It’s not hard to understand why major league players believe they took a significant loss in the recently expired collective bargaining agreement — and appear determined to avoid repeating that fate in current talks with owners.
This past week offered insight into luxury-tax limbo, an increasingly popular sport within a sport that is amid a work stoppage following the owners’ decision to lock out players on Dec. 2. The Associated Press reported that just two teams — the Dodgers and Padres — received luxury-tax bills in 2021 for spending more than $210 million on payroll as calculated by the league.
Beneath those teams, a crowd of five contorted beneath the $210 million bar. The AP reported that the Red Sox joined the Phillies, Yankees, Mets, and Astros in scraping less than $4 million under the spending level that would have triggered penalties.
That cluster falling less than 2 percent beneath the threshold contrasts in fascinating fashion with another grouping that occurred in 2016 — the final season of the previous CBA. After that season, six teams — the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Giants, and Cubs — paid the luxury tax after spending beyond that season’s $189 million threshold.
Those six teams spent (roughly) a combined $183 million beyond the threshold, incurring penalties of roughly $74 million. In 2021, the Dodgers and Padres spent a combined $82 million beyond the threshold, incurring a combined $34 million in penalties.
Big-market teams have exercised newfound restraint, making sure they get below the threshold at least once every three years. Simultaneously, smaller-market teams besides the Padres have largely slashed spending.
The AP reported that 10 teams had actual payrolls of less than $100 million, the most since 2014. With so many teams cutting payroll, players received a combined $4.05 billion in salaries — down 4 percent from the last full season in 2019, down 4.6 percent from the record $4.25 billion spent in 2017, and the lowest spending level in the sport since 2015.
“The fact is,” said one major league source, “the players are losing ground.”
It’s easy to cite lost revenues from the pandemic as a driver of declining spending. But the increasing priority placed by teams on getting below the threshold — often by spending just up to but not beyond it — predates the pandemic.
The Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers — among others — have taken pains to avoid tax bills over the last five years. Spending already had plateaued in 2017, despite the fact that MLB was amid a run of 17 consecutive years of revenue growth.
So, what happened? Why the gaping difference in how teams treated the luxury tax in the final year of the 2017-21 CBA as compared with the last year of the 2012-16 agreement?
The 2017-21 CBA increased the penalties associated with spending beyond the threshold, not only increasing the tax rate — what had been a maximum tax of 50 percent on money spent over the threshold bumped up as high as 95 percent — but also introducing potential draft pick, international amateur bonus pool, and revenue-sharing penalties.
Whereas six teams had been willing to spend beyond the threshold in 2016 alone, the CBA that took effect in 2017 made it more painful to spend beyond the threshold. Hence, a tax functioned in many instances as a cap, with teams gerrymandering rosters and spending in an effort to avoid the penalties that came with repeatedly spending beyond the threshold.
For obvious reasons, this state of affairs is unpleasant for players. For similarly obvious reasons, most teams seem to welcome rules that offer economic and non-economic justifications for not spending.
(Worth noting: Owners didn’t have to lock out players just because MLB and the MLBPA didn’t negotiate a new CBA. They could have played without a new CBA, continuing to operate under the rules of the just-expired agreement.
However, that CBA included a sunset provision for the luxury tax after the 2021 season — meaning the normalized disincentives to spend freely would have gone by the wayside. There’s a 0 percent chance that owners would be willing to operate in an economic system that doesn’t include a luxury-tax threshold.)
One of the central issues in negotiations will be not whether the luxury tax will continue to exist, but rather its future form, how much higher the threshold will go and what penalties (if any) there will be for surpassing it.
The MLBPA proposed raising the threshold for 2022 to $245 million and eliminating non-monetary penalties such as those tied to draft picks and international amateurs. The owners have offered a far more modest bump to $214 million, though they’ve suggested even more severe penalties for teams spending beyond it. It remains to be seen where the middle ground lies —and where fault lines might exist.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Coaching staffs continue to grow
In his final year as Red Sox manager in 2011, Terry Francona featured a six-person staff that employed a bench coach, hitting coach, pitching coach, bullpen coach, third base coach, and first base coach. In a little more than a decade, the staff size has nearly doubled.
