When Wil Myers’ name surfaced in trade rumblings surrounding the Padres, Red Sox and Mookie Betts, it seemed like a fairly straightforward thought process. The Padres wanted to acquire a star (Betts), had been seeking to jettison some of Myers’ contract and didn’t want to pay both Myers’ $20MM salary and Betts’ $27MM salary. But when the Myers-to-Red Sox rumors reemerged even after Betts had been traded to the Dodgers, that was more surprising. Eventually, Alex Speier of the Boston Globe reported that the Sox’ aim in those talks was to use some of their newfound payroll space and luxury tax breathing room to effectively purchase some young pitching from the Padres. The basic premise: take on half of Myers’ contract and also acquire a pitcher such as Cal Quantrill to immediately plug into the mix at the MLB level. However, per Speier, there’s not much optimism at the moment that such a deal will come together.
But does that mean the Red Sox should abandon the strategy entirely? Well, why would they? There are dozens of undesirable contracts throughout MLB, and many clubs on the hook for those deals have pitching talent with which they could conceivably part.
However, it’s not as simple as just picking out a big-time contract and saying, “Let’s dump this on the Red Sox along with [Player X]!” Myers’ contract was something of an ideal fit for the Sox. The Padres aggressively backloaded his six-year, $83MM deal to the point that Myers earned only $7MM in salaries from 2017-19 (in addition to a weighty $15MM signing bonus). That’s notable for the Red Sox because they’re still “only” about $12-13MM shy of the luxury barrier. Taking on a bad contract with a $20MM+ annual salary over its full term — the relevant data point from a competitive balance tax perspective — would put them right back into the tax territory that ownership
insisted on escaping erm, was … happy to escape as an ancillary benefit of building a competitive window … or however they choose to try to spin it.
Myers came with a $13.8MM luxury hit — and the cash the Padres would’ve included in the deal (a reported $30MM or so) would’ve essentially dropped Boston’s luxury obligation to $3.8MM. That’s an ideal balance of flexing the club’s deep pockets without running the risk of even approaching the luxury barrier. It’s easy to suggest Albert Pujols ($24MM AAV), Justin Upton ($23MM), Jason Heyward ($23MM), Chris Davis ($23MM), Matt Carpenter ($18.5MM) and plenty of others as a plausible fit, but Myers presented Boston with the rare opportunity to absorb half of a player’s remaining contract (and more than 36 percent of the total value) while only increasing their luxury payroll by about 1.9 percent. That’s not going to be the case with such high-AAV players.
Arrangements like the Myers deal are tough to find. Myers may well have been the single best target for this prospect-purchasing gambit — but he’s not the only one. Let’s take a speculative look at who else the Red Sox could inquire on in an effort to pursue a similar template but with a different trade focal point:
Rougned Odor, Rangers, 2B (three years, $36MM remaining on six-year, $49.5MM deal)
Odor’s contract only comes with an $8.25MM luxury hit in the first place, which the Red Sox could fit into their current budget even if Texas doesn’t include any cash. Add in even a few million dollars from the Rangers, and the Sox would be well shy of running into the threshold. To say the Odor extension hasn’t worked out for the Rangers would be putting things mildly; he’s hit .219/.285/.419 since putting pen to paper three years ago, and the bulk of the guarantee is yet to be paid out
The Rangers aren’t really maxed out in terms of payroll, but they’re also looking at playing one of the game’s top second base prospects in center field — surely in part due to Odor’s presence on the roster. Texas also added three starters with multiple years of control this winter (Corey Kluber, Kyle Gibson, Jordan Lyles), making it easier to absorb the blow of trading a big-league-ready arm. Maybe they wouldn’t be keen on using Kolby Allard (or someone similar) to rid themselves of the Odor contract, but if you’re the Red Sox, that’s an avenue to explore. It’s not like second base is a position of great certainty in Boston at the moment, anyhow.
