The financial repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly will be felt across Major League Baseball this offseason.
A shortened 2020 regular season — 60 games instead of the usual 162 — plus the absence of attendance revenue presumably will lead to cost cutting, though it’s unclear how exactly that frugality will manifest itself and which organizations will be most affected.
Navigating free agency could be especially difficult given the circumstances, even for franchises with historically deep pockets. There simply are so many unknowns when it comes to players’ potential asking prices, market competition, the 2021 season and even the next collective bargaining agreement.
Take the Red Sox, for instance. While they’re certainly positioned to spend in free agency after reducing their 2020 payroll to beneath the $208 million luxury tax threshold, there’s a strong case to be made for Boston sitting back and seeing how everything unfolds, striking this offseason only if the iron is hot.
“I think it starts with, over the course of the next month, we prepare for the meat of the offseason, to make sure A) that we have all our information together, to where we have a pretty good idea of how we would assess players so we can make quick decisions. That’s not different from a normal offseason,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said earlier this week. “And then it will become a matter of just going through different scenarios for what the market could yield. I think we find that even though we might have expectations for what it will be, every offseason there are surprises.”
Of course, the Red Sox need to self-evaluate before making any sort of splash. They’re coming off a disappointing season in which they finished in last place in the American League East, with the fourth-worst record in MLB. Can they realistically expect to contend in 2021 without significant roster reconstruction, or are they best served eyeing 2022 or 2023 as their next window of opportunity?
If they choose the latter path, it probably makes sense for Boston to delay any significant expenditures until next offseason, when the free agency class figures to be stronger and the Red Sox likely will have a better read on the long-term outlook of their internal talent.
Not to mention, it’ll become much easier for the Red Sox to stomach losing a draft pick(s) as compensation for signing any free agent attached to a qualifying offer if they’re on the cusp of contention. Relinquishing a pick(s) for the purpose of a free agent acquisition this offseason more or less would fly in the face of Boston’s effort to replenish its farm system, namely since the Red Sox’s poor 2020 campaign leaves them with solid draft positioning for 2021.
Ultimately, the Red Sox’s aggressiveness, or lack thereof, in free agency this winter might be predicated on what possibilities arise. Surely, they’ll exercise caution, well aware that knee-jerk investments only will hinder their attempt to build a sustainable contender. But who’s to say other teams’ unwillingness to spend won’t substantially alter the market, tipping the scales in Boston’s favor to the point where the Red Sox would be foolish not to take advantage of the relative bargains available.
“I think it’s dangerous to say at the beginning of a winter that we know what it’s going to look like — we usually end up being wrong,” Bloom said. “I think we just have to have our information in good place and make sure that we’re ready to adjust. I think as we go into the offseason, as we would normally do, make sure we’ve had contact with every club, know what they’re looking for, how we might be able to fit into their plans. That will also help us make decisions on free agents. It’s obviously a moving picture, as you guys know, through the offseason. So I think we just need to make sure our information is in a good place.”
Projecting bottom lines, as an outside observer, in wake of an unprecedented season marred by unforeseeable and unavoidable financial setbacks is a fool’s errand. Thus, it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty how the offseason will shake out in terms of on-field personnel decisions.
Maybe free agency will be a lot different. Or maybe it’ll only be slightly different. Still, it’s fair to assume it’ll be different — in some way, shape or form — and that front offices across MLB are working tirelessly to be prepared for whatever life throws at them in the coming months.