of those players, namely Lester, and possibly Uehara, Miller, and Ross. But if they don’t, they will have the flexibility to sign free agents, much as they did after the Dodgers took $260 million in contracts off their hands in the August 25, 2012, deal that sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to Los Angeles.
As the Red Sox prepare to head into the All-Star break, they will continue to decide who to weed out now and who maybe to keep with an eye toward next season.
In no way do ownership or general manager Ben Cherington want 2015 to be another down, rebuilding year.
There are different circumstances involved this time. Mostly, youth.
In small markets, teams want the youth to rise at the same time so they can build and mature with it. In big markets, where winning is important every season, teams would rather stagger their youth, dropping it in here and there.
The Red Sox have a small-market situation, as most of their top prospects are now in the major leagues or in Triple A waiting for the next step.
In addition to Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, Christian Vazquez, Rubby De La Rosa, and Brock Holt, who are already with the big club, they have Garin Cecchini, Will Middlebrooks, Deven Marrero, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, and Blake Swihart at Triple A, and lefthander Henry Owens, who is at Double A and should rise to Triple A before the end of the year.
There’s no doubt the rest of this season will be devoted to evaluating which of the young guys can play full time for this team next season. There are also positional issues involved, such as with Holt and Betts, second basemen playing in the outfield, though Holt has been very good but certainly not a prototypical right fielder.
There’s also very little power among the positional players, and the Red Sox do play 81 games at Fenway Park.
Cherington has probably learned a lesson in relying too much on a player such as Bradley when comprising his team in the offseason. As good as Boston’s young players are, they are not sure things. Their performances are unpredictable, as we’ve seen with Bogaerts, who could write the script of a tale of two seasons and two positions.
The combination of having a lot of young positional players, and then losing veteran pitchers such as Lester, Peavy, and Uehara, could also come back to bite them. Young pitchers have innings limits. In this scenario, you’d have Lackey at the front of the rotation and then Clay Buchholz, who has never pitched 200 innings, and three young guys. You might have Felix Doubront, who is also a major trade candidate, but he too has never pitched 200 innings. The key is obviously re-signing Lester.
The field staff and players believe the Red Sox’ future is tied to keeping their homegrown products. And that’s huge for the players. The Red Sox have been trying to stay within a philosophy of not going too far with contracts for players over 30, feeling there’s a great performance dropoff and therefore it is money not well spent. This stems not only from bad experiences with the likes of Crawford, but studies they’ve done internally.
This philosophy is sound. The only problem is, if they stick to it, they will have a big turnover of players every year. If they stick to it, they will likely not have a true No. 1 starter in their rotation, unless they develop one. And they may have that in Owens, but probably not for 2015.
It would be unusual for the Red Sox to view 2015 as a bridge year after this disastrous season. They went into 2013 feeling they would be a competitive team, but likely didn’t think in their wildest dreams they’d win a championship.
One would assume the payroll saved would go toward trades, in which they deal one or two of these prospects for established younger players and/or pitchers.
If they should lose Lester, they would have to seek to sign Justin Masterson or James Shields within the confines of their payroll philosophy.
After 2012, they were able to pick off Ryan Dempster, paying him a little over $13 million as a back-end starter. Replicating the 2013 class — perfectly executed in signing seven free agents — might be more difficult this time.
There’s always the possibility of acquiring Marlins star Giancarlo Stanton, but that’s still a dream at this stage.
On the list of subtractions, Uehara could be useful for another season as the closer. That would be a hard position to fill. A Ross re-signing would be beneficial for Vazquez to learn under a veteran, as he will the remainder of this season.
Payroll flexibility worked out perfectly after 2012. That’s because there were players that fit financially and physically.
This time around?Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.