With the trade deadline over and no likely significant acquisitions on the way, the Red Sox roster is pretty much as it will be through the end of the season. Not only is this the roster that will chase October, it’s the roster that GM Ben Cherington will have to build off of for 2013. With that in mind, let’s look at upcoming decisions that will have to be made once the season is over, and how the final two months could impact those decisions.
First off, the Red Sox already start 2013 with one hand tied behind their back, much like this year. Cherington will have to wait yet again for meaningful moves, unless he’s able to shed the vast majority of Josh Beckett’s contract. The club already has just under $107 million guaranteed to players next season, and just nine of them at that. Six players are slated to earn double-digit millions next year: Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Beckett, John Lackey, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester. Also holding guaranteed deals are Clay Buchholz, Jose Iglesias and Nick Punto. Given that the luxury tax threshold will stay stable at $178 million for one more year, we can reasonably allocate roughly $70 million to the remainder of the roster.
The biggest free agent the club will drop and not bring back is Daisuke Matsuzaka, who is absolutely a goner. The Sox won’t have any room in the rotation and an eagerness to move on is already prevalent on both sides. David Ortiz is also an impending free agent, but it’s unfathomable not to mark him down for the DH spot next season. With a tremendous season so far, a $15 million salary next year looks certain if Boston offers arbitration. If they don’t, Ortiz could return at a lesser deal over two years, but it also opens the possibility of him leaving. Putting that terrible thought aside, the Red Sox also have to contend with arbitration raises to:
Jacoby Ellsbury (last year of eligibility and could crack $10 million depending how strong he finishes), Andrew Bailey (probably a good bet for $4.2-ish million), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (also his last year and probably good for around $4-5 million), Craig Breslow, Ryan Sweeney, Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller, Mike Aviles, Franklin Morales, Rich Hill and Mark Melancon. All told, to bring everyone back, you’re probably looking at an additional $10 million on top of their current salaries — and that’s probably conservative. Add in Big Papi’s deal, and now you have $50 million at the most left to fill the team out. Account for Cody Ross, Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook and Kelly Shoppach being free agents as well as the myriad depth players that will be given deals both in the off-season and in-season. And maybe you want to leave some space for in-season trades. The money will rack up. Still, $50 million left with your biggest hole being a right-fielder and a back-end starter (although acquiring a front-end one is rather necessary) is pretty good given the composition of the team, and a lot of that has to do with Dice-K and Kevin Youkilis’ deals vanishing.
Cody Ross, in particular, is having a career season. That’s great for Ross and great for the 2012 Red Sox, but the more he produces, the lesser the odds that Boston brings him back. That might sound odd, but keep in mind that Ross is having a career year, historically has a notable platoon split and also historically is not nearly as good as he has been this year. If Ross can sustain his performance the rest of the year, he’ll have significant salary demands and the Red Sox aren’t the type of team to overpay a player based on just one good season. Of course, if Ross plays such an integral part in the club’s successes moving forward (and success isn’t a sure thing) and the club feels he made significant changes to his approach and/or that he is tailored for Fenway, the Sox might bite. Either way, Ross is due a bump from his $3 million salary.
Don’t expect the Sox to pony up for a right-fielder, either. Josh Hamilton is out there on the market, but he will be asking a significant amount of money for a fairly inury-prone player. It’s hard to imagine the Red Sox making a big payday to the likes of Melky Cabrera or Shane Victorino either, none of whom seem to be good fits for right field. The Sox could easily just go with Ryan Kalish in right and hope that Kalish breaks through with a productive season, as well as banking on full-season production from Crawford and Ellsbury filling the breach. They could also go after mid-tier types of right-fielders such as Nick Swisher. (Or get creative and hand B.J. Upton a one-year, make-good deal ala Adrian Beltre and stick him in right.)
The bottom line is this: with six long-term deals, of which only two expire after 2014, it’s difficult to see the Sox handing out a massive deal this off-season unless they can clear some money by dealing Josh Beckett. We might be looking at another similar season to 2012, banking on excellence from big players while trying to gain payroll flexibility. Of course, the fact that the luxury tax will jump to $189 million in 2014 and $33 million coming off the books after 2014 in Beckett and Lester could motivate the team to bite the bullet for one year in 2013. But then you have to worry about replacing Beckett and Lackey in the rotation. (And no, it won’t be easy.)
Set your expectations accordingly. In a market that already doesn’t have a lot of top-end, elite talent, it’s hard to fathom Boston doing what it takes to bring a player like Zack Greinke or Mike Napoli to town.
Of course, payroll space can be gained in other ways. For example, it was heard that the Rangers and Red Sox discussed a trade this week that would have sent Beckett, Ellsbury and Shoppach to Texas. There’s no word on what the return would have been, but stud shortstop prospect Jurickson Profar springs to mind. That’s exactly the kind of deal Boston should make — acquiring a young, cost-controlled asset at a position of need while clearing out pricey (and in Beckett’s case, dead weight) players. Don’t be surprised to see a similar deal revisited this offseason, whether with the Rangers or elsewhere. The club already has an internal player ready to take over for Ellsbury in Ryan Kalish and Jackie Bradley not too far away, so the club can afford to tap into Ellsbury’s trade value. The time to trade Ellsbury will be this offseason, so the acquiring team can recoup a draft pick thanks to carrying him the entire year, a new rule under the labor agreement. If Ellsbury stays with the Sox, he’ll either stay the entire year or be dealt at the deadline for a return much like Shane Victorino or Hunter Pence got the Phillies — which is to say, nothing special.
To me, the most intriguing players to watch the rest of the way that could significantly affect the outcome of Boston’s off-season moves are Cody Ross, Josh Beckett and Jacoby Ellsbury, for reasons previously explained. Carl Crawford’s recovery will also be crucial, as Ben Cherington needs to decide whether Crawford needs to start being treated like a sunk cost, or someone who can be a playmaker and help assume the burden on offense that makes filling other spots on offense less of a concern.