Commentary

Hey, big spenders?

Red Sox were thrifty in free agency, but that doesn't mean they've gone cheap

Updated: February 16, 2012, 4:16 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPN.com

You have to feel for Ben Cherington. He took over an organization reeling from an epic collapse with a fan base used to seeing money thrown around.

As a new general manager, timid spending isn't the best way to endear oneself to fans.

But for Cherington, a thrifty offseason may have been the only option.

It's not like he didn't know what he was getting into. Cherington has been part of the Boston Red Sox organization since 1999. Certainly, he saw a difficult offseason on the horizon when he took the job.

Prior to signing David Ortiz earlier this week, the Red Sox had committed just $7.35 million on free agents this offseason. That would have been the least they've spent since 1999, when the lone major league deal went to Jeff Fassero (one year, $2 million).

After spending a combined $282.8 million in the previous two offseasons combined, the Red Sox spent just $21.9 million on free agents this winter.

(Side note: In the past 20 offseasons combined, the Red Sox have guaranteed more than $1 billion to free agents. The Yankees are the only other team to spend that much. Amazingly, they've signed free-agent contracts adding up to more than $1 billion in the past five offseasons alone.)

A thrifty offseason hasn't been the norm for the Red Sox over the years, causing some to question Boston's inaction.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Gonzalez
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonIn a way, Adrian Gonzalez was the biggest splash of the offseason. He will make $15.6 million more this season than last.

After all, the departures of Jonathan Papelbon and J.D. Drew seemingly freed up $26 million from last season. That doesn't even include the money saved without Marco Scutaro, Mike Cameron, Dan Wheeler, Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield and Dennys Reyes. All told, more than $47 million came off the books.

From Carlos Beltran to C.J. Wilson, top free agents were linked to Boston, but nothing happened. Barring a late signing (Roy Oswalt?), the biggest new name to come to Boston via free agency will be Cody Ross. He'll actually make a below-average MLB salary.

So why were the Red Sox so quiet?

Rising salaries

A quick look at Boston's 2012 salary commitments provides the biggest answer. For that, there's no better resource than Cot's contract database on BaseballProspectus.com.

Adrian Gonzalez will enjoy a raise of more than $15 million in 2012. That's thanks to a seven-year, $154 million extension signed early last season. In effect, he's the big splash that Boston made this offseason. The Red Sox wound up with a bargain compared to the much longer deals signed by Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols.

But Gonzalez isn't the only Red Sox player due a big raise. Carl Crawford's deal spikes by $5.5 million in his second season. Meanwhile, Jacoby Ellsbury received a $5.7 million raise.

That $26 million coming off the books without Drew and Papelbon? Gonzalez, Ellsbury and Crawford combine for a $26.7 million raise in 2012. Kiss that extra money goodbye without even replacing the players.

In all, returning Red Sox players will earn over $40 million more than they did in 2011.

In other words, Cherington had almost no wiggle room, but still needed to find a shortstop, right fielder, closer, several more arms and a bench. Welcome to the job.

Hobbled by the disabled list

It would be one thing to expect Cherington to replace Papelbon and Drew on the cheap. Yet, injuries presented an even more difficult challenge.

John Lackey is expected to miss the 2012 season, while Daisuke Matsuzaka will likely be out for several months. That's $26.3 million in starting pitchers on the shelf, more than the entire Baltimore Orioles staff will make.

Thus, in addition to departing free agents, two-fifths of the rotation required replacement.

Lackey and Matsuzaka are a cautionary tale regarding long-term deals to pitchers. Combined with financial restraints, it's easy to see why Boston didn't throw big bucks at another starter.

Both Crawford and Bobby Jenks could also be disabled to start the season, though neither requires a long-term replacement. Still, the Red Sox enter spring training with $52.6 million likely bound for the disabled list to start the season. That's more money than the entire Opening Day rosters of the Rays, Padres, Pirates, Royals and Indians made going into last season.

Cost-cutting solutions

To review, the Red Sox needed to replace two starting pitchers and several key departing free agents all while existing players gobbled nearly up all the money freed up by departures.

In light of that, moving Daniel Bard to the rotation is just as much about money as it is talent. Though Alfredo Aceves will get a shot at the final rotation slot, it may come down to a trio of retreads (Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook, Carlos Silva) keeping the mound warm for Daisuke. None would make more than $1.5 million in that role.

Through trades, the bullpen has become younger and cheaper. At closer, Andrew Bailey is expected to provide most of what Papelbon would have at just 35 percent of the cost. Mark Melancon comes even cheaper.

Right field appears to belong to a platoon of Ryan Sweeney and Ross, who will make a combined $4.75 million. The good news? They won't need to do much to improve on Boston's .652 OPS at the position last season.

In 2011, Papelbon, Drew and Cameron earned a combined $33.8 million. Bailey, Sweeney and Ross will fill their roles while costing just $8.7 million.

Money helps explain the move to pick up Scutaro's $6 million option only to essentially give him away to the Colorado Rockies. On the surface a curious move, it actually saved the Red Sox from paying a $1.5 million buyout. That happens to be exactly how much potential replacement Nick Punto will earn this season. In this case, the thrifty route appears to come at the expense of offensive production: Punto's career .652 OPS is 75 points lower than Scutaro's.

The big picture

According to the Cot's salary database, the Red Sox currently owe $169 million to 25 players.

That includes those four on the disabled list and Jose Iglesias, who will likely head back to Pawtucket. In other words, the Opening Day roster still has five openings not included in that $169 million figure. Throw in Melancon and Darnell McDonald, and the Red Sox are around $170 million with three spots to go.

Those could go to minimum-salaried pitchers or other low-cost options. Padilla and Cook would make $1.5 million apiece if on the major league roster, while Cook would be owed $1 million.

No matter how you slice it, the Red Sox will be creeping up on $172-175 million before you even factor in bonuses, benefits, other acquisitions and remaining players on the 40-man roster.

Inevitably, the Red Sox will again pay the luxury tax. That's actually calculated by using the average annual value of player contracts in addition to benefits. Last year, Boston forked over $3.4 million, or 30 percent of everything over $178 million (their final payroll was about $189.4 million). In 2012, Boston will pay at a 40 percent rate.

Larry Lucchino disputes the notion that the Red Sox are suddenly frugal.

"If anything this 2012 budget will be the highest budget in Red Sox history," he told NESN.com on Friday.

The numbers back him up.

Don't be fooled by Cherington's quiet offseason. He's very likely handing Bobby Valentine the highest-paid team in Red Sox history.

Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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