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Sorting out the mixed signals coming from Fenway Park

The Red Sox finished 84-78 this season, missing the playoffs.
The Red Sox finished 84-78 this season, missing the playoffs.barry chin/Globe Staff

It’s a barren month for Boston baseball. There are no playoffs for the first time since 2015. There are no more games that matter until March. October is empty. But Fenway Park is full of mixed signals being sent about the 2020 vision for the Red Sox.

The Sox are pushing the soft reset button unless they’re not. They’re in money-saving mode because of the burden of the competitive balance tax unless they’re not. They’re parting with either Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez, because of the financial sword of Damocles that ex-baseball boss Dave Dombrowski left dangling above their heads, unless there’s a way they’re not.


The Sox currently have more hedges than the garden at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The more they elaborate, the harder it is to pin down the team’s stance for next season.

Sometimes you just need to rip off the conversational Band-Aid. The Sox need to shoot us straight. We can take it. The Fenway Faithful form the most sophisticated, informed, and loyal fan base in baseball. They might not like the plan, but they’ll tolerate it. The only thing they’ll have less tolerance for than a step-back year is being told it isn’t happening while it’s unfolding right in front of them. Send the euphemisms and equivocations to the dustbin along with manager Alex Cora’s spring training pitching plan.

It’s simple. On the heels of boasting baseball’s biggest payroll the last two seasons, the Sox feel compelled to get below the luxury tax threshold of $208 million next season. They are willing to sacrifice less talent on the roster for less money on the payroll. The Sox are done throwing their wallet around now that Dombrowski is gone. The deposed president of baseball operations left them with little financial flexibility and a trio of basically untradeable contracts belonging to pitchers David Price, Chris Sale, and Nathan Eovaldi.


Those three will account for $79 million in salary next season and are on the books for $237 million over the next three seasons. They all come with injury issues and will be 30 or older on Opening Day next season.

When the principal owner of the team, John Henry (who also owns the Globe), states, as he did last Friday in a confab with reporters, “We need to be under the CBT and that was something we’ve known for more than a year now,” then that’s what is happening. Period.

John Henry has laid down a very clear directive for the team moving foward.
John Henry has laid down a very clear directive for the team moving foward.Michael Dwyer/AP/Associated Press

The next Red Sox president of baseball operations will be under no illusions about what his or her marching orders are in constructing the team.

The compounding cost of luxury tax tariffs, explained in depth by colleague Alex Speier, makes the Red Sox resetting the tax rate to 20 percent by ducking the tax altogether in 2020 all but a certainty.

Backtracking to say that it’s not a mandate, it’s just a strong preference (chairman Tom Werner) is parsing words for rhetorical cover. Saying that it’s more like a goal, and that there are scenarios where the team could exceed the threshold for a third straight year and swallow an onerous tax bill, as team president and CEO Sam Kennedy said Monday, borders on misdirection. The spin rate here is higher than that of a Brandon Workman curveball.


There is no chimerical path to significant cost savings and a significantly improved roster that still features high-priced core pieces of the 2018 World Series winner such as Betts, Martinez, Sale, Price, and Xander Bogaerts. The Sox are selling another type of Impossible Dream there. You can’t keep this team intact and trim the baseball budget below the tax line.

The scenario where the team blows past the luxury tax threshold again is one in which Henry is convinced to abandon the temporary belt-tightening he said that the organization has known was required for some time now.

That’s going to be harder to do coming off an 84-win season that saw the Sox finish 12 games behind the Tampa Bay Rays, owners of baseball’s lowest Opening Day payroll, and 13 games behind the Oakland A’s, who also boasted a bottom-five Opening Day payroll, according to the Associated Press. Tampa Bay was at $61 million to start the season, Oakland was at $88 million, not including player benefits.

Will Alex Cora be asked to do more with less in 2020?
Will Alex Cora be asked to do more with less in 2020?Michael Dwyer/AP/Associated Press

The two bottom-five spenders squared off Wednesday night in the American League wild-card game while the Sox, who spent about $227 million, minus benefits, are idle for October.

The days of trying to win with the wallet are over on Jersey Street, rightfully so. It is simply not a sustainable model of winning over the long term. Fellow hardball high rollers the Dodgers and Yankees have already figured that out. The Sox need to restore balance that goes beyond the competitive balance tax.


That’s what the Sox should be selling, the idea that they want to build a sustainable model for contention. They need to come to grips with the reality that their fan base is smart enough to see through the conversational countermeasures, the talking points, and the buzz phrases being thrown out to try to convince them that less will be more or that less might be avoidable in ’20.

Currying favor with the Fenway Faithful by not acknowledging the obvious isn’t going to save the Sox. They have the misfortune of being the most-scrutinized and easily criticized sports team in New England. Throwing derisive darts at the Sox’ custodians is a regional pastime. It’s a rite of passage.

Fans will fight any claim of potential roster mismanagement by the Patriots to the death or sign off on whatever plan the Celtics serve up. They’ll grumble about the Bruins, but ultimately lower the bar for them. The Sox remain a magnet for dyspeptic discourse.

You can’t fool this fan base.

So, tell it like it is. The Sox are planning to take a step back to move forward.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.