Commentary

Red Sox can have it all

If they end up staying away from big contracts, it's by choice, not necessity

Updated: November 21, 2013, 9:16 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

It's worth remembering, in the aftermath of last week's announcement that the Boston Red Sox were raising baseball's highest ticket prices an average of 4.8 percent in 2014, that they are not entering the offseason with their pockets turned inside out.

Whatever decisions they make regarding free agents Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli and Brian McCann, to name three, will have nothing whatsoever to do with whether they can afford to pay them. Of course they can.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Ellsbury
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesThe prevailing belief is that the market for Jacoby Ellsbury will drive his contract beyond what the Red Sox are willing to spend.

They proved that three years ago, when they laid out just less than $300 million for two players, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. The whole industry is awash in cash -- there have been some estimates that revenues easily will exceed $8 billion in 2014 -- and baseball analyst Joe Sheehan notes that players received only roughly 43 percent of revenues in salary last season, less than the share given their peers in the NFL and NBA.

The salaries will keep climbing. The Sox thought they could sign a 35-year-old catcher, Carlos Ruiz, for two years. He signed a three-year deal for $26 million with his former team, the Philadelphia Phillies. Tim Hudson will be 39 next July. He signed a two-year deal with the San Francisco Giants for $23 million.

If the smaller fries on the market are signing such deals, you can just imagine the big door prizes awaiting the players most in demand.

So this is all about judgments, which means that if the Red Sox are determined to field the best possible team next year, they can't simply adhere to last year's approach -- overpaying for shorter contracts -- as the only way of doing business. It worked fabulously well in 2013, but only because the Sox already had a strong core of talent that beggared the addition of the right complementary pieces.

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Now the Red Sox are at risk of losing one of their foundational pins in Ellsbury, the prevailing belief that they will not yield to a market expected to drive Ellsbury's price and length of contract beyond the seven-year, $142 million deal Crawford signed before the 2011 season.

It should be reiterated that to let Ellsbury go will be a choice, not a necessity. Maybe that is stating the obvious. But Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, writing this week for ESPN Insider, made a strong case that Ellsbury's aging curve could well parallel that of three comparable players -- Rickey Henderson, Ichiro Suzuki and Kenny Lofton -- which would make him a valuable player well into his mid-30s. Even if Ellsbury falls short of their performance, Cameron's research suggests that Ellsbury will retain much of his value. That would justify the big payday.

The Sox can walk away from Ellsbury on the grounds that they believe they can make up for his loss with Jackie Bradley Jr. and other replacement parts, but they can't say it was because the price was too high.

The same, of course, holds for Napoli and McCann. The Sox already evinced a willingness to part ways with Napoli when they went hard after Cuban defector Jose Abreu, who eventually signed a six-year, $68 million deal with the Chicago White Sox. They valued Abreu, but not at that price. White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, meanwhile, saw a 6-foot-3, 255-pound franchise-changer.

"I've seen a lot of great ones over my 32 years of professional baseball, and this is the first time that I've wanted to stand up and give a standing ovation after a batting practice," Williams told Scott Gregor, writing in Baseball America.

Napoli is a much more palatable target for the Red Sox because the years required to sign him should fall within their preferred range.

That leaves McCann as potentially the most interesting test case of Sox intentions this winter. The Sox made it apparent, in their pursuit of Ruiz, that they are looking for an upgrade behind the plate. They are reluctant to commit to a catcher for the next five years, which is what it might take to sign McCann, because they have prized prospect Blake Swihart in the pipeline.

But even if Swihart lives up to expectations and proves a premium big league receiver, he was only in high-A ball this season and doesn't turn 22 till next April. Even if he's on the fast track, you're looking at 2016 at the earliest for him to make it to the big leagues, with no guarantees that he'd be ready to take over on a full-time basis.

David Ross is a terrific catcher who was invaluable in the World Series, but after a terrifying encounter with concussions last summer, he comes into next season well aware that his career could again be interrupted, or even ended, by something as seemingly innocuous as a foul tip. If the Sox have lost faith in Jarrod Saltalamacchia as anything but a fallback plan, wouldn't a full-court press for McCann make sense?

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino has insisted that the team will always make exceptions to its evolving policy of limiting the length of contracts. Having to make judgment calls is nothing new; it comes with the job description. But it remains to be seen whether the Sox, who have only $41 million in contract obligations in 2015, a number that drops to $13.3 million in 2016, will allow their judgment to be clouded by artificial constraints that worked great once but are no guarantee to work every time.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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