The Boston Red Sox retained their cleanup hitter, with J.D. Martinez deciding to stay rather than test the murky free agent waters by opting out of his contract. However, with a front office overhaul amid talk of “sustainability” among Red Sox brass, one wonders if that was the decision Boston was really hoping for.
Martinez hit 79 home runs with a .985 OPS in his first two seasons with the Red Sox, and finished fourth in AL MVP voting in 2018, an integral part of the Red Sox winning the World Series. He’s a huge part of a lineup that has scored the second-most runs in baseball (5.48 per game) since his arrival, and has the fifth-best wRC+ (108).
Martinez chose not to opt out of the three years and $62.5 million remaining on his contract, which will pay him $23.75 million in 2020.
Since the start of 2014, Martinez has a 151 wRC+, second only to Mike Trout, and his 207 home runs over the last six years rank fifth in baseball.
From a purely baseball standpoint, Martinez eschewing free agency — or at least putting it off for a year, as he has another chance to opt out after next season — should make the Red Sox ecstatic, and have their front office jump for joy like those old Toyota “Oh, what a feeling” commercials.
But baseball, as you know, is a business. This is nothing new of course, but the last few years have seen a change at the top of the food chain. Baseball has had a competitive balance tax in some form or another since 2003, and the Yankees, MLB’s biggest financial behemoth, coming into 2019 paid nearly double in taxes than every other team combined, over $330 million. The Dodgers were second at $150 million.
In 2018, however, both the Yankees and Dodgers both managed to stay under the $197 million payroll threshold, avoiding the luxury tax for the first time in ages. Both made the playoffs, and both were eliminated by the Red Sox, whose $239.5 million payroll was by far the biggest in baseball. Their luxury tax bill was $12 million, but among the perks was 108 wins and a World Series championship.
The homegrown Mookie Betts was AL MVP, but several other main cogs in the championship wheel — David Price, Chris Sale, Craig Kimbrel, and Martinez — were acquired by general manager Dave Dombrowski, who signed three of the four to nine-figure contracts.
A lesson to be drawn here could be “acquiring great players is good” and pushing forward in that regard, but it seems the Red Sox went another way. If fellow financial stalwarts like the Yankees and Dodgers aren’t spending and are using the CBT threshold as a de facto salary cap, and are still winning, why can’t we?
The 2019 season helped reinforce the latter position, with the Yankees and Dodgers each winning over 100 games while staying under (or at least very close to, in the Dodgers’ case) the luxury tax threshold. The Red Sox, meanwhile, had another expensive payroll, estimated at $239 million by Cot’s Baseball Contracts. They also didn’t win, thanks to nearly the entire starting rotation either getting hurt or underperforming, or both. An 84-win season and no playoff berth for the first time in four years cost Dombrowski his job, and brought with it a clear sign the Red Sox were ready to cut costs.
“The CBT is always a guidepost in our budgeting,” Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy said in an end-of-season press conference when Dombrowski was let go. “It is a goal, but not a hard and fast mandate.”
Team owner John Henry was more blunt a few days earlier. From Mass Live:
“This (coming) year we need to be under the CBT,” Henry said. “That was something we’ve known for more than a year now.”
Henry later added, “We may not be under. It’s our goal to be under.”
Martinez returning made that goal very difficult, given how the Red Sox are currently constructed, and this is where it gets even more macabre. There are seven players currently under contract for 2020, with a total competitive balance tax payroll of $151 million per Cot’s (this includes estimates for minor leaguers and player benefits, the latter which is fixed for every team). Boston has another 12 players eligible for salary arbitration, with MLB Trade Rumors projecting their total salaries at $70 million. In other words, the Red Sox are at $221 million, already over next year’s $208 million CBT threshold, without addressing the pitching needs with Rick Porcello a free agent and Chris Sale hurt (the Red Sox ace avoided Tommy John surgery in August, getting a PRP injection instead, but his recovery timetable is still up in the air).
Suddenly that flexibility the Red Sox covet isn’t quite there, unless they do something drastic. Trading Martinez would qualify, though I suspect the limited market — fewer MLB teams actually trying to win, plus he’s best suited for designated hitter, which makes it harder for National League teams to bid — Martinez would have received on the free agent market makes it that much tougher for Boston to trade him.
That leaves Betts, who will be a free agent after 2020. Again, on its face, from a baseball standpoint, trading Betts is organizational seppuku. If a rich team can’t afford to keep their best homegrown player in literally decades, what the hell hope does the rest of the sport have?
Kennedy in that season-ending press conference acknowledged the challenge of keeping both Martinez and Betts. From NBC Sports Boston:
“Yes, there is a way but obviously it will be difficult given the nature of the agreements and the contracts that we have in place,” Kennedy said. ”Look, we have a very targeted and strategic plan that we’re building right now.”
The Red Sox then hired Chaim Bloom to run their baseball operations department. Bloom is well honed in competing on a budget thanks to his decade plus with the Rays, and in his introductory press conference with the Red Sox the word “sustainability” in some form was used seven times, including as a direct answer of what lies ahead for Betts and Martinez. In baseball circles, “sustainability” is code for “keeping costs down.”
The lure of trading Betts can’t be ignored, as he is one of the best players in baseball and would fetch the kind of a prospect haul that could rebuild a declining farm system and lead to that coveted sustainability. After all, one of those prospects might one day turn into a Mookie Betts!
If your head wasn’t spinning enough from the mental gymnastics needed to justify the Red Sox dealing away their best players, Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic offered another alternative, even including possibly trading one of Boston’s best young players who would help with that sustainability:
A better path might be to move left-hander David Price, who is owed $96 million over the next three years, or righty Nathan Eovaldi, who is owed $51 million over the next three. Impossible, you say? Well, what if the Red Sox included cash in a trade and also attached left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who remains cost-effective as he enters his first year of arbitration?
Forbes for instance earlier in 2019 valued the Red Sox at $3.2 billion, the third most-valuable franchise in MLB, a huge appreciation from the $380 million Henry and his group purchased the club for in 2002. Included in Henry’s ownership tenure is four championships and the subsequent revenue bumps associated with deep postseason runs. In their title-winning year of 2018, for instance, Forbes estimated the Red Sox baseball-related revenue for the year at $484 million.
In other words, the Red Sox can afford to keep Martinez and Betts, plus make any additions they need to get back to the playoffs. With record revenues across the sport, cutting costs is very rarely a need, but rather an ownership choice.
The real answer here is the Red Sox — if they want to win — should horde as many great players as possible, and not trade them away.