Kyle Seager, Mariners, 3B (two years, $37MM remaining on seven-year, $100MM deal*)
The asterisk next to Odor’s name is necessitated by his contract’s “poison pill” — i.e. a $15MM club option that turns into a player option in the event of a trade. He’s at two years and $37MM only while donning a Mariners jersey; the moment he’s traded, that effectively becomes three years and $52MM. That wrinkle wouldn’t immediately impact his luxury tax hit though (and only minimally impacts it if/when he does trigger the option, as the current mark is $14.29MM).
The Red Sox are set at third base with Rafael Devers, but this type of trade isn’t really about positional need (and Seager could perhaps work at second base anyhow). The Mariners’ rebuild/”reimagining”/whatever they prefer to call it is nearing the point where GM Jerry Dipoto is going to want to supplement his emerging core with free agent acquisitions. Dropping a notable portion of the $19MM owed to Seager in 2020 and, perhaps more importantly, the $18MM owed to him in 2021 will aid in that effort.
Dee Gordon, Mariners, 2B/OF (one year, $14.5MM remaining on five-year, $50MM deal)
Same concept as Seager but with slightly different details. Gordon is a man without a position in Seattle and a free agent at season’s end. Gordon’s deal comes with a $10MM luxury hit that the Sox could shoehorn into their ledger without going over the barrier, but they’d have minimal breathing room. Gordon could step in as the primary second baseman with Dustin Pedroia on the shelf, pushing Jose Peraza to a more familiar utility role. And the Mariners would surely love to use that roster spot to get a look at a younger player while saving $14MM to spend on supplementing their core.
Randal Grichuk, Blue Jays, OF (four years, $43MM remaining on five-year, $52MM deal)
It’s hard not to wonder if the Jays would like a mulligan on last spring’s extension after Grichuk slashed .232/.280/.457 in 2019, effectively playing at replacement level. Then again, the Grichuk deal was a head-scratching move for most onlookers (myself included), as he didn’t appear to be a clear extension candidate. That 2019 slash looks awfully similar to Grichuk’s combined production from 2016-18 (.241/.292/.485), so perhaps the Jays are content with what he’s bringing to the table… but $43MM over the next four seasons nonetheless feels quite steep.
If the Jays are indeed looking for a way to back out of the deal, the organization is teeming with usable but unspectacular arms in the upper minors as it awaits the rise of higher-end prospects. The Sox aren’t getting Nate Pearson or anyone close to that caliber out of this deal, but paying a good chunk Grichuk’s deal in an effort to acquire a controllable fourth/fifth starter would be plenty defensible.
Ian Desmond, Rockies, INF/OF (two years, $26MM remaining on five-year, $70MM deal)
The Desmond deal has been a bust for the Rockies, who no longer even have a clear place to play one of their most highly compensated players. Charlie Blackmon, David Dahl, Raimel Tapia and Sam Hilliard are all more deserving of looks in the outfield. Garrett Hampson, Brendan Rodgers and Ryan McMahon are in the mix at second base. McMahon could also play first, where the Rockies have another underperforming veteran in Daniel Murphy (though he’s only signed through 2020).
Colorado owner Dick Monfort opened the season by declaring a lack of payroll flexibility (and, after a winter of inactivity, bizarrely proclaimed that the same Rockies club that lost 91 games in 2019 would win 94 games in 2020). The Rockies aren’t exactly teeming with high-end pitching talent — hence the 91 losses in 2019 — but they have seven or eight starters on the 40-man roster and in Triple-A behind German Marquez, Jon Gray and Kyle Freeland. This type of trade doesn’t really feel like Colorado’s style — in general, the Rockies aren’t highly active on the trade market — but if the Sox are interested in one of those back-of-the-rotation arms, it’s not hard to see the framework of a speculative deal.
As this exercise shows, it’s not exactly easy to structure a deal on this sort of premise — in large part because there just aren’t that many suitable contracts. And few clubs have the abundance of upper-level talent (with associated 40-man roster pressures) of the Padres. Still, the Red Sox surely will keep exploring avenues to put their wallet to work while still ducking under the luxury line.