Scoff all you like, but the luxury tax – the threshold this season is $208 million – has become a concern even to organizations capable of living in luxury. The Red Sox led the majors in payroll the past two seasons, and they just traded Mookie Betts, the best everyday player after Mike Trout, to the Dodgers because their owners – John Henry and Tom Werner, who also own Liverpool, the world’s best soccer team – felt a need to pare back. “We need to be under the (threshold),” Henry said last fall. Then, speaking of being competitive: “The solution to that isn’t always having the highest payroll every year.”
The Red Sox spent most of the 20th century not winning the World Series; they’ve won it four times since 2003. (The Yankees and Cubs have won it once each over that span; the Dodgers haven’t won since 1988.) Sometimes throwing money at a problem works. Long-term money sticks, and eventually it gums up the works. David Price signed with Boston in December 2015 for $217 million over seven seasons. His efforts in October 2018 were a key reason the Red Sox became champs; apart from that, he has been only OK. His bWAR over the past four years is 10.8; Mike Minor – yes, Mike Minor – had a bWAR of 7.8 in 2019 alone.
Price, who’s 34, is still owed $96 million over the next three seasons. Per reports, the Red Sox will pay half of that even though he’ll be pitching for the Dodgers. He was a ride-along in the Betts deal, which has been widely decried as a give-up move. But was it? Boston finished 84-78 last season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Betts is scheduled to make $27 million and will become a free agent at season’s end. (Meaning: There’s no guarantee he’ll stay a Dodger.) Having declined an extension of $300 million over 10 years, he’s said to be eyeing a contract of $400 million.
Under the since-jettisoned Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox spent big to win big, but saw their farm system wither. We around here have talked much about farm systems the past six years, and we stand as witness to their power. The flowering of talents such as Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and Mike Soroka is why this club got good and is poised to stay good. Thing is, young talents get expensive, too.
Anthopoulos moved last spring to secure Acuna/Albies for an aggregate 15 years at an unbelievably cheap $135 million. If the two continue at the rate they’re going, those deals could need tweaking. Still, they set a baseline of cost control. Only a baseline, though. Freddie Freeman’s contract expires after the 2021 season. Soroka and Max Fried will become arbitration-eligible that same offseason, and the Braves surely would prefer to do something long-term with one/both before then. Mike Foltynewicz and Dansby Swanson already are arbitration-eligible.
Back to Donaldson. Putting $21 million on the books for 2020 and 2021 might have done no great harm, but $21 million in 2022 for a 36-year-old third baseman would have put a dent in the ledger. The Cubs wouldn’t be considering trading Kris Bryant, who’s 28 and under contract through 2021, if they hadn’t paid retail for their starting pitching. (Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks – all on the high side of 30 – are owed $175.5 million.)
The Braves hope Ian Anderson/Kyle Wright/Kyle Muller and Cristian Pache/Drew Waters and Shea Langeliers – all among Baseball Prospectus' top 101 prospects, FYI – will remove the need for short-term deals for the likes of Cole Hamels and Ozuna and Travis d'Arnaud. Short-term deals rarely hurt, though. "Financial flexibility" has become a gag line for Braves fans, but it's no joke. The Red Sox wouldn't have traded Betts if they had payroll wiggle room. But they didn't, so they did.
In a perfect world, the Braves would have kept Donaldson. Having to balance both the real world and the reality of Liberty Media, Anthopoulos thought hard and said no. It wasn't a popular choice. Big-picture-wise, it was the proper one.