Tomase: With money to spend this winter, will the Red Sox take advantage? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
In the modern baseball front office's never-ending quest for efficiency, may I suggest a new course: inefficiency.
The Red Sox are just one of many big-market clubs to embrace a small-market mentality in recent years. The Dodgers went small for years while building a powerhouse, and only in recent offseasons -- Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman -- have begun opening their wallets again.
Outside of $324 million right-hander Gerrit Cole, the Yankees have operated like a shadow of their former selves under Hal Steinbrenner, prioritizing the CBT line over wanton spending. One of the key members of last year's Red Sox bullpen, right-hander Adam Ottavino, came from New York in a straight salary dump, for instance.
The only teams consistently spending in this current environment are the Padres and Mets, and they've built impressive rosters. The Padres have survived the loss of franchise shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. to injury and PED suspension to compile 73 wins, and they just acquired superstar Juan Soto at the trade deadline. If the season ended today, they'd be in the playoffs.
The Mets, meanwhile, own the second-best record in the National League behind $324 million shortstop Francisco Lindor and right-hander Max Scherzer, whose $43.3 million salary is the highest ever. Their owner, Steve Cohen, seems intent on turning back the clock to a time when a team in a market like New York could boast a limitless payroll. He is the exception among his cost-conscious peers.
So that brings us to inefficiency as the new efficiency, and specifically the Red Sox. In a market where traditional big spenders like the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, and Giants have taken a more risk-averse approach to free agency and long-term commitments, there's an opening for a team to attack free agency while virtually everyone else prioritizes value and flexibility.
The deal the Mets gave Scherzer is a perfect example. No one expected the three-time Cy Young winner and future Hall of Famer to sign anywhere other than the West Coast when free agency began, but Cohen got creative by offering the 37-year-old a short-term deal with huge annual average values.
Scherzer signed for three years and $130 million with an opt out after two seasons. All he has given the Mets since is a 9-4 record and 2.27 ERA in 19 starts. Imagine that production in the Red Sox rotation right now.
If there's a pitcher who could be in line for a Scherzer-style deal this winter, it's his teammate, Jacob deGrom. The 34-year-old has been a mess from a health standpoint over the last two years, making just 21 starts thanks to elbow and shoulder woes. He's about as bad a candidate as can be for a long-term contract, but for short years at a huge salary is just the kind of player a rich team can afford to gamble on.
After all, in those 21 starts, deGrom is 11-3 with a 1.33 ERA. He remains the single most dominating starter in the game when he's able to take the mound and Cohen has already signaled that he intends to keep him, assuming deGrom follows through on his promise to opt out this fall.
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This is relevant to the Red Sox because they're sitting on a ton of money. With roughly $92 million committed to next season and the luxury tax line moving to $233 million, they'll have about $140 million to spend before worrying about incurring any CBT penalties.
Their expected strategy would be to scour the margin for bargains, players who will sign for two or three years and perhaps provide the kind of value the club received from Hunter Renfroe and Kiké Hernández last year. There are limits to this approach, however, because players in this class have ceilings. They're complements to superstars, not replacements for them, and the Red Sox are staring at a distressing lack of top-end talent.
One way to replenish that talent is to outspend the dwindling number of teams willing to pay for it. The Padres appear to be pretty tapped out. The Dodgers barely have any holes and will be looking to retain All-Star shortstop Trea Turner. The Rangers spent wildly last winter and have only 58 wins to show for it (making them a cautionary tale, to be fair). The Cubs are entering a rebuild. The Yankees seem determined to remain right around the CBT threshold.
If fewer teams are willing to spend, that creates opportunities for those who want to be aggressive. The Red Sox will be positioned to do so this winter. Perhaps that's a market inefficiency they can exploit.