Friday, September 18, 2009

Clay Buchholz and financial flexibility

What Clay Buchholz has brought with him back to Boston isn't just renewed confidence and a devastating changeup. He's brought with him the financial flexibility that will allow the Red Sox to fill gaping holes elsewhere.

The Red Sox have deep pockets, but even the Red Sox have to draw a line somewhere. We've seen the line before -- particularly with Mark Teixeira this past winter -- but we've also seen it more subtly: When the Red Sox acquired Billy Wagner, for example, Theo Epstein cited the budgeted performance bonuses for Brad Penny and John Smoltz as the reason he could afford to assume the contract of Billy Wagner.

Buchholz, who will finish this season with a little more than two full years of service time in the major leagues, will earn somewhere around $500,000 next season. He'll be arbitration-eligible for the first time a season after that. Combined with Jon Lester, whose contract doesn't break $10 million until 2013, Buchholz will give the Red Sox unprecedented payroll flexibility within their starting rotation and beyond.

Here's how the projected Red Sox rotation breaks down next season:
1. Josh Beckett, $12 million
2. Jon Lester, $3.75 million
3. Clay Buchholz, ~$500,000
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka, $8 million
5. Tim Wakefield, $4 million
Total: Just shy of $26 million

Compare that to the Yankees' projected rotation:
1. CC Sabathia, $23 million
2. A.J. Burnett, $16.5 million
3. Joba Chamberlain, ~$500,000
4-5. Fill in the blank
Total (1-3): $40 million-plus

But it's not really about the Yankees. It's about the Red Sox, and it's about Theo Epstein's ability to spend money in the areas his team needs help. The key comparison, really, is with the way the Red Sox spent money on pitchers in the past -- and we'll look at recent two seasons chosen completely and totally at random:

1. Beckett, $6 million
2. Curt Schilling, $13 million
3. Daisuke Matsuzaka, $8 million
4. Wakefield, $4 million
5. Julian Tavarez, $3.35 million
Total: $34.35 million

1. Pedro Martinez, $17.5 million
2. Schilling, $12 million
3. Derek Lowe, $5 million
4. Wakefield, $4.35 million
5. Bronson Arroyo, $332,500
Total: $39.1825 million

(Numbers all lifted from Cot's Baseball Contracts.)

Pitching, of course, is everything.

But when you don't have to spend money on pitching -- particularly in a free-agent market as weak as the upcoming free-agent market will be -- you're a step ahead of the game.

Think of it this way: If Buchholz was pitching more like a No. 4 starter than like a No. 2, the Red Sox would have to think about signing Jon Garland, John Lackey or Jarrod Washburn to a big-money contract to fit in behind Beckett and Lester. Lackey in particular is going to be looking for A.J. Burnett-type money -- and rightfully so, given that he's a better pitcher than Burnett -- and he's going to get it from someone.

Thanks to Buchholz, though, it won't be from the Red Sox.

For a team with fairly deep pockets, saving money on pitching isn't usually a yellow-brick road to the playoffs. We've all seen the Red Sox burned before when they've gone bargain shopping for starting pitchers.

But with a starting rotation already filled up with quality major-league pitchers at less than $30 million for the entire package, the Red Sox can afford to spend elsewhere. That's going to be essential for a team that's going to need to spend elsewhere.

Consider the financial considerations for next season:
(Italics denote estimate.)

1. Left field: $7.5 million in 2009. $15 million for 2010.
Jason Bay is a free agent, and the Red Sox will either have to pony up for Bay or Matt Holliday or replace that production at another position. Bay cost the Red Sox just $7.5 million a year this season, but they'll have to pay double that either to him or to his replacement.

2. Shortstop. $1 million in 2009. $6 million in 2010.
The team holds a $6 million option on Alex Gonzalez, a reasonable price to pay for Jed Lowrie insurance. The idea of Jose Reyes remains on the table, and if you don't think Epstein will have that conversation with Omar Minaya a couple of times, you're crazy.

3. Catcher. $6 million in 2009. $11 million in 2010.
The $7.5 million option the Red Sox hold on Victor Martinez might be the biggest no-brainer of all time, but that's more money than they spent on Jason Varitek and George Kottaras combined this season. Oh, and they'll still owe $3 million to Varitek whether they save a roster spot for him or not.

4. Third base. $12 million in 2009. $12 million in 2010.
Mike Lowell is looking a little more spry these days, but it's still a gamble to count on a 36-year-old with limited range to play third base every day. Chone Figgins and Marco Scutaro both are options, and while Scutaro might come relatively cheap, Figgins won't.

5. Designated hitter. $12.5 million in 2009. $12.5 million in 2010.
David Ortiz came alive in June but has seen his slugging percentage drop every month since -- even with his pinch-hit double on Sunday, he's still slugging just .400 -- and the Red Sox might not want to risk their designated hitter looking as lifeless next season as Ortiz did in April and May.

6. Other monies owed.
The Red Sox still will have to pay Julio Lugo $9 million next season no matter what uniform he wears. Should they jettison Lowell or Ortiz, they'll have to eat quite a bit of that money, too, and that starts to add up.

Without Buchholz looking like Zack Greinke in the middle of the Red Sox rotation, Epstein would have to shell out quite a bit of money for a workhorse like Lackey -- or he'd have to unload a half-dozen prized prospects for a young phenom like Felix Hernandez.

Instead, though, Epstein can spend that money on a slugger to play left field or for a super-utility infielder like Figgins or Scutaro to play third base and shortstop -- or he can use it to pay another big bopper while turning Ortiz into a $12 million-a-year pinch-hitter off the bench.

The Red Sox have shifted their focus to their farm system because financial flexibility is everything in baseball. When you only have to pay your No. 2 and No. 3 starters a combined $4 million, it gives you the opportunity to do just about anything else you want.

No comments: