October 1, 2019

Looking Towards 2020 ... With Less Than Perfect Vision

Principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner spoke at length last weekend about the "tough" and "challenging" offseason that has begun for the Red Sox. Henry acknowledged that taking the reins of this team will be "a tough way to start your career as a general manager".

One big issue is the 2020 payroll. Henry says he is determined to get under the first Competitive Balance Threshold level, which is $208 million. The payroll in 2019 was approximately $240 million. "If you don't reset there are penalties, so we've known for some time now we needed to reset as other clubs [such as the MFY] have done."

BUT both Henry and Werner (and president and CEO Sam Kennedy) agreed that getting under $208 is a "goal", not a hard "mandate". Werner was clear that "we'll do whatever we have to do" to "be competitive every year".
One of the things we observe ... [is] there are teams that make the postseason with half the payroll the Red Sox have. Look at the success Oakland has had this year and the Milwaukee Brewers*. And we have resources. And I would just like to say that while we would like to get under the competitive balance tax threshold, we have had years we've been above it, we've had years where we were below it. There may be certain circumstances that we exceed it.
*: The Brewers are no longer in the postseason, thanks to a brutal loss to the Nationals.

Kennedy explained in more detail:
The CBT is always a guidepost in our budgeting ... [I]n the last 17 years [under John Henry], we've been over that CBT threshold 10 times and we will continue to demonstrate a willingness to go over. ... [W]e spent time over the weekend as a group talking with the baseball ops transition team about different scenarios where you could see the possibility [of staying over $208] ... There are lots of decisions facing the Red Sox this offseason. It's a goal but not a hard and fast mandate.
Sean McAdam (Boston Sports Journal) figures the Red Sox are already committed to about $151 million for 2020 (that includes J.D. Martinez's salary of $23.75 million). Amounts for players eligible for arbitration will push the payroll well over $200 million and, as McAdam notes, "represent only about half of the team's projected 25-man roster, making for a tight financial squeeze".

If half the roster brings them to "well over $200 million", then it's much more than a tight squeeze. Being "well over" $200 sounds like a much higher number than $208, so it's actually an impossibility. (Extremely informative spreadsheet at Cot's, worthy of bookmarking.)

McAdam also reports that Kennedy would "prefer" to have somebody in place by November 10, when the GM Meetings begin, but he said he won't rush the process.
We're going into this with a very open mind in terms of how the role may be defined and what the ultimate final structure may be. Baseball has changed dramatically, over the last five years, even. It's just a huge job and there are so many aspects of running a baseball operations department. We're studying different structures within different organizations. We're looking at different people, but ultimately player recommendations and player evaluations will rise to the level of ownership. ...

We could go in any number of directions. Teams have had, I believe in the past, multiple general managers, along with a president of baseball operations. There's a chief baseball officer role out there in the big leagues today. Part of our job in ownership is to examine what fits best with us. The good news for Boston Red Sox fans is given Eddie [Romero] and Raquel [Ferreira] and Zack [Scott] and BOH [Brian O'Halloran] and their experience and their talents, which are many, we have the luxury of time to examine what will work best for us and be most strategic as we go forward.
Werner agreed there's no set timetable:
We're very comfortable with the progress that we've made. We don't think that our situation — we don't feel like we were in dire straits. We just felt like we needed a different approach going forward, but we are very comfortable with the leadership qualities of each of those four people.
Henry noted that he had serious questions regarding Dombrowski's future with the Red Sox immediately after the champagne celebration in October 2018:
[R]ight after the World Series, we had preliminary talks ... and it was clear to me we weren't on the same page at that point. ... There was a difference, I think, in how we thought we should move forward. ... I was hopeful throughout the year that maybe that perception would change. It didn't.
Jen McCaffrey (The Athletic) writes that Henry
wouldn't get into specifics, but the contracts for Nathan Eovaldi, [Steve] Pearce and Chris Sale might have been factors. A scenario in which Henry did not want to make the offers, but Dombrowski insisted and Henry relented, seems plausible. Adding more long-term financial commitments when ownership is hoping to trim payroll is cause for a divide, even if Henry ultimately signed off on the deals.
Another looming question: Can the Red Sox keep both Mookie Betts (who will command upwards of $30 million in arbitration and will be a free agent after next season) and J.D. Martinez (who is due $23.75 million if he doesn't opt out (a decision which must be made within five days after the end of the World Series)) in 2020? Kennedy:
There is a way. But obviously, it will be difficult given the nature of the agreements and the contracts that we have in place. ... [W]e have a very targeted and strategic plan that we're building right now. ... [W]e've had some time in September to focus on the offseason given where we were in the standings. ... [W]e're ready to tackle it head-on and do everything we can to put a competitive team out there not just for next year but for 2021, 2022.
Kennedy was honest when it came to Betts: "I don't know where things are going to end up with Mookie." Werner gave some background, saying that he and Kennedy:
had a nice conversation with Mookie's agent on a couple of different topics a couple of weeks ago. We think he's one of the great players in baseball. ... We've stated publicly that we would hope he would stay with us the rest of his career. We have made proposals to him in the past, and he did want to test free agency, which is his right. ... [T]here'll be a point where hopefully we can make a deal or we'll decide at that point what is Plan B or Plan C, but we haven't gotten to that point and we're very open to continuing discussions.
Chad Finn (Boston Globe) is set to lose his damn mind if Betts is traded, calling such a move "tantamount to malpractice" and "flat-out nutso" and "the dumbest personnel decision since" selling Babe Ruth.
It's tough to get any group of people to agree on anything these days, but I assume Betts – a 26-year-old, home-grown, five-tool superstar who does everything right and might be the best player in the game if not for legend-in-real-time Mike Trout – has something like a 99.9 percent approval rating. And yet the Red Sox, out of a desire — not a need, not a mandate, a desire — to cut payroll and get below the competitive balance tax, are at the very least floating trial balloons on trading arguably the most wellrounded position player we've ever seen in a Red Sox uniform. ...

