Moneyball was all about market inefficiency, right? Not fat catchers and on-base percentage, but market inefficiency.
There is a case to be made for the Red Sox continuing to spend in free agency. Right now. The argument centers on the depressed free-agent market and how far the Sox' free-agent dollar could stretch this year, in combination with their win-now build and a specific benefit they received from staying under the luxury tax this past season.
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The Royals, who were entering a rebuild, just brought back Mike Moustakas for one year and a guaranteed $6.5 million, far less than anyone expected he would receive at the winter’s outset.
He’s not a piece that would have made a ton of sense for the Sox. Few position players would make sense. But he was a steal, and there may be other steals to be had. The Sox' pitching situation can more readily be improved. An extra starter wouldn’t be so bad.
Look at the Astros, who have six, and the Rangers, who are planning a six-man rotation. Guys get hurt, as the Sox well know. Eduardo Rodriguez in a bullpen role, if only temporarily once he’s back from surgery, could be swell.
Morning. I'm beginning to think the Red Sox should sign Jake Arrieta.— Paul Swydan (@Swydan) March 9, 2018
If, say, Jake Arrieta can be had at a discounted price that may never be seen again, if we then believe the market will never be quite this paltry, there’s bang for your buck in spending now rather than next year, when the Yankees and Dodgers are back playing in the big-dollar sandbox. Alex Cobb is out there, Lance Lynn too.
Brand-name players, the Red Sox are well aware, do excite the fanbase — particularly when they arrive as a surprise. A mid-spring addition of Arrieta would add a buzz beyond J.D. Martinez, whose addition created a stir but was also anything but a surprise. The Sox don’t play for buzz, but intrigue should not be discounted — particularly when it can be acquired at, well, a discount.
Then there’s the bullpen. Here’s betting that as they stand now, the Sox will need to add a reliever in-season. They brought in Fernando Abad and Brad Ziegler in 2016, and Addison Reed in 2017.
The Sox said at the start of the winter they wanted a lefty reliever and they instead added no relievers. Greg Holland isn't a lefty, but he can help.
Alex Speier of the Boston Globe recently noted the Sox may have less than $5 million to spend on an in-season addition, presumably to be acquired via trade.
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“With the spring training additions of J.D. Martinez and Eduardo Nunez, the Red Sox are on track to have the highest payroll in Major League Baseball [in 2018] and in team history,” Speier wrote. “As of now, the team has more than $230 million committed to its payroll as calculated for luxury tax purposes — more than $25 million beyond any level at which the team has previously spent.”
So, why wait?
It’s always easier to spend someone else’s money, but there could be advantages to crossing the $237 million barrier now.
If it is inevitable, or at least a significant possibility, the team reaches the $237 million mark in-season, it’s better to acquire talent now for the full year and without the cost of trading prospects, which aren’t exactly abundant.
As of now, the Sox are paying a 20 percent tax on their payroll above $197 million, and 32 percent on their payroll above $217 million. If they cross $237 million — the next demarkation in a tiered system — they still pay those amounts, and then 62.5 percent on anything above $237 million. Not 62.5 percent on everything above $197, to be clear, just on how much they go beyond $237 million.
The real harm at $237 million? The Sox would also see their draft pick in 2019 drop 10 spots. But the Sox won’t be picking very high anyway in 2019 because they’re a contending team. Draft order is based on the previous year’s record. Are they really losing that much with a draft pick at say, No. 37 rather than No. 27?
Here’s the other thing: if the Red Sox today signed someone who received a qualifying offer, such as Cobb or Arrieta, they would be doing so with the lowest possible penalty.
How much you give up when you sign a qualifying-offer player is tied, in part, to whether you went beyond the luxury tax in the most recent year. The Sox were under in 2017. Right now, the Sox would have to give up their second-highest draft pick and $500,000 in international money.
Had they been over (as they will be this year and presumably several years going forward) they would be required to surrender their second and fifth-highest draft picks, plus suffer a deduction of $1 million in international money.
The Sox would be in rare territory if they went this route: Dodgers and Yankees territory. And they probably won't go this route. But there's something potentially exciting about Boston flexing its big-market muscle in an unexpected way. And there's something to be said for maximizing the benefit of their choice to stay under the luxury tax in 2017, which had its drawbacks.
“There have only been two [teams] that have gone $40 [million] or more over,” union head Tony Clark noted recently. “So everybody seems to be playing in that first $20 million buffer.”