Despite dropping two out of three games against the Chicago White Sox, the Red Sox stand at 44-22 on the year, good for best in all of baseball. While the team has been experiencing incredible success, it has certainly come at a steep cost – $235 million to be exact, also best in baseball by a large margin. Playing in a large market, Boston is always expected to have a big payroll, however this year’s is the highest is has ever been. It is a result of a combination of factors such as a trio of poor, past investments (see: Pablo Sandoval $95 million, Hanley Ramirez $88 million and Rusney Castillo $72 million), a wealth of mid-money talent and large contracts for the team’s most reliable stars like J.D. Martinez and David Price. The good news, however, is that a lot of money will be coming off the books after the season, when several players will have to make decisions about their free agency.
The first round of savings will come from the aforementioned poor investments made under General Manager Ben Cherington. Hanley Ramirez, who was cut from the team earlier this season, was signed by Cherington to a 4 year, $88 million dollar deal in 2014, so the Red Sox will have $22 million dollars to play around with in free agency if they are comfortable with their current payroll figure. Moreover, the John Lackey trade that brought Allen Craig to the Red Sox will take its toll for the final year, as the team will shed the last $1 million of the $25 million the team has paid (for close to zero production might I add).
The next group of players, Chris Sale, David Price and Eduardo Núñez, all have options, be it club or player, that will have just as big an impact on next year’s payroll. While Sale has a club option (meaning the team gets to choose whether or not he is on the team next year), Price and Núñez have player options. However, it is hard to imagine any of them not being a part of the 2019 ball club.
Sale, again pitching at a Cy Young caliber level, is on tab to earn $15 million next season. Yes, it is a nice bump from the $13 million he is earning this year, but it is well below market value for a pitcher of his pedigree. So, the Red Sox will certainly activate the option and he will have to wait one last year before a large payday in free agency.
Price’s player option for 4 years and $127 is slightly trickier. Much has been made about Price’s struggles and unhappiness in Boston, but a large portion of this has been overblown by the media driven by last year’s altercation with fan favorite Dennis Eckersley. In reality, Price is the second ace on a team that will be a World Series contender for the foreseeable future and is pitching well in a big market like Boston. Couple this with teams’ unwillingness to give big contracts in last year’s free agency, it is virtually impossible to see Price walking away from so much guaranteed money and a chance to win his first-ever World Series ring.
Núñez is in the midst of a subpar 2018 campaign where he has hit .256 with four home runs. His player option for next year is for $4 million, which is about right for a middle infielder with his levels of production. Although originally signed as a utility player, he has seen much more starting time than anyone anticipated thanks to the recurring knee injuries to Dustin Pedroia. So, while he has not exactly impressed, he is serving a decent replacement role that adds value to both himself and the club. Barring a strong second half, it is hard to see Núñez testing free agency, especially with a 2019 market that includes plenty of other strong infield options.
The final area where the Sox can cut some payroll is from their pending 2019 free agents. This class consists of Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, and Joe Kelly. Kimbrel is earning $13 million this year, but is in line for a big raise, having recorded 86 saves alongside a 2.23 era for the Red Sox since they acquired him in 2016. While the team will certainly want him back, they will have to open up their wallets as Kimbrel has arguably been the most reliable closer in the league over the last decade, with over 300 saves. The good news for Boston is that Zach Britton and Kelvin Herrera, both very strong relievers, will also be free agents in 2019. So, if the team elects not to get in a bidding war, there are fallback options, however they have been thrilled with Kimbrel’s production thus far and will do everything they can to have him back in uniform next year.
Drew Pomeranz has faced a little “Clay Buchholz syndrome” during his brief time in Boston. After the controversial trade in which the Padres failed to disclose Pomeranz’ necessary medical information, the curveball-heavy pitcher has been off, then on, then off-again in what has been a rollercoaster experience with the Sox. Given, it is hard to say what he could earn on the open market. Teams will likely be wary to invest multiple years into Pomeranz with his recent performance and injury struggles, so he will likely sign a one-year deal to build up some value. However, it is hard to see the Red Sox being that team. Between Steven Wright impressing in his first few starts of 2018 and top prospect Jalen Beeks knocking on the door, there is simply no need for Boston to bet on a Pomeranz renaissance campaign.
And finally, Joe Kelly. His first four years with the team saw many ups and downs and he was probably the hardest player to “figure out” on the team. While he always possessed a fastball that could touch 99 mph, he often struggled with control and composure late in games, even leading to a demotion in 2016 to AAA Pawtucket. However, Kelly in a new player in 2018. An early season brawl with the Yankees’ Austin Martin has made the reliever a fan favorite and given him a new edge on mound. He has been stellar in his 28 appearances so far and has provided stability to the setup role, which has sorely missed Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg to injury. Kelly is another hard case to predict what he might earn in free agency given his spotty past, but a two to three year contract averaging around $5 million per year should be a reasonable price tag to retain him.
Ultimately, while the Red Sox are shedding some money from their payroll next year (likely around $32 million), they will need a sizable chunk of that cash to bring back Kimbrel and Kelly (or another reliever). This also does not yet account for arbitration eligible players like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, amongst roughly ten others, that will all be due for a slight bump in pay. So, while the 2019 free agent class is loaded with young talent, the same can be said with the current Red Sox team which features five key starters age 25 or younger. Accordingly, don’t expect to add any big names to next year’s jersey wish list, because the team will likely be investing in their own talent rather than entering what is likely to be a competitive free agent market. But that’s not such a bad thing after all, because the 2018 Boston Red Sox already have the talent they need to make a deep playoff run and they will be back to do it all over again in 2019.