Whatever happened to a Bridge Year? That once-maligned notion may now prompt nostalgia among Red Sox fans pining for a different time in how the team built its big league roster.
When former general manager Theo Epstein introduced the term to the baseball lexicon after the 2009 season, he was describing an effort to acquire veterans while creating a competitive path between cores. The Sox, coming off a playoff appearance, had a very talented young group of players in the big leagues (Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, and more) but wanted to add big league anchors to permit promising minor league prospects (at the time, a group led by Casey Kelly, Ryan Westmoreland, Lars Anderson, and Josh Reddick) to mature at their own pace.
The team was willing to pay for that structural upgrade, elevating spending from roughly $155 million for luxury-tax purposes in 2009 to roughly $175 million in 2010. That winter, the Bridge Year took the form of a one-year deal with Adrián Beltré (elected to the Hall of Fame this week), two-year deals with veterans Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron, and a five-year deal with future World Series contributor John Lackey.
That was a Bridge Year, albeit one that, largely because of injuries, concluded with a disappointing 89-73 record and an October without playoff baseball. This winter, by comparison, seems more like a sink-or-swim plunge while the Red Sox wait for the next core group to take shape.
CEO/president Sam Kennedy turned heads with his acknowledgment at Winter Weekend that the Sox are likely to carry a smaller payroll in 2024 than they did while finishing last in 2023 — particularly after they likewise trimmed payroll from $232.8 million in 2022 to $225.7 million in 2023.
If the Sox indeed have a lower payroll in 2024, even if only slightly, it would have little precedent during the tenure of the current ownership group, on a few levels. It would mark the first time under this ownership that the team reduced payroll for tax purposes by design in back-to-back years.
The only other time the Sox lowered their tax payroll in two straight years was 2012-13. The Dodgers ex machina August 2012 blockbuster deal unexpectedly lowered payroll from $185.1 million in 2011 to $178.0 million (just below the tax line) in 2012, and the team stayed at virtually the same level ($177.8 million) while winning a title in 2013.
Moreover, if the Sox stay below $237 million — as seems almost certain — it would mark four times in five years that they stay below the tax threshold, a first in the history of this ownership group.
Finally, the muted response to last year’s finish would represent a departure from previous patterns of how the Sox responded to their greatest failures.
▪ In 2006-07, after the Sox missed the playoffs, they boosted payroll by nearly 20 percent.
▪ After the “Bridge” team missed the playoffs in 2010, the Sox increased payroll by more than 5 percent for 2011 while landing Adrián González and Carl Crawford.
▪ After the Sox missed the playoffs in 2012, they spent virtually every available dollar under the tax threshold to build another bridge for 2013 — one that netted a title while Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts developed.
▪ The last-place finish of 2014 resulted in a jump of roughly 7 percent in payroll for 2015 — not to mention an additional $63 million to land Yoán Moncada that didn’t count against the big league payroll.
▪ After the last-place finish of 2015, the Sox boosted their tax payroll by roughly 2 percent with the acquisition of David Price (while also spending millions beyond their payroll on Allen Craig and Rusney Castillo).
▪ After they finished last in 2020 while resetting payroll with the Betts trade, they spent nearly every available dollar under the tax threshold to again produce another successful Bridge Year in 2021.
So, what’s happening?
Kennedy and chairman Tom Werner said the Sox will, at the right time, return to the pursuit of top-end free agents — a view echoed publicly and privately by others familiar with the team’s thinking. It doesn’t appear that the retreat from big-ticket free agency is permanent, but rather circumstantial.
And in the case of the 2024 team, the circumstances are becoming increasingly clear: The Sox prize developing a core that can contend for years above marginal improvements in their win total for this season.
From that vantage point, the idea of not only trading Chris Sale (signed only through the coming season at the time) but paying the Braves so that they’d deal Vaughn Grissom (who is under team control for six years) becomes clearer.
So, too, does the approach to the rotation for 2024. The Sox seem content to preserve paths for Kutter Crawford, Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck, and Josh Winckowski to cement places in the rotation for this year and beyond — and have thus been willing to observe defined limits when bidding on established big league starters such as Shota Imanaga, Seth Lugo, and James Paxton.
In part, that approach reflects the idea that their future — and perhaps even their best-case scenario for 2024 — would result from a rotation breakout by one or more of those internal options.
That bridgeless approach comes with a lot of risk, evident in the muted aspirations of front office members. While manager Alex Cora has begun challenging his players to talk about World Series aspirations for the coming season, team officials are not echoing that bold approach.
Chief baseball officer Craig Breslow spoke about how another season in last place would represent a failure. Werner said the Sox expect improvement, particularly in their pitching staff. Kennedy cited a desire to be “competitive.” None of them mentioned the playoffs when outlining hopes for the coming season.
“We’re hoping we’re going to be competitive in 2024,” said Kennedy. “That’s always the goal. I don’t think it’d be appropriate to offer a timetable on anything at this point. We need to do the work, let our actions speak louder than our words at this point.”
Right now, the actions are a reduction in spending and an emphasis on long-term upside over a higher probability of improvement in 2024. Eventually, as the Sox get more clarity about which — if any — internal rotation options can become fixtures while watching the standout Double A group (Marcelo Mayer, Roman Anthony, and Kyle Teel, among others), they may become bolder in their pursuit of high-end acquisitions. Then, perhaps, their behavior will change.
“We’re going to let this build of our team sort of dictate what we do as we go forward,” said Kennedy.
At least for now, however, the build is focused on the next core, rather than a bridge to make the path there less treacherous.