BOSTON -- After reining in their payroll this year, the Boston Red Sox are poised to make it rain again in the offseason.
The Sox still shelled out plenty of money in 2017, maintaining one of the highest-paid rosters in the game. But at ownership's behest, team president Dave Dombrowski brought the payroll in at less than $195 million, thereby avoiding a 50 percent tariff on anything above that competitive-balance threshold.
In doing so, the Red Sox reset their tax penalty to 20 percent for next season, when the CBT will rise to $197 million. And with the offense in need of a middle-of-the-order bopper, it appears Dombrowski will no longer feel the pinch of fiscal responsibility.
Asked this week if he expects staying below the CBT to remain an offseason goal, Dombrowski said simply, "No, I do not." When the same question was posed to owner John Henry, he confirmed the team's willingness to exceed the threshold by essentially volunteering to play back the audio of Dombrowski's comment on a reporter's tape recorder.
"Well, [Dombrowski] answered the question," Henry said. "He said he could go over [$197 million]."
Can you hear the spare change jangling in Dombrowski's suit pocket?
Unshackled from luxury-tax constraints, Dombrowski could approach the offseason by doing what he loves: shopping for superstars. And don't think for a second that agent Scott Boras, who represents sluggers J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer, hasn't noticed that one of baseball's financial titans has its wallet open in search of the heavy hitter it has lacked since David Ortiz retired 13 months ago.
The Red Sox have other expenditures, too. They've already committed roughly $110 million to six players (David Price, Hanley Ramirez, Rick Porcello, Dustin Pedroia, Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale); although they released third baseman Pablo Sandoval in July, he will cost them $19 million against the CBT in 2018; and then there's the $50 million or so earmarked for 13 arbitration-eligible players, including Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts, whom the team could approach about long-term contract extensions.
That's almost $180 million in payroll before the Sox address their other needs, dip their finger in free agency or think about absorbing salary in a blockbuster for a certain premier slugger who plays in South Florida.
Speaking of which, the Miami Marlins are "serious," to use the word of one team official, about trading Giancarlo Stanton. And by virtue of having young players, cash to take on his enormous salary and an acute power deficiency, the Red Sox are bound to be at the vortex of swirling rumors.
"We need to score more runs," Dombrowski said in what amounts to an offseason mission statement. "Now, some of that has to come internal. When you start looking at some of our guys, some of them didn't have as good -- I don't think -- of offensive years as they're capable of having. But we do have probably the open spot at first base-slash-DH, and so that's a place, we'll try to create some offense there."
Based on medical reports received by Dombrowski, Ramirez is expected to be able to handle the physical rigors of playing first base next season after having surgery on his left shoulder last month. At this point, though, Dombrowski said the Sox "don't have a preference" about playing Ramirez primarily at first base or at designated hitter, a decision that could come down to which power hitter they acquire.
Martinez, a later-blooming outfielder, is 30, two years older than Hosmer, a Gold Glove first baseman. But because Martinez was traded in midseason, he was ineligible for a qualifying offer and won't carry the penalty of additional compensation for the team that signs him. Hosmer received the $17.4 million qualifying offer from the Kansas City Royals.
Hosmer bats left-handed, but he's an extreme ground ball hitter and less of a true power threat than Martinez, a right-handed batter. And Dombrowski has a history with Martinez, having scooped him up for Detroit as a free agent in 2014 after he was released by the Houston Astros in spring training.
Stanton, of course, ranks with only Aaron Judge as the most feared sluggers in baseball. The 28-year-old Stanton hit 59 homers last season and has homered once every 13.4 at-bats since he debuted in 2010. But the outfielder has also played more than 140 games only three times in eight seasons and has $295 million left on a contract that runs through 2029 and has a provision for him to opt out after 2020.
Dombrowski pulled off a blockbuster last winter, acquiring Sale from the Chicago White Sox for a truckload of top prospects but no players off the major league roster. The farm system has been diminished by two years of Dombrowski deals, although the Sox could lower the acquisition cost in players by picking up most of Stanton's salary.
But given their other needs, and the monster free-agent class looming next winter (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson), the Red Sox could aim lower in free agency. Carlos Santana, for instance, has averaged 25 homers per season since 2013 but almost certainly will cost less than Martinez and Hosmer, enabling the Sox to also add a few bullpen arms, an infielder to play second base while Pedroia recovers from surgery, a reserve outfielder or perhaps even a starting pitcher.
Make no mistake, though: Offense is the priority.
"I didn't supply the players that would give us enough runs [in 2017]," Dombrowski said. "I think we do need that. That's part of our offseason goal."
And the Red Sox are prepared to pay for it, too.