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‘Owners aren’t hoarding money’: Tom Werner defends baseball owners’ spending on free agents

Red Sox chairman Tom Werner with the 2018 World Series trophy.
Red Sox chairman Tom Werner with the 2018 World Series trophy. (bill greene/Globe Staff file)

The business of baseball paused a bit Tuesday to celebrate Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, and Mariano Rivera being elected to the Hall of Fame.

Now the focus returns to three potential Hall of Famers — Bryce Harper, Craig Kimbrel, and Manny Machado — who remain unsigned with the start of spring training only three weeks away.

Red Sox righthander Rick Porcello, who is entering the final season of his contract, is concerned with the state of free agency.

“I don’t think it’s the fact that those guys are unsigned right now that’s troubling to me,” Porcello said Saturday at the team’s Winter Weekend event. “I think it’s more the willingness of teams to invest in their own ballclub and want to win.

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“Fans are paying a lot of money to come, pay for a ticket, and watch a game. The players are making money off of those tickets, as well as the team and ownership. When you’re not giving it back to the fans 100 percent, then there’s something wrong there.

“That’s where I think that the system has broken down a little bit. Ultimately in this game, there’s a lot of money involved. It’s a business for ownership and players and our careers. But it’s about the fans. I don’t think they’re doing right by them.”

MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark has been critical of how many teams become purposely noncompetitive as a rebuilding strategy, as have an increasing number of players.

Red Sox chairman Tom Werner answered back Wednesday, saying teams are spending as much as before — only now more intelligently.

“Owners aren’t hoarding money,” Werner said. “Player compensation is 54 percent of revenues, which is higher than the NBA, NHL, and NFL. There were 45 players last season who made $20 million or more. That’s quite a significant number.

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“But we’re spending money in what I would consider a more sensible fashion.”

Werner pointed to the low-budget Oakland Athletics making the playoffs last season as an example of thoughtful investing. The Tampa Bay Rays, who had the third-lowest payroll, won 90 games.

That nine teams have played in the World Series the last six seasons somewhat counters charges of widespread tanking. Half of the 30 teams have been to at least one World Series since 2007.

“It’s obviously important that every club has a realistic chance to win,” Werner said. “I think that’s been a stable number.”

Werner is an unlikely champion of parity. The Red Sox had a franchise-record $239.5 million payroll last season, the highest in the game by $34.5 million. The payroll is expected to go up this season by at least $7 million.

“We as owners have to do a better job of articulating our position,” Werner said. “The players are our partners. We want to cooperate with them for the good of the game.

“These kind of public disagreements about owners hoarding money and not fielding competitive teams hurts the game.”

Werner believes Harper, Kimbrel, and Machado will be rewarded even if deals are made in mid-February and don’t reach 10 years.

“I don’t have any inside knowledge on those players,” Werner said. “But I’m sure that by the beginning of spring training they’ll get the sizable contracts they deserve. But they may not get the contracts their agents are pursuing.”

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It’s a bigger issue for free agents on the next level — marginalized former All-Stars such as Josh Harrison, Adam Jones, Dallas Keuchel, Mike Moustakas, and A.J. Pollock. Their markets to this point have been thin.

“Keeping some top-notch veteran free agents off rosters because the guys you’re bringing up are paid less money and it’s an easy way to save, I don’t think that’s necessarily right,” Porcello said. “Again, that’s another thing that needs to be evaluated.”

The average MLB salary of $4,095,686 in 2018 represents a 48 percent raise from 2007. But it also was a drop from $4,097,122 in 2017.

It was the first drop since 1987, when owners were found guilty of conspiring to keep salaries down.

The role of analytics in determining a free agent’s value is becoming a point of contention between the players and owners.

“It’s [sic] seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents,” Giants third baseman Evan Longoria wrote on Instagram last week.

Said Werner: “Analytics plays an important part in the game. People are a little bit more sophisticated about what is actually relevant production and what is not.”

The Red Sox, as an example, will pay $12.75 million for Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce to split time at first base in 2019. They started last season with Hanley Ramirez earning $22 million to play the position.

Ramirez was released in May, when he was well short of reaching the necessary plate appearances to trigger a $22 million option for 2019. The Sox went on to win 108 games and then the World Series.

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So while players with six or more years of service time account for 76 percent of payrolls, how that money is divided is changing.

“It’s allocated differently, more to the middle class of free agents,” Werner said. “But it’s still being spent.

“You have to play in all pools. You have to bring up a certain amount of players who are under control; you need to supplement that with free agents. It may be the length of time that’s a concern. It’s a concern for me.”

How the Red Sox value their free agents will be at the center of their decision-making over the next two years. Porcello, Xander Bogaerts, and Chris Sale are entering their contract years with J.D. Martinez having an opt-out in his deal.

Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. have two seasons of team control remaining.

Werner suggested that contracts structured like Martinez’s will become more prevalent and could work for both players and owners.

“What is changing — and it was a rarity — is players are securing option years in multiyear contracts,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s a positive development for players.”


Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.