Red Sox

Drellich: Red Sox luxury-tax approach looks bad with paltry offense

Drellich: Red Sox luxury-tax approach looks bad with paltry offense

HOUSTON — Has it been worth staying under the luxury tax for Red Sox ownership? Is a first-round embarrassment worth it?

It's strange the Red Sox never came out and had the courage to say it directly: this is what we’re doing. We are staying under the luxury tax threshold, our weak offense without David Ortiz be damned.

You can draw a direct line from the imminent downfall of the 2017 Sox to saving money.

Hitting isn’t all that’s off right now. Through two games of the American League Division Series, every Sox problem can be dismissed with another complaint.

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Sure, the lineup is full of National League featherweights. But with pitching like this, the Sox could never go anywhere anyway. Yeah, that baserunning continues to be frightening, but they’re never on base enough for it to matter, so that’s dumb to focus on. No, Angel Hernandez’s strike zone didn’t help in the early going Friday. But when you’re playing the Superhuman Astros, you think the umpire is really going to swing things?

“They've done everything right and we haven't done anything right,” Dustin Pedroia said Friday.

That about sums it up.

But if you want the chicken-and-the-egg discussion, the Sox’ biggest issue is easy to identify. The Astros’ greatest strength, hitting, is the Sox’ weakness. 

"We can’t go out and bang like them and can’t do a lot of things they can do," Mookie Betts said Friday. "But we can do what we can do."

He needed help. This whole lineup did. Dating to last October, everyone figured a slugger was coming to Boston in Big Papi's place: Edwin Encarnacion, specifically.

The Sox went after Chris Sale instead. Not a bad choice. 

But they could have done both. "Instead" didn't have to be an operative word. 

They could have gotten creative and found a way to make Encarnacion’s salary work under the luxury tax threshold, if they were so concerned about staying under. 

And ownership was concerned about staying under. Executives have talked about the benefits of it. But the Sox have never said, "We’re doing this, it is our goal to stay under." They always tried to leave the door to flexibility open.

Why? Why not be direct with your fan base, with the players’ union? Is there something shameful in not spending? With a team this good, maybe.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman didn’t dance around the matter in a recent interview with the New York Post’s Joel Sherman. 

“We are getting under the threshold next year,” Cashman said.

In a sense, the Sox' 2017 offense — the 2017 season — came down to money. It came down to the Sox' preference to avoid the penalties involved with exceeding the luxury tax three straight years. 

Most people, the Sox’ own management included, didn’t expect the kind of offensive drop-off the Sox wound up having. 

But they were dealing with young players who had breakout seasons in 2016 who did not have lengthy track records previously. It’s not stunning Mookie Betts didn’t push Mike Trout in the MVP race again. It’s not stunning Xander Bogaerts had his struggles, or Jackie Bradley Jr. That all of them would have a drop-off is harder to plan for.

But the Sox had the trade deadline to react. The thinking then was the same as it was last winter: stay under that luxury tax threshold. 

Now, it’s not only money that’s at play when you exceed the threshold for multiple years. As explained previously:

The tax for spending more than $195 million this season would be 50 percent for the Red Sox on anything up to $20 million more. In dollars and cents for very wealthy owners, that’s not extreme, although it would commit the Red Sox to the same level of penalties next season.

The steeper penalties come in for teams that really blow past the threshold. In excess of $20 million, you get hit hard; and then one more tier, in excess of $40 million, you get hit the hardest.

If the Sox went above by any amount this year, their offseason could indeed be trickier —  but they wouldn't be destroyed with penalties. 

To sign a player who received a qualifying offer this winter, the Sox would have to give up their second and fifth highest draft selections, and also would see their international signing bonus money reduced by $1 million. If they stay under the threshold, the Sox would give up less to sign the same player.

Similarly, if the Sox lose a qualifying-offer player to another team, they don’t get as high a draft pick in return as they would if they were under the threshold. (Chris Young and Mitch Moreland probably aren't getting qualifying offers, though.)

In short: going over the threshold by $20 million or less doesn't bring the hammer down.

There are worthy reasons to stay under the threshold. But there are also reasons to stay over. And if you're going to stay under, at least get creative enough to cover up for the lack of spending. 

The Sox' greatest stumble this year might have been over a pile of cash.

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Drellich: Red Sox identity, standing as league's best will be tested

Drellich: Red Sox identity, standing as league's best will be tested

The greatest question the Red Sox face entering the second half of the season — well, final two-fifths, really — whether they’re good enough to avoid a Wild Card game. Whether they hold on to the American League East and keep the Yankees at bay. 

