The Red Sox haven't bought a high-priced free agent, but are still spending plenty of money
This off-season couldn't be more different than the last one for the Red Sox. Last time around, they had roughly $10 million to work with in their budget, and they had to plug their holes on a cost-conscious budget to avoid blowing by the luxury tax . It made for something of a boring winter, and because of the crunch, the Red Sox weren't able to properly address certain depth issues on the 40-man. This, in turn, helped lead to their 69 wins in 2012.
Of course, the Nick Punto trade, which saw Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and the eponymous Punto head west to the Dodgers, helped set up a more exciting offseason. What Boston fielded from that day forward only approximated a major-league roster. What it also allowed for, though, was something of a financial reset, which in turn meant the Red Sox were given an opportunity to address the depth issue and try their roster construction a new way. The early returns have already paid off, as Boston escaped the luxury tax threshold by about $40,000.
That new way, in reality, is more like the old way -- it's the Red Sox style of team building that preceded the Gonzalez trade and the Carl Crawford mega-contract. It's Boston flexing their financial muscle, but instead of pooling it into a couple of high-priced players, they spread it out among many. The star power is a little less, but if things go awry, in theory, the base talent is a lot higher since it's spread out. It makes the Red Sox less dependent on the return of Crawford from whatever injury he happens to be dealing with, or on which version of Gonzalez is planning to show up to the plate that day.
That's how you end up with Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Ryan Dempster, and now Stephen Drew, all for just $61 million in 2013. Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett alone would have accounted for over $59 million in Boston's budget this year, and while Gonzalez and Crawford might be the two best of the entire bunch, there's far more talent spread out on the roster with the way the Red Sox are doing things. Another way to put it: there's less chance that Boston will rely on the Marlon Byrds and Scott Podsedniks of the world to save them should something go amiss in 2013, because the talent is less concentrated in one or two spots. The investments have less upside, but, overall, they're sounder investments to make.
The other difference is contract length -- Boston is using their flexibility to pay players like Victorino, Dempster, and Dempster a bit more money in exchange for cutting down on their demands for years. A team like the Tigers isn't concerned with years as an impediment, because they are to built to win now, in the next couple of seasons while their core is intact. The Red Sox, however, have a different plan: they want to compete now, but what general manager Ben Cherington calls "the next great Red Sox team" isn't finished developing yet. Napoli, Victorino, and Co. are important in the present-day, but as players already in their 30s, the Red Sox don't want them or their contracts around blocking the next wave of talent from within.
In 2015, Boston's rotation loses Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Dempster to free agency. The David Ortiz extension runs out then, too. Andrew Bailey will be a free agent, as will Andrew Miller, Alfredo Aceves, and Franklin Morales. Dustin Pedroia will be in the final option year of his contract, and Jacoby Ellsbury likely would have already been out of town for a year. The same goes for starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. That's a significant portion of the team being given the option to leave in the next couple of seasons, and with that in mind, you see why the Red Sox signed so many two- and three-year deals with free agents this off-season. While 2013 seems like a total reset, 2015 is even more of one.
Now, the Red Sox might re-sign Lester, pick up Lackey's $500,000 option, and extend Pedroia. But, even if they do, it's clear that they are structuring their roster in a way that paves the way for the farm to produce the next core of the Sox. And why shouldn't they? The top of their farm system likely has the talent to pull it off. Xander Bogaerts might not be a shortstop, but he dominated the Carolina League and then slugged .598 at Double-A as a 19-year-old -- his bat will play anywhere, and might do so even before 2015. Jackie Bradley hit .315/.430/.482 with major-league caliber defense in center between High- and Double-A last season, and his notable discipline and plus glove are set to replace Ellsbury in center in 2014. Then there's Matt Barnes and Allen Webster, top-100 pitching prospects who could both be part of that 2015 rotation. While things could go wrong -- they are pitching prospects, after all -- they both have ceilings as mid-rotation starters or better.
That's without mentioning the non-prospects who remain young enough to matter. Will Middlebrooks debuted in 2012 at age-23, and hit .288/.325/.509. He has the potential to be an above-average defender, and his tremendous plate coverage should off-set the walk rate. There's Rubby De La Rosa, who profiles as a mid-rotation starter or a shutdown reliever. Felix Doubront will be 25 in 2013, and he struck out 9.3 batters per nine in his rookie campaign. He has work to do, but there's still a lot of potential there as well. If you're feeling optimistic, there's still a lot a healthy Ryan Kalish could accomplish in his career. That's just the first wave, too, as Boston's lower levels are also full up with arms like Henry Owens (11.5 K/9 at age-19), a switch-hitting 20-year-old catcher in Blake Swihart, plus-defender and shortstop Deven Marrero, high-ceiling third baseman Garin Cecchini, a right-hander with an excellent cutter in Brandon Workman, and lefty Brian Johnson, who is expected to climb the ladder quickly.
These waves of talent were missing from the last few years, part of the reason Boston went the trade and gigantic-contract route to begin with. They have been given the chance to start over, though, and refocus their efforts on developing from within. That, plus their expansive wallet, is what made them so good to begin with, and it's understandable why they'd want to get back there again.