The narrative lines up perfectly. On the day Fenway Sports Group finalized its $900 million purchase of the Pittsburgh Penguins, scores of teams around MLB were signing free agents to head-spinning contracts, representing an unprecedented rush in free agent spending. We’ve heard the Red Sox have been “in” on multiple players, yet their only acquisition has been Michael Wacha, who’s battled shoulder injuries and been horrible for the last half-decade.
This must be because John Henry is now more concerned with Sidney Crosby than Rafael Devers, right? The Red Sox are now just another line in the FSG portfolio.
While that’s a nice talk radio topic — and one I would certainly be drumming if my dulcet tones were back on the airwaves — it doesn’t match up with reality. As my pal John Tomase points out, the Red Sox haven’t spend above the luxury tax for three years. Is that because Henry has been saving his pennies to buy an NHL franchise, or does it signify a broader shift in organizational philosophy?
Before we delve further, it’s important to remember the Red Sox are still one of the highest spending teams in baseball. They spent nearly $190 million on payroll last season, ranking them sixth in MLB. Next season, they’re projected to spend $152 million on payroll, and that’s before they sign anybody new or potentially extend Devers.
The Red Sox aren’t the only big spenders who are sitting out of the pre-lockout free agency bonanza. All of the teams that carried the six largest payrolls in 2021 — the Dodgers, Phillies, Astros, Red Sox, Yankees, and Padres — have largely been idle so far. The Astros’ re-signing of Justin Verlander (two years, $50 million) is the only significant splash, but they’re still likely to lose Carlos Correa, who should command a deal north of $300 million. The high-spending Dodgers have allowed Max Scherzer and Corey Seager to walk.
As of Tuesday morning, there have been 17 reported free-agent agreements that exceed $20 million. Most of those teams, such as the Rangers, Mets, Mariners and Tigers, are coming off disappointing or downright moribund campaigns. Despite playing in large markets, the Rangers and Mariners spent less than $100 million on payroll last season, giving them money to throw around.
It’s been 11 years since John Henry purchased Liverpool, and the Red Sox haven’t suffered from underinvestment. They won two World Series before the acquisition, and have won two more since. When Henry bought Liverpool, the Red Sox committed roughly $300 million to Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.
More than anything, those big money blunders are probably driving the Red Sox’ more calculated approach. Their free agency track record has largely been awful for the last decade, consisting of Crawford, Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, John Lackey and David Price. The Red Sox hired Chaim Bloom to build a sustainable winner, not just take out his checkbook.
The best teams combine big market advantages with analytical strategies. Look no further than the Dodgers, who are headed by Andrew Friedman, one of Bloom’s mentors in Tampa Bay. After years of contradictory strategies — not extending on Jon Lester only to turn around and sign Price for $217 million — the Red Sox may finally be settling into a coherent long-term vision.
With a lockout likely coming Thursday, the free agency bonanza will temporarily cease, and more clarity will be provided on the luxury tax. At that point, teams that are always up against the luxury tax, such as the Red Sox, will have more clarity on the future landscape.
Henry is aloof and withdrawn, but he’s spent on the Red Sox for the last 20 years. His track record should cut him some slack, no matter how irritating it is to see him partner up with Crosby and LeBron James.