Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy met with the media for a postmortem on the 2019 season Monday. At a time when the future of superstars Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez is uncertain — Betts is a free agent after 2020 who has repeatedly voiced a desire to test the open market, while Martinez can opt out of the final three seasons of his contract next month — Kennedy acknowledged that there “is a way” to keep both Betts and Martinez on the roster but added that doing so “will be difficult” (Twitter links via Alex Speier of the Boston Globe).
Such comments only figure to fuel speculation that Betts could be made available in a what would be a blockbuster trade this winter, although the Sox have given no firm indication that he’ll be shopped. Betts earned $20MM this season in just his second trip through the arbitration process, and it’s likely that his salary will jump into the $30MM range next year. Betts didn’t replicate last year’s MVP production nevertheless put together yet another brilliant all-around season. In 706 trips to the plate, the 26-year-old batted .295/.391/.524 with 29 home runs, 40 doubles, five triples and 16 stolen bases. He posted flat-out elite defensive marks, per virtually every metric, for the fourth consecutive season, as well: +16 Defensive Runs Saved, +13.3 Ultimate Zone Rating, +7 Outs Above Average.
As for Martinez, he’s signed for another three years at a total of $62.5MM. He’ll receive a $2.5MM buyout if he opts out of the deal this offseason, meaning he’d need “only” to top a three-year, $60MM commitment in free agency in order to come out ahead. That’s not a given, as he’d surely be hit with a qualifying offer and face some questions about his defensive abilities (or lack thereof) when negotiating with National League clubs. But, asked just last night about sticking in Boston or searching for what would perhaps be his fifth team in five seasons, Martinez replied that he “kind of like[s]” moving around and wouldn’t mind doing so again if need be.
Payroll became an issue with the Red Sox last year when the team was quite clearly doing everything in its power to avoid crossing the third and final luxury tax threshold in free agency. Boston did nothing to address its bullpen outside of some low-profile rolls of the dice, and the team’s lack of bullpen depth proved costly in the long run. Still, significant additions would’ve come with a 75 percent dollar-for-dollar luxury hit, and the Boston ownership group demonstrated that even an organization with that level of deep pockets has its limits.
The Red Sox currently have “only” about $151MM counting against their luxury tax bill in 2020. That’s well south of the $208MM cutoff for the baseline luxury threshold, but that $151MM projection only includes currently guaranteed contracts. In other words, it doesn’t yet factor in arbitration raises for players whose salaries have yet to be determined. Not only will Betts be in line for an enormous raise on this year’s $20MM salary, but the Red Sox will also need to negotiate raises for Eduardo Rodriguez ($4.325MM in 2019), Brandon Workman ($1.15MM), Jackie Bradley Jr. ($8.55MM), Sandy Leon ($2.475MM), Steven Wright ($1.375MM), Matt Barnes ($1.6MM), Heath Hembree ($1.3125MM) and Andrew Benintendi ($717K). Obviously, some of those players could be traded or non-tendered, thus eliminating the need to worry about potential raises.
One of the biggest questions facing ownership is whether the team is comfortable paying the luxury tax for what would be a third consecutive season. The number of successive seasons is important, because penalties escalate with each consecutive year above the line. As a third-time offender, the Red Sox would be subject to a 50 percent luxury tax for every dollar spent over $208MM. They were taxed at a 30 percent rate in 2019 and 20 percent in 2018.
Kennedy plainly stated today that dropping beneath the luxury tax base of $208MM is a “goal but not a mandate” (Twitter link via Speier). The Red Sox, of course, are in the process of seeking out a new leader for their baseball operations department after firing Dave Dombrowski earlier this month, but the quartet that is heading up baseball ops an on interim basis — assistant GMs Eddie Romero, Brian O’Halloran, Zack Scott and Raquel Ferreria — have discussed scenarios in which they’d exceed the luxury tax in early discussions surrounding the team’s offseason approach and 2020 plans.
Obviously, the health and well-being of the team’s top two starting pitchers will be paramount not only when forecasting the team’s 2020 playoff chances but also in determining what types of additions need to be made over the winter. To that end, O’Halloran informed reporters today that the club anticipates both Chris Sale and David Price will be ready for Spring Training. If so, they’d return to join right-hander Nathan Eovaldi and the aforementioned Rodriguez. Complicating matters for the Sox is that each of Sale, Price and Eovaldi delivered mixed results, at best, throughout injury-shortened seasons and now represent question marks more than sure things. Not only will the team need to foster some additional depth, but adding a reliable source of innings to help round out the rotation seems likely to be a goal.
If the Sox do indeed aspire to dip back below the tax line, then there could be a wide-ranging series of changes to the roster this winter. However, nothing from today’s press conference seems to suggest that any sort of rebuild is in the offing. O’Halloran noted that while resetting the luxury line at some point would obviously be beneficial, the club’s goal is to build a championship-caliber roster (Twitter link).