Imagine how amused we'd be if the Yankees were pushing this on their fanbase with, oh, Aaron Judge, who isn't the player Betts is?

Yet one of the revelations that came from Sunday's last day of school at Fenway is that it seems a foregone conclusion within the locker room that Betts is going to be traded. ...

We better not have seen the last of Betts. But if we did, what a final scene. In an utterly meaningless game Sunday, he played like a playoff berth was at stake, scoring from first after Orioles right fielder Steve Wilkerson non-chalantly threw the ball in as Betts rounded third. It was a brilliant play, one meshing smarts and talent, one that reminded us how much he cares even when there are no stakes beyond that day's outcome.
Chad Jennings (The Athletic) summed up the new GM's to-do list:
What lies ahead ... is a vast, thorny wilderness. The next person in charge is going to have to hack his way through knotted payroll, clear the debris of existing contracts, plant the seeds of rapid player development, heal the wounds of a hobbled rotation and still somehow find his way to the bright sunshine of perennial contention. ... [John Henry and Tom Werner] laid out an intentionally vague vision for what comes next ... They'd like to significantly lower payroll, get more production from the farm system, sign Mookie Betts to an elusive extension and remain in the hunt without an awkward, bottom-of-the-division transition period. All they need is someone who knows how to do it.
Jennings writes that even as Henry and Werner offered answers, "they left more questions in their wake":
How was payroll allowed to get so high if massive cuts were always in the cards? ...

Why was Dombrowski allowed to spend when Henry wanted to save from the very beginning? ...

[If getting the payroll down to $208] was the goal all along, and so was signing Betts for the long haul, how did they sign off on payroll reaching that point in the first place?

Given such a mandate, what is the candidate pool, and is it truly one of the most coveted jobs in the game?
Jennings goes the extra mile and offers "a modest blueprint" for the offseason: "10 steps that could help the Red Sox meet their financial goals while giving them a chance to compete in 2020 and beyond" (Can you imagine the CHB doing anything remotely like this?):
1. Keep Mookie Betts (until the trade deadline)

2. Stick with the plan to cut payroll
Ownership really is willing to go back over if it feels it's necessary to contend in 2020. But the pursuit itself is worthwhile. ... For the Red Sox, it's especially important because of Betts. Want to be in the best position to make him a long-term offer when he inevitably hits the open market before 2021? It certainly will help to owe a 20 percent luxury tax instead of a 50 percent luxury tax. Getting payroll below $208 million might prove impossible – more on that in a bit – but it's the right idea.

3. If J.D. Martinez opts out, let him go

4. Non-tender Steven Wright, Heath Hembree and Sandy León

5. Trade Jackie Bradley Jr.
One further outside-the-box alternative: Trade Benintendi. Again, a valuable player, but one that's still fairly cheap and controllable.

6. Eat salary until David Price or Nathan Eovaldi becomes tradeable
File this under "easier said than done" ... Price and Eovaldi each have three years left on their deals. Price is making $32 million per year – imagine that emoji with the wide eyes right here – while Eovaldi is making $17 million per year.

7. Hand Michael Chavis a job on the right side of the infield
Boston's internal metrics were surprisingly bullish on Chavis as a second baseman. He moves well for a big guy, so there's some validity to him as a second-base option. He could also play first base, considering that is wide open. Whatever the position, Chavis is the best bet for cheap offense from an internal position player. He was occasionally exposed this season, but a commitment to player development is going to require riding those ups and downs. ...

8. Put the pro scouts to work
Call it luck if you'd like, but playoff teams routinely get important production from under-the-radar signings who provide production at a minimal cost. The Red Sox are going to have to follow suit. ... [K]eep tabs on free agents like Brian Dozier, Neil Walker, Eric Thames, Justin Smoak, Lonnie Chisenhall — the list goes on, and we'll defer to a scouting department that's already found cheap pitching help from Brasier and Walden the past two years. ...