How many wins the Sox (68-30) wind up with does not matter outside of that context. A 105-win season would look plenty disappointing if it gives way to a loss in the only playoff game the Sox play in 2018.

Lurking in the background is more of a question of context and remembrance. Will these Sox eventually be recalled for something other than being outrageously good? 

They do not need to be, mind you. No team needs to do anything besides win (and act responsibly and benevolently as citizens, you could also say). This is the best team in baseball, with 64 games left on its schedule. They arrive, they rake and shove, they do it again the next day. It's 2007 all over again.

“It’s a very weird feeling in the clubhouse,” J.D. Martinez said in Washington D.C., during the All-Star Game festivities. “From the moment I got into spring training, it’s like everyone goes out there and whether we’re losing by a lot or we’re winning by a lot, the mood is always the same. There’s never any panic. 

"There’s no really like highs and lows it seems like in the clubhouse. It’s just everything is kind of like, even-keeled. So to me it’s like, it’s almost like that’s who we are: we’re playing like how we’re supposed to be playing."

The Sox are not underdogs with the highest payroll in baseball. They’re not all bearded. There are no reports of Jack Daniels shots prior to games. There’s certainly no curse to be broken, or any other broad backdrop, aside from the desire to avenge early exits in 2016 and 2017.

None of those threads are necessary for enjoyment, although they can act as an enhancement. Perhaps there’s a blue-collar narrative to be found here, if you can ignore the highest payroll in baseball. 

“Ah man, I don’t know,” Martinez said when asked about identity. “I feel like this is a very close group. It almost feels like a family. Everyone’s rooting for each other. I don’t know if I can put a label on it, it’s just, everyone always wants to grow and get better. Everyone’s always asking questions, and continuing to just not be satisfied I feel like in their own. They always want to get better. It’s been fun.”

The questions for Martinez and Mookie Betts didn’t stop at the All-Star Game, either. Both players will be high vote-getters in the American League MVP race, and Betts may well win. The duo, led by Martinez’s methods as well as hitting coach Tim Hyers, seems to have figured something out, a hitting approach that maximizes their off-the-chart talents.

“There’s a lot of hitting talk, but it’s not necessarily, ‘How do you do it?’” Betts said when asked if All-Stars were trying to understand what he and Martinez have been doing. “It’s the approaches and what not that you use. Just passing along information, that’s how everybody gets better. Everybody wants to get better.”

Hard to imagine the Sox actually getting better, given it would be a shock if they did not win 100 games. The Sox need to play .500 ball the rest of the way to reach that vaunted mark.

Martinez was asked if the Sox have peaked.

“I don’t know, you can always get better, right?” he said. “But we have a good team. I think we’re a very versatile team. I always say this: like, this is a team that can beat you in multiple ways. You can have someone throw a shutout and us put up one run. Or you know, us go out there and put up 10 runs and us win. You know the bullpen comes in, shuts the door. 

“We can steal bases. We can manufacture runs. It’s a team that’s not dependent on winning on one way. I kind of remember when I was in Detroit it was like, we had to slug. That was what we had to do to score. Here, it’s different.”

But, again, being good, or being different, or improving from this point really matters in only one context: the Yankees (62-33). They’re the only other team that can with East. And the prize associated with clinching the division — avoiding a one-game Wild Card berth — is tremendous. 

The Yanks sit 4 1/2 games back, with more games to play than the Sox down the stretch. Whether the Sox win 100 games, 110 games, really doesn’t matter outside of the magic and novelty associated with a big number. 

As of Wednesday, the Red Sox had a 58.1 percent chance to win the division, per Baseball Prospectus’ daily playoff odds. The Yanks were at 41.9 percent. They next meet in the first week of August at Fenway Park.

"We have a long way to go," Betts said. "We have to take these couple days to heal up, rest up and get ready to go."

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Orioles trade Manny Machado to Dodgers for five prospects

machado.jpg
File Photo

Orioles trade Manny Machado to Dodgers for five prospects

The Dodgers are the winners of the Manny Machado sweepstakes, acquiring the ex-Orioles slugger in exchange for five prospects.

The prospects heading to Baltimore in the deal per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic are outfielder Yusniel Diaz, third baseman Rylan Bannon, right-handed pitcher Zach Pop, right-handed pitcher Dean Kremer, and second baseman Breyvic Valera.

Machado, 26,  is enjoying another stellar season, hitting .315 with 24 home runs at the break. The Dodgers fill the void at shortstop left by Corey Seager, who is out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in May. Machado is set to be a free agent after the season.

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