The Boston Red Sox were released from payroll purgatory after trading Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto and over $260 million in combined salaries to the Los Angeles Dodgers in late August.
With that purge, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington had an opportunity to build a new roster on his terms, rather than the one he inherited. Payroll flexibility was the new operative phrase at Fenway Park.
Because of that wiggle room in the Red Sox budget, many figured that Boston would be a player for the top free agents, notably Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke. But did it make sense for Cherington to loosen up his payroll, only to fatten it up again with yet another paralyzing long-term, nine-figure contract?
However, there is some concern that the Red Sox have again tied up their payroll after giving three-year, $39 million deals to both Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino. Add the two-year, $10 million package used to sign Jonny Gomes and the two-year, $6.2 million for David Ross, and Boston has handed out nearly $100 million in contracts.
But have the Red Sox really squandered their coveted payroll flexibility with these contracts? That $100 million netted four players, which includes a starting first baseman, two-thirds of a starting outfield and perhaps the best backup catcher in MLB.
It will probably take the same amount of money to sign Hamilton, depending on how many years he gets on a contract. Signing Greinke will reportedly take more than $150 million, according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman.
However, it's not necessarily the money that raised eyebrows with the Napoli and Victorino signings. Not in terms of annual salary, at least. Critics of these contracts are pointing to the third year offered in each deal.
The Texas Rangers weren't willing to go to a third year with Napoli, perhaps because he was coming off a poor 2012 season during which he hit .227 with an .812 OPS, 24 home runs and 56 RBI. That was a step back from the .320 average, 1.046 OPS and 30 homers he put up the previous year.
Apparently, that's not a concern for the Red Sox. For one thing, Napoli will play more at first base than catcher, which should reduce the wear and tear on his body over the duration of his contract.
Additionally, as Over the Monster's Marc Normandin points out, Fenway Park is ideally suited for a hitter like Napoli, who hits many fly balls and likes to pull the ball. He should hit more home runs in Boston.
Napoli could also be the team's designated hitter after David Ortiz's deal expires after 2014. That might be why the Red Sox were willing to give Napoli that third year on his contract. And if that additional year was the difference in getting Napoli or losing him, $13 million will not handcuff the Boston payroll.
The Tribe likely felt that a fourth year would give them the edge over the Red Sox, but Victorino apparently—and rightly so—thought that the Red Sox were a better situation, much closer to playoff contention.
Like Napoli, however, Victorino is coming off a poor season. Actually, it was the worst year of his career, with a .255 average, .704 OPS, 11 home runs and 55 RBI. That has some wondering why the Red Sox signed him to a contract averaging more per year than Angel Pagan got from the San Francisco Giants.
But as with Napoli, Victorino is one year removed from the best season of his career in which he hit .279 with an .847 OPS, 16 triples, 17 homers and 61 RBI. In an environment like Fenway Park—the third-best ballpark for hitters, according to ESPN.com's park factors—Victorino could experience a hitting revival.
Obviously, that's what the Red Sox are banking on.
Signing Victorino also provides the team with a potential starting centerfielder, giving Cherington the flexibility to possibly deal Jacoby Ellsbury for pitching help or prospects that can rebuild the organization's minor league depth.
Victorino's numbers look better for a centerfielder than right fielder, which is traditionally more of a power position—especially for the Red Sox. At $13 million per season, he'll turn out to be something of a bargain compared to the five-year, $75.25 million B.J. Upton signed with the Atlanta Braves and whatever Hamilton or Michael Bourn receive on the open market.
But most importantly, these moves have not destroyed the payroll flexibility created by clearing Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett off their payroll in August.
As outlined in detail by Alex Speier of WEEI.com, the Red Sox payroll looks to be $138 million when also factoring in the players already under contract and the deals that will be signed through arbitration, along with the names that are not yet eligible for arbitration and thus, won't be very expensive.
If Boston is looking at the $178 million luxury tax threshold for 2013 as the limit for their payroll next season, the Red Sox still project to have $40 million available to spend. If Ellsbury is traded, that cushion expands to nearly $50 million.
With that kind of payroll flexibility still remaining, the Red Sox actually could still be in play for Hamilton if they so choose and the market works in their favor.
However, Cherington is probably more likely to use those resources to sign a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, bring in a shortstop and perhaps add a closer if the team is still concerned about Andrew Bailey.
This also gives the Red Sox flexibility for when the luxury tax threshold increases to $189 million in 2014.
While there should be some concern over Napoli and Victorino—and maybe even Gomes—the Red Sox limited their risk by keeping those contracts limited to three years.
These are not the seven-year, albatross type of commitments made to players like Gonzalez, contracts that eventually handcuffed the franchise. Cherington looks to have learned a lesson from the mistakes of the Theo Epstein era in the Red Sox front office.
The payroll flexibility is still there, and that keeps Boston in play for the top free-agent talent that's still available on the market. There's no reason to think this team can't be a threat in the AL East and wild-card playoff races next season.
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