9. Re-sign Rick Porcello to a one-year deal
[I]t's hard to justify going through the upcoming winter without adding a starter who can give the Red Sox innings. And given that need, it's hard to find a better buy-low bounce-back candidate than Porcello. The alternatives are guys like Tanner Roark, Ivan Nova and Michael Wacha. ... [Porcello is] a known commodity as a clubhouse leader, and he likes Boston enough that he just might take a discount to stick around.

10. Hold on to Tanner Houck and Bryan Mata
[T]hese two stand out as young pitchers who fit a specific need: potential big-league starters who could be ready by the end of 2020. In Houck's case, he could be a big-league starter before the first day of summer. ... [H]e has the system's best combination of upside and experience ... with potential for real impact and staying power. Mata is younger and farther away, but ... [h]e's also arguably the top pitching prospect in the system. ... [T]he Red Sox have long needed a homegrown starter, and these two could fill that void in the relatively near future.
Alex Speier quotes another Red Sox executive, who said plainly, regarding Chris Sale, David Price, and Nathan Eovaldi:
It's pretty simple. If those three guys are healthy and good, we can be really good. And if they're not, then we probably won't be.
Steve Buckley, formerly of the Boston Herald, now writes for The Athletic, where his sarcastic attitude has been (thankfully) muted, but it's still off-putting at a venue refreshingly free of unnecessary nonsense.
You'll recall that Dave Dombrowski, Boston's deposed president of baseball operations, seemed to take delight in not answering the most basic questions about what was going on with the club. That Kennedy is able to open the door a crack and offer some starter-kit insights into what's happening deep inside Fenway Park is itself a reason for fans to continue investing in the Red Sox. Perhaps Kennedy's local roots — raised in Brookline, as was his old runnin' buddy Theo Epstein, etc. — liberates him from the bad habit of ladling out nonsense and expecting to get away with it.
"Ladling out nonsense and expecting to get away with it"? Isn't that an exact description of the CHB's job?
You're entitled, encouraged even, to find a transcript of Kennedy's remarks and interpret them however you wish.
Indeed. The new forms of media have rendered columns such as Buckley's utterly irrelevant. But, if you really must know what he thinks:
[T]here might be another season or two of 80-something wins before there's another World Series parade. If you're a Sox fan poised to buy tickets for 2020, you don't know if Mookie Betts will be in the lineup on Opening Day. You don't know if J.D. Martinez will be in the lineup on Opening Day. You don't know if Chris Sale and David Price will be healthy, other than management 'expects' them to be healthy. What you do know is you'll pay a little more to step into America's Most Beloved Ballpark (a made-up designation from the playbook of the great Larry Lucchino during his days as CEO) in 2020.
A necessary corrective: Even if the organization's outlook was 100% sunshine and puppies and there was unlimited cash to throw at anything that even resembled a problem, fans would still not know if Martinez would be in the Opening Day lineup or if Sale and Price are going to be reliable aces.

Those are issues completely unrelated to payroll and the decisions of the next GM. The Red Sox cannot simply wish Sale to be healthy and have it be so and they have no input in Martinez's decision regarding his opt-out clause. ... And Mookie could drop a bowling ball on his foot and miss the first few months of next season.


Jim said...

Nice recap, especially the Cotts spread. JD's decision will dictate a whole lot, probably more than whoever the new Prez/GM is. Then Mookie. Don't bother believing anything you read about the health of the Big 3 SP's until you actually see them pitch in a real game. The new Prez's first challenge he/she has some say in may be what to do with the 40 mil waiting for Pedroia ...

FenFan said...

I have doubts that Julio Daniel will opt out of his contract this offseason because I don't think the market is there to get him more than what he commands over the next few seasons ($62.5M). Who's out there that will spend more than that for the same three years or longer. Look at how long it took for some of the big-name FA to sign a contract -- Keuchel (one year, $13M) and Kimbrel (three years, $43M with fourth year team option for $16M) both signed in June.

I really do hope the Sox find a way to keep Betts for another year and longer, but it will take some serious money shuffling to make it happen. Fingers crossed...

allan said...

Pedroia's money is guaranteed ($13 next year, $12 in 2021).

JDM had to sit around and wait before he signed with the Red Sox, too. And he got roughly half of what the initial (high) reports were. He may not want to do that again. Also depends what other sluggers are out there this winter.

Jim said...

Re: Pedroia's money, say he wants to retire and spread the 40 mil over the next 10 years. Is the 40 mil still applied to the luxury tax as is--ie 3 years? So no re-negotiation even if it benefits both sides? (Presumably Pedroia's income tax bill would be better if spread over 10 years).

Jim said...

Oops. My bad on Pedroia. I mis-read the chart and thought he had 3 years left. It's two (DUH) and it's all his.