Alex Cora will have 11 coaches on his staff in 2022, the team announced on Monday. In addition to the six traditional roles — bench coach (Will Venable, who will also work with the team’s outfielders), hitting coach (Peter Fatse), pitching coach (Dave Bush), bullpen coach (Kevin Walker), third base coach (Carlos Febles), and first base coach (Ramón Vázquez) — the team now has two newly hired assistant hitting coaches (Luis Ortiz, who will also serve as an interpreter, and Ben Rosenthal), a game-planning coordinator (Jason Varitek), a field coordinator (Andy Fox), and a staff assistant (Mike Brenly). Rey Fuentes will also return as mental skills coordinator.
Multiple factors have contributed to the expansion of staffs. For starters, the demands on coaches have increased tremendously thanks to the precision and volume of advance scouting reports and video. On top of that, in a swing-obsessed era, players do a lot of in-game work in the hitting cage, creating the need for more personnel to help behind the scenes as well as in the dugout.
The result? Several teams now feature three hitting coaches, and staffs keep growing in an effort to distill the mountains of information into a digestible form for the 26 players on a roster.
Meanwhile, the expansion of staffs allows more hands-on work prior to games. For instance, having Febles, Vázquez, and Fox — all former big league infielders — can permit more personalized infield instruction with players at every base during pregame work.
At the amateur level, instruction in the nuances of the game is widely viewed as having taken a back seat to the development of tools and strength (power pitching, power hitting, etc.), with players developing as much to impress in showcases as in games. Yet players also are moving more quickly through the minors than in prior generations, resulting in more developmental shortcuts.
The result is a need for more extensive coaching of players not only through the minors but in the big leagues. The Red Sox weren’t alone last year in inspiring repeated facepalms based on misplays and lapses. The expansion of staffs represents an attempt to respond to the need to continue player development into the big leagues and to help players navigate the increasingly complex landscape of game preparation in the age of big data.
Working offseason for Sox’ Vázquez
In a surprising development, Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez joined Santurce of the Puerto Rican Winter League. He played first base for the Crabbers on Wednesday, going 0 for 4.
Vázquez had played winter ball perennially while coming through the minors and into his early big league career, doing so every winter from 2011-12 through 2016-17. But in 2021, he caught 132 games — most in the majors — and his offensive production, which had ranked among the top few catchers in 2019-20, fell sharply, as he hit .258/.308/.352. The idea of using the offseason to rest and build toward 2022 seemed likely.
Instead, according to a major league source, Vázquez felt that his best way to hit the ground running this coming spring was to play winter ball. He last played winter ball before 2017 — a year in which he solidified his everyday big league role by hitting .290/.330/.404.
It’s unknown whether the Red Sox agree with their catcher’s view. While teams once regularly sent players to winter leagues, they’re now rarely enthusiastic about big league regulars playing non-MLB games unless there is a specific reason, such as a position change (Hanley Ramírez moving to first) or a need to make up for lost playing time (Franchy Cordero). But given the lockout, teams aren’t permitted to contact their players, and so Vázquez was in a position to make the decision without the input of the Sox.
And Vázquez made the decision to play winter ball at a time when his future with the Red Sox is in question. The Sox waited until roughly one hour before the deadline before exercising Vázquez’s $7 million option for 2022. He’s a free agent after next season. And he’s aware of the team’s reported efforts to land Jake Stallings from the Pirates before the Gold Glove-caliber catcher went to Miami.
In other words, Vázquez is preparing for 2022 with eyes wide open about the possibility that the Sox may move on from him after the season — or perhaps even during or before it.
Rich Hill’s priorities entering free agency this winter were clear. As he prepares for his 18th big league season, the 41-year-old Milton native wanted a chance to compete for a title, preferably close to home. When the Red Sox offered him a one-year, $5 million deal that includes up to $3 million in incentives, Hill — who was 7-8 with a 3.86 ERA last season for the Rays and Mets — saw the stars align in a way that he valued beyond potentially better-paying opportunities elsewhere.
“Obviously being able to stay on the East Coast was the main objective, stay on the East Coast but with a team that is going to be able to compete for the division and get an opportunity to go into the playoffs and have a chance to win the World Series,” said Hill. “Obviously being here in Boston, all the pieces are in order to have that become a reality for 2022.
