Red Sox: A big-market team that isn't acting like one

Red Sox: A big-market team that isn't acting like one
July 31, 2014, 5:30 am
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Other candidates to be traded
Outside of Jon Lester and John Lackey, Sean McAdam lists some other players who could be moved before the non-waiver trade deadline

BOSTON -- The Red Sox have a problem many would like to have: A lot of money to spend, and nowhere to spend it.

The Red Sox are one of the very few MLB teams who own their ballpark. They also own their own highly profitable regional TV network. They play before capacity crowds and most seasons attract three million or more paying fans. They reside in the sport's sixth-biggest media market.

And while there are costs associated with being a large-market team -- including significant contributions into the general fund for revenue sharing -- there's little doubt about the Red Sox' revenues and profitability.

Yet, before the 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline arrives today, the Sox will almost certainly trade their best starting pitcher Jon Lester, largely because they've been unable to reach a contract extension.

And the failure to sign Lester isn't an isolated case. In the aftermath of a number of nine-figure deals that backfired (Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez), the Sox now seem philosophically opposed to long-term, big-money deals for veteran players.

Principal owner John Henry acknowledged as much in a profile in Bloomberg Business Week, citing research.

"To me,'' said Henry, "the most important thing this study shows is that virtually all of the underpaid players are under 30 and virtually all the overpaid players are over 30. Yet teams continue to extravagently overpay for players above the age of 30.''

Henry added, with no small amount of pride: "We haven't participated in this latest feeding frenzy of bidding up stars.''

Henry and Co.'s apprehension on long-term deals for veteran stars is perfectly understandable. Across the game, there's far more disappointment than celebration in expensive contracts. Think: Albert Pujols, CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder and many others.

So the Red Sox aren't going to lavish aging All-Stars with six- and seven- year deals. Fine.

But that begs the question: Where are they going to spend their money?

Major League Baseball's most recent collective bargaining agreement, in an effort to enhance economic parity, took away many of the built-in advantages that big-market teams once enjoyed.

Under the new CBA, there are significant penalties for overspending on players in the annual amateur draft and limits placed on international free agents. Before those loopholes were closed, the Red Sox took full advantage by paying over slot for two-sport athletes or those with more bargaining leverage.

Now, that can now longer be done. Or, if it's done, it carries with it the loss of future picks.

The same budget constraints exist on the international free-agent market. Teams must abide by a budgeted amount, or risk losing the ability to sign players the following year.

The one area that isn't limited is the so-called "international professional free agent'' pool, mostly comprised of pro players from Japan and Cuba. Even here, the Red Sox have scaled back, either failing to bid at all (Masahiro Tanaka, Yoenis Cespedes) or being outbid (Jose Abreu, Miguel Gonzalez).

While they haven't suggested it as a reason, perhaps the Sox feel burned by their last big investment in the international pool: The signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka.

In smaller measures, the Red Sox have been more willing to flex their financial muscle. Last week, for instance, their willingness to take back approximately $3 million of Jake Peavy's remaining salary obligations enabled them to obtain a far better pitching prospect (left-hander Edwin Escobar) than they otherwise would have from the San Francisco Giants.

But those opportunities are few and far between.

It should be noted that the Red Sox haven't turned cheap when it comes to payroll. This season, their $155 million payroll ranked them fourth behind only the Yankees, Dodgers and Phillies. Over the decade of Henry and Co's ownership, the Red Sox have never fallen out of the Top Five in payroll.

But that, too, could soon change. The Sox are committed to less than $80 million for next season, and even if they revisit the free-agent market with money to spend, their self-imposed limits would make it difficult to reach $150 figure if they sign only mid-level free agents.

Having won three World Series in the 13 years that Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino have owned the team, it may be hard to take issue with the approach. But going forward, the Sox look like a wealthy franchise with limited opportunities to reinvest their profits.