On Thursday afternoon, the MLB Players Association and team owners agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement. With the owners unanimously ratifying the deal later in the day, the league’s 99-day lockout is finally over.
Now, attention can turn to a four-week sprint to build teams. Players will reassemble at spring training sites, free agents will entertain calls, and the stove will start to heat up.
What does it mean for the Red Sox?
Baseball is about to embark upon one of the most chaotic preseason stretches in its history, and the Red Sox are likely to be in the middle of the madness:
A player frenzy for a team with money to spend
The Sox made a small burst of moves before the lockout, signing free agent starters Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, and James Paxton, while trading outfielder Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers for Jackie Bradley Jr. and a pair of prospects.
Those moves seemingly solidified the rotation but do not represent the end of the team’s roster-building. With Renfroe gone, the Sox are still likely looking for an outfielder and a middle infielder — with power (preferably righthanded) coming from one or both spots — as well as bullpen and bench help.
There are options — so many options. The lockout left hundreds of free agents unsigned.
Power-hitting outfielders? Seiya Suzuki (who has been posted by his team in Japan) and Kyle Schwarber are still on the board.
Middle infielders? Maybe, much like Marcus Semien in 2020, Trevor Story would consider a short-term move to second base. Perhaps the Sox will contemplate a run at Carlos Correa — which might mean moving Xander Bogaerts to second. Maybe there’s a trade to bolster the middle infield.
Some of these names might seem far-fetched given how conservative the Sox have been in the past two offseasons under chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. But the Red Sox now enter what should be a chaotic marketplace with the ability to wave stacks of cash.
Thanks to the increase of the luxury-tax line from $210 million in 2021 — a mark under which the Sox very carefully ducked — to $230 million for this season, the Sox have money to spend.
So, how much do the Red Sox have to work with? If we account for:
▪ The increase in minimum big league salaries to $700,000 (something that will affect Garrett Whitlock, Bobby Dalbec, Tanner Houck, Darwinzon Hernandez, and potentially others);
▪ the $1.7 million they will have to kick into a new fund for pre-arbitration players;
▪ and the team preserving some financial flexibility for in-season moves.
The Sox’ payroll — for luxury-tax purposes — sits around $195 million to $200 million, giving them upward of $30 million to spend before hitting the luxury tax.
Some of that, however, could be channeled into potential extensions — most notably, for Rafael Devers (eligible for free agency after 2023) or Bogaerts (positioned to opt out after 2022).
Of course, the Sox could also choose to spend beyond the 2022 luxury tax given that they’ve reset their penalties by staying under the threshold the past two years — something that will lower the penalties for spending past the line this year — and because the Sox have several large contracts coming off the books after 2022.
Those factors position the Sox to make aggressive moves with the end of the lockout. Expect the Sox to be as active immediately after the deadline as they were right before it.
Desperate for depth
As was the case in the shortened 2020 season following a compressed summer training camp after the COVID shutdown, the brief time between now and the regular season (Opening Day is scheduled for April 7) suggests that injuries will be a considerable concern. That makes depth a priority, particularly because there will now be limits on the number of times players can be called up and optioned back to the minors that didn’t previously exist.
So, as much as there will be a focus on the high-end player targets, teams will also be scrambling to add players (particularly pitchers) who can be summoned to the big leagues when needed.
Expanded playoff pool
The increase from a 10- to a 12-team playoff format lowers the bar for reaching the postseason, but likely doesn’t do much to alter the Red Sox’ outlook. The Sox have always articulated a goal of competing for the postseason, while recognizing that since the advent of the Wild Card Game in 2012, winning the division carries far more value than securing a wild-card berth.
That will remain largely true in the expanded format that features three wild-card teams while granting byes into the Division Round for the two division winners with the best records. The team’s roster-building sights haven’t been lowered.