SAN DIEGO — The news broke just before midnight Tuesday. Gerrit Cole to the Yankees for nine years and $324 million.
Chaim Bloom wasn’t surprised when the story popped up on his phone. He may be new to the Red Sox, but Bloom has been in the American League East for 15 years and knows how the Yankees operate.
“Especially in our division, you expect that your rivals are going to be really good and you expect that they’re going to make moves that are going to make them really good,” Bloom said Wednesday.
At a time when the Red Sox are working to trim their payroll, that the Yankees gave Cole the largest contract for a pitcher had to be particularly painful.
A rotation led by Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, and James Paxton stamps the Yankees as heavy favorites to win the World Series.
As the news spread through the Winter Meetings, Yankees manager Aaron Boone walked through the lobby of the Grand Hyatt smiling widely. Meanwhile, the Red Sox could use an opener for one of their rotation spots.
This is what managing the luxury tax has wrought in baseball, teams shifting back and forth between being bold or boring.
The Red Sox raised their payroll to a franchise-record $239.5 million in 2018 with the addition of J.D. Martinez. They won 108 games, then blitzed through the postseason to a championship.
The Sox spent $46.6 million more than the Yankees that season, and it showed on the field. The Sox won the American League East by eight games, then wiped out the Yankees in four games in the Division Series.
But the Yankees accomplished something that season by getting under the luxury-tax threshold and resetting the penalties. That allowed them to sign Zack Britton, D.J. LeMahieu, and Adam Ottavino before last year, and all three players proved instrumental in winning the division.
Now, much as the Sox did with Martinez, the Yankees have continued spending with the addition of Cole. Martinez was the player who got the Red Sox over the top. The Yankees believe Cole will do the same for them.
If you’re waiting for the Red Sox to punch back, it’s not happening. The goal is to drop their payroll below the luxury-tax threshold of $208 million and reset what are legitimate penalties.
“It’s important not to get distracted,” Bloom said. “It’s important to focus on your own club and how you can accomplish that.”
As colleague Alex Speier pointed out on Tuesday, getting under the limit could lead to savings of $90 million-$100 million over a three-year period when revenue sharing is factored in. The Sox also get relief in terms of gaining or losing picks in the amateur draft and how much money they can spend on international prospects.
That’s actual money, $100 million. Even high-revenue teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, and Dodgers can’t ignore the high cost of staying over the limit for years at a time. The collective bargaining agreement essentially has built-in brakes.
A team could certainly choose to ignore the penalties and avidly pursue a championship every year, cost be damned. But nothing about a baseball season is ever so certain that cost isn’t a factor.
The 2011 Red Sox thought they had a perfect team right up until the worst September collapse in history. Not even likely future Hall of Famer Theo Epstein was immune to the vagaries of baseball.
As Yankees GM Brian Cashman takes his turn at the trough, Bloom will dutifully chip away at the mountain of payroll Dave Dombrowski built.
The Yankees could actually prove helpful in that effort. By signing Cole, they added to the demand for free agent starting pitchers. Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Dallas Keuchel will all benefit as the Dodgers, Angels, and Rangers look to fill holes in their rotations.
It should create an opportunity for the Red Sox to trade David Price, who has three years and $96 million left on his deal. If teams are satisfied Price is healthy, he becomes a good pickup for a contender.
It feels unlikely the Red Sox will trade Chris Sale. His five-year, $145 million deal now looks like a bargain compared with Cole. Sale is only 17 months older than Cole and has a lower ERA over the last four seasons.
If Sale can stay healthy — and that’s hardly a guarantee given the last two seasons — he would be a cost-effective cornerstone of another championship team in a few years.
The more Bloom cuts, the more the Sox also improve their ability to make Mookie Betts an offer he can’t turn down.
The Yankees watched the Red Sox celebrate on the field at Yankee Stadium when they won the Division Series in 2018. But dropping $32.4 million off their payroll over two seasons to get under the tax limit led to Cole.
What is essentially a requirement to manage payroll helps explain why six different teams have won the World Series the last six seasons and nine different teams have won pennants. Dynasties are being regulated out of existence.
Maybe the next collective bargaining agreement will allow ambitious clubs to spend more freely. But for now, these are the rules.
In time, the math will work in favor of the Sox. It’s up to Bloom to find that sweet spot the Yankees now command.
(2020 salaries calculated for luxury tax purposes)
1. LHP Chris Sale$25.6 million
2. LHP David Price$31 million
3. RHP Nate Eovaldi$17 million
4. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez$9.5 million (projected)
1. LHP Gerrit Cole$36 million
2. RHP Masahiro Tanaka$22.14 million
3. RHP Luis Severino$10 million
4. LHP James Paxton$12.9 million (projected)
5. LHP J.A. Happ$17 million