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How will the Red Sox alter their roster in response to a last-place finish? Here’s what the precedent says

The Red Sox found themselves at the bottom of the standings for much of the 2020 season.
The Red Sox found themselves at the bottom of the standings for much of the 2020 season.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

How will the Red Sox forge a path forward?

Precedent suggests the answer is obvious: The Red Sox have responded to past last-place finishes with free agent binges.

After the 2012 mess, the club re-signed David Ortiz, then added eight mid-tier free agents on one- to three-year deals, a veteran bridge that produced a championship. That offseason balanced short- and long-term interests. The Sox didn’t sign any players who required the sacrifice of a draft pick, while the addition of veterans bought time for a young core to develop in the upper minors.

The 2014 campaign, in which the offense cratered, resulted in an ill-fated spree on position players. The Sox invested more than $250 million on Rusney Castillo, Pablo Sandoval, and Hanley Ramirez.

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The consequences of those signings were not only felt in their poor play, but in the two 2015 draft picks (roughly the Nos. 50 and 75 selections) sacrificed to sign Sandoval and Ramirez, both of whom received qualifying offers.

Without the draft-pool money from those picks, the team passed on Nick Madrigal, who was selected by Cleveland in the 17th round but didn’t sign because he was looking for a bonus more in line with an early-round pick. After playing at Oregon State, Madrigal was the No. 4 overall pick in 2018, and is now starting for the White Sox in the playoffs.

The signings of third baseman Pablo Sandoval (left) and first baseman Hanley Ramirez would prove costly for the Red Sox.
The signings of third baseman Pablo Sandoval (left) and first baseman Hanley Ramirez would prove costly for the Red Sox.Barry Chin

After another last-place finish in 2015, in which young talent fueled a promising six-week season-ending kick, the Sox signed David Price to a record-setting seven-year, $217 million contract — making the decision to spend big rather than trade away young talent, while also steering clear of free agents who would require sacrificing a draft pick.

In each instance, the Sox committed more than $100 million — and after both 2014 and 2015, more than $200 million — in guaranteed contracts to address their roster deficiencies. History points to a franchise that doesn’t sit still in the face of embarrassment.

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It’s not a given that history can be repeated after a year when Fenway Park remained empty for baseball games and lost a summer slate of concerts, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding the resumption of mass gatherings in 2021. Nonetheless, Red Sox president/CEO Sam Kennedy said the team can afford, to some degree, to look beyond its short-term losses.

On the other side of the pandemic, MLB has huge revenue increases in the form of new national TV deals that will take effect starting in 2022, while there is a long-term expectation that spectator sports will begin anew.

“Will [the pandemic] have an impact on our budget? Yes, of course it will, because of the devastating impact it’s had on our revenues this year, and obviously next year is uncertain. That said, I don’t know what the outlook for 2021 looks like yet with respect to the virus. And as that becomes clear, we’ll be able to act in real time and make decisions,” said Kennedy. “There’s a long-term view. We know we’re going to withstand operating losses. We’re prepared for that, plan for that, and I think you’ll see the Red Sox continue to invest in our baseball operation the way we have the last 20 years.”

If that remains the case, then the Sox may have a chance to reshape their organizational depth for years to come, even if they don’t spend past next year’s luxury tax. Assuming that J.D. Martinez doesn’t opt out of his deal and that the Sox exercise their option on lefthander Martín Pérez, the Sox payroll for next year sits at a projected $170 million-$175 million — about $35 million–$40 million below next year’s $210 million luxury-tax threshold. Even assuming the team sets aside $10 million for in-season moves, that’s a lot of potential spending power in an offseason where other teams may look to shed payroll.

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Projecting the cost of the 2021 Red Sox roster Here's an overview of how each position group (or other group) could contribute to the luxury tax threshold.
Category Average Annual Value ($M)
Starting pitchers 74.1
Relievers 8.7
Everyday players 55.77
Bench 17.1
Minor-league 40-man 2
Benefits 16
In-season moves (promotions, trades, signings) 10
PROJECTED TOTAL 183.67
LUXURY TAX THRESHOLD 210
PROJECTED $ (MILLIONS) OVER THRESHOLD -26.33
Data: Alex Speier
Projecting the 2021 Red Sox roster As it stands now, here's how much each player could contribute to the Sox payroll next year.
Position Player Average Annual Value ($M) Salary type
Pitchers
Traded David Price 16 Guaranteed
Injured List Chris Sale 25.6 Guaranteed
SP1 Nate Eovaldi 17 Guaranteed
SP2 Eduardo Rodriguez 8.3 Arbitration estimate
SP3 Martin Perez 6 Option
SP4 Nick Pivetta 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
SP5 Tanner Houck 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
RP1 Matt Barnes 4 Arbitration estimate
RP2 Ryan Brasier 0.9 Arbitration estimate
RP3 Austin Brice 0.8 Arbitration estimate
RP4 Ryan Weber 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
RP5 Darwinzon Hernandez 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
RP6 Josh Taylor 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
RP7 Phillips Valdez 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
RP8 Colten Brewer 0.6 Split agreement
Everyday players
C Christian Vazquez 4.52 Guaranteed
1B Bobby Dalbec 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
2B Christian Arroyo 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
SS Xander Bogaerts 20 Guaranteed
3B Rafael Devers 5 Arbitration estimate
OF1 Andrew Benintendi 5 Guaranteed
OF2 Alex Verdugo 0.7 Pre-arbitration estimate
OF3 ? Arbitration estimate
DH J.D. Martinez 19.35 Guaranteed
Bench
Bench1 Kevin Plawecki 2 Arbitration estimate
Bench2 Yairo Munoz 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
Bench3 Michael Chavis 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
Bench4 Jonathan Arauz 0.6 Pre-arbitration estimate
Injured List Dustin Pedroia 13.3 Guaranteed
DATA: Alex Speier

If the Sox are willing to add to their payroll, roster spending cuts by competitors could result in opportunities. Perhaps teams will essentially “sell” prospects if they can be attached to onerous contracts, giving the Sox a chance to advance chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s goal of “maximizing the core of young players that you have long runways with."

The market is expected to be flooded by non-tenders of potential mid-tier free agents, meaning there’s a possibility that the Sox could take a page from their 2002–03 (David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, etc.) or 2012–13 (Shane Victorino, David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, and more) playbooks to add a number of players on relatively modest, multi-year deals in pursuit of Bloom’s other goal of adding depth.

The Sox probably aren’t in a position where all-in moves, including the signing of top free agents or the trade of top prospects for rental veterans in hopes of putting them over the top for the coming year, make sense. That’s particularly true given the coming class of free agents.

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Could the Red Sox target a premier free agent like J.T. Realmuto?
Could the Red Sox target a premier free agent like J.T. Realmuto?Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Pitcher Trevor Bauer, catcher J.T. Realmuto, and outfielder George Springer headline this winter’s free agent class. All will be 30 or older by the start of next season, with both the expectation of decline over long-term deals and the likely cost of a second-round draft pick (as well as international bonus pool money) for signing them. Despite the Red Sox' desperation to regain not only competitiveness but also market relevance, those players don’t look like ideal fits — particularly with a looming 2021-22 free agent class that will include twenty-somethings Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Javier Báez.

But if the Sox are, in fact, willing to look beyond the lost revenues of 2020 and likely 2021, then conditions may permit them to focus chiefly on building depth, and in so doing propel themselves from disappointment to contention.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.