The Red Sox unloaded over a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in future commitments in the Nick Punto trade with the Dodgers this past August. Payroll flexibility was acquired, a few legitimate, upper-level pitching prospects were brought back, and, maybe less importantly, but still a thing, Boston pushed reset on their clubhouse. The move also allowed new general manager Ben Cherington to begin to build his Red Sox team, rather than work within constricting parameters set by his predecessor, Theo Epstein.
To get a sense of what that was like, look no further than Cherington's first off-season as GM. He had to maneuver through the winter with roughly $10 million to spend, trading infielder Marco Scutaro for a minor-league pitcher in order to clear additional space to work with, just so the team could fill out the 25-man roster. This was because of the contracts that were eventually traded in August, and also because the new collective-bargaining agreement froze the luxury tax threshold at $178 million for a second year.
This off-season, things are different. Boston started out with under $40 million in guaranteed contracts, allowing them to easily bring David Ortiz back, and then spend a little extra to outbid other teams for sought-after role players like Jonny Gomes ($5 million per year) and David Ross ($3.1 million). Throw in their arbitration-eligible players, their pre-arb guys, and all the rest of the spending that counts against the luxury tax threshold, and Boston entered the winter meetings with around $60 million more to play with than they did a year ago.
That's as much or more money than four teams spent on their entire rosters in 2012. And, with no long-term deals left on the books, Boston's future maneuverability looked just as bright: they were responsible for $54 million in 2014, and just $13 million in 2015 -- that meant there was room to add with multi-year deals if they wanted. And that brings us to their meetings, where they have signed both Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino to three-year, $39 million contracts.
In the present, that brings Boston up to $138 million against the luxury tax, according to research by Alex Speier. With the threshold at $178 million once again, that gives the Red Sox $40 million left to play with until next off-season. Thanks to these signings, the only item of financial consequence left to acquire is a starting pitcher -- even Zack Greinke won't cost $40 million per year, and they aren't signing him anyway.
Boston has replaced their departed first baseman and corner outfielder, who combine for nearly $43 million this year, with $26 million in contracts for 2013, all while shedding future salary and years. It's also worth remembering that if the two players Boston was paying performed as they were supposed to, there would have been much less of a mess to clean up to begin with. Throw in that they also received two starting pitching prospects Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, who should both be in the majors by 2014, and you can see why Boston did what they did in principle. What are they actually getting in Victorino and Napoli, though?
Victorino had a down season in 2012, putting up his worst offensive campaign since he first became a full-time player. With that in mind, $13 million per year seems like too much. However, Boston paid a little more money per year to avoid giving Victorino a fourth season -- the Indians had offered four years at $44 million. This was the Red Sox using their financial flexibility to their advantage, bringing him to town on their terms when it comes to years. It's not a great contract, but Victorino offers enough that it isn't going to be a bad one, either. Considering how the free agent market works -- Nick Swisher and Josh Hamilton would have cost more money, years, and a draft pick -- breaking even is a victory, too.
Much like his contract, Victorino's 2012 wasn't great, but it wasn't bad: thanks to his defense and his excellent baserunning. He was an above-average player overall, regardless of whether your preferred win estimator comes from Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, or Baseball Prospectus. While he'll play in right in Boston rather than center, even his 2012 season isn't an awful fit: his OPS was just eight percent below the right field average last year, and that's without adjusting for pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. If he bounces back even a little bit, he'll more than earn the $13 million being paid to him.
The Red Sox believe playing in a contract year and dealing with trade rumors hampered Victorino's season. If they're wrong, and 2012 is his new baseline, then he's being paid basically fairly. If they're right, though, and he returns to pre-2012 form, then they ended up with a bargain in the future by not settling for a one-year, make-good contract for 2013.
As for Napoli, it comes down to Fenway being possibly the best fit in the majors for his style of hitting. Napoli hits towering fly balls, and a whole lot of them, and while he can spray the ball with authority to all fields, pull power remains his forte. Napoli, a right-handed hitter, is now going to get to play 81 games at Fenway Park, in front of a 37-foot wall that, while the tallest in the land, is less than half the height of his average homer.* A whole lot of fly-ball outs in Texas are going to become singles, doubles, and homers at Fenway, and in a year where the first base market was nearly bereft of options, it's hard to ask for more than that.
*Hit Tracker Online not only tracks home run length, but also height, listing the apex of each homer. Napoli's last few seasons reside in the mid-80s, and the Monster is just over 300 feet away.
There are concerns about how he'll age, given his old-player skills, but Boston can actually handle this problem now thanks to the financial flexibility they received in the trade. If Napoli (or Victorino) are done in 2015, there's room to maneuver to make up for that, whether at the trade deadline or in the off-season, whereas at Gonzalez and Crawford prices, the risk was still there, but the financial room was not.
Boston's roster still has question marks, and it needs some things to go their way. Because of that, though, it makes more sense to sign short-term deals for players like Napoli and Victorino, deals that don't cost them draft picks or impede future flexibility. Boston isn't rebuilding, and they aren't quite reloading: They're trying to get back to what they used to do, balancing financial strength and a productive farm system, to become the player-development machine they used to be. It gives the Red Sox a chance to compete in the present while bridging to their future, at a time when their farm system is strong thanks to an excess of first-round picks the last few years and the return from the Dodgers deal.