“Having the opportunity present itself here in Boston was something that my wife, Caitlin, and son, Brice, were just all excited to have,” he added. “I know that there were more lucrative opportunities in other parts of the country, but to be able to come home, especially where we’re at as a family, it’s going to be great.”
▪ The 2021 season will go down as the strangest of Matt Barnes’s career. He dominated in the first half, earned his first All-Star berth, and finished the year with a 37.8 percent strikeout rate, seventh-best in the majors.
But his performance cratered in the second half because of fatigue and then a COVID-19 infection, resulting in his removal from the closer’s role and being left off roster as the Red Sox season concluded in the American League Championship Series against the Astros.
“Initially, it was tough [to be left off the roster]. Frankly, I was kind of [ticked] off. But at the same time, it’s hard to carry being [ticked] off, because I totally understood — I got why even though I may not have agreed with it,” said Barnes. “I knew that it wasn’t a personal decision.”
Barnes said that while he was disappointed not to contribute, he saw promise in work he did during the ALCS with pitching coach Dave Bush. Barnes threw a number of bullpen sessions using TrackMan data and biomechanical analysis of his delivery.
“We were working constantly, throwing bullpens, working on stuff. So, we had a really good base, felt like we made some good strides, especially at the end, on stuff to carry over into next year,” said Barnes. “We’ll be back and ready to go, for sure.”
▪ While Barnes has been working out at home in Connecticut, he plans to head to Fort Myers, Fla., in the new year. While he cannot work out at JetBlue Park during the lockout, teammate Chris Sale has made arrangements for Barnes and other Sox to use the facilities at Florida Gulf Coast University (Sale’s college program) until the end of the labor dispute.
▪ First baseman Josh Ockimey joined the WooSox Foundation Holiday Caravan in Central Massachusetts this past week, an impressive commitment by the 26-year-old considering that he is now an unsigned free agent, with his eight-season tenure in the Red Sox organization potentially having come to an end at the end of the Triple A season. Ockimey was recognized at the end of the season as the WooSox Foundation’s inaugural “Heart of the Heart” winner in recognition for his community service, following a year in which he welcomed the chance to serve as an ambassador for the minor league team in its new home. In 98 games for the WooSox, Ockimey hit .225/.358/.416 with 15 homers.
▪ Newly acquired Red Sox prospect Alex Binelas, who was drafted by the Brewers this past July and then traded to the Red Sox in the Hunter Renfroe/Jackie Bradley Jr. deal — completed his degree and graduated from the University of Louisville this past Tuesday.
▪ Though there hasn’t been a lot of market chatter about free agent Mitch Moreland, the former Red Sox first baseman enjoyed a moment of prominence as the clue to a question on Jeopardy! “Mitch Moreland, sometimes called ‘Mitchy Four Bags,’ is a pro athlete in this sport,” read the answer to the $200 question in the “Sports Nicknames” category of the Double Jeopardy! round.
▪ Happy birthday to Carlton Fisk (74), the forged-in-granite Hall of Famer who spent the first 11 of his 24 (!) big league seasons catching for the Red Sox. He hit .284/.356/.481 with seven All-Star appearances in Boston — and delivered one of the iconic homers in baseball history in the 1975 World Series — before he and Fred Lynn became free agents in December 1980 when the Red Sox put their contracts in the mail two days after the deadline to do so.
Other Red Sox celebrating birthdays this weekend include Hideki Okajima, the self-proclaimed “hero in the dark,” who now has 46 candles with which to chase the shadows; and Rickey Henderson (63), who somehow had a .369 OBP at age 43 in 72 games for the Sox in 2002.
Dec. 25 also marks the birthday of pitcher Ted Lewis, who was born in 1872 and pitched for the Boston Beaneaters (eventually the Braves) from 1896-1900 before jumping to the Americans (eventually the Red Sox) for their inaugural season in 1901. While Lewis had some noteworthy contributions on the mound, he’s likely the only baseball player ever to become president of two colleges — Massachusetts Agricultural College (eventually UMass Amherst) and the University of New Hampshire — and then to be eulogized by Robert Frost.