BOSTON -- Boston Red Sox principal owner John W. Henry said Tuesday that the team remains "hopeful" of re-signing pitcher Jon Lester and indicated a willingness to exceed the $189 million luxury tax threshold as part of that pursuit.
"The way it's structured, you can blow through [the threshold] one year,'' Henry said. "Again, for next year we have tremendous flexibility, so we could go through for one year. It would not overly affect us [trying to re-sign Lester], but we're hopeful.''
The Sox owner left no doubt that the homegrown Lester remains the team's No. 1 target.
"Obviously we're doing everything we can to sign a top-tier pitcher, Jon Lester,'' he said. "And hopefully he'll come back.''
Lester has already met with three teams-the Sox, Cubs and Atlanta Braves, and had trips planned to other clubs. ESPN.com's Jim Bowden said the San Francisco Giants, who lost out on Sandoval, are arranging a meeting with the left-hander.
"I don't think we have any idea what the market is in regard to other teams,'' he said.
After meeting with the Sox last week, Lester's agent, Seth Levinson, noted the "great respect" the Sox accorded Lester, who has repeatedly said he is not necessarily signing for top dollar but looking for the place he finds most comfortable. The Sox, after their four-year, $70 million offer was rejected by Lester in March, indicated to Lester their willingness to discuss at least a six-year deal.
Henry, asked his takeaway from Levinson's comments, said:
"I guess the signal it sends is there's never been a problem between Jon and the organization, or the organization with Jon. He's been a huge part of what we've accomplished here and I think when we went to see him, a large part of our presentation was finishing that legacy he started. We're hopeful he'll do that.''
On Tuesday, the Red Sox added $41 million to their payroll, as calculated for luxury tax purposes, by signing Hanley Ramirez to a four-year, $88 million deal worth an average annual value of $22 million and Pablo Sandoval to a five-year, $95 million deal worth an average annual value of $19 million. That would leave the Red Sox, given their other roster obligations, roughly $6 million left to spend under the threshold (They saved $2 million by designating Juan Francisco for assignment to make room for Ramirez).
That would not, on the face of it, give the Sox much leverage to sign Lester, who surely will command a salary in excess of $20 million a year. Even assuming the Sox trade a high-priced veteran -- like Yoenis Cespedes ($10.5 million), Shane Victorino ($13 million) or even a Mike Napoli ($16 million) -- that would not leave the Sox a great deal of flexibility under the threshold, especially with the club asserting they'd like to add two starters to their rotation.
But because the Sox have stayed under the threshold for three consecutive years, they would not absorb a huge tax hit : 17.5 percent on the amount they go over the threshold, compared to 50 percent for multiple offenders. So if the Sox added another $35 to $40 million in pitching -- there is also left-handed reliever Andrew Miller to consider -- the Sox could be looking at a tax bill of around $5 million, or about the cost of a decent middle reliever. Boston's willingness to do so is cushioned by the fact that even after signing Ramirez and Sandoval, they have only $101 million in salary obligations for 2016.
"Because of the trades we made in '12 and '14, we're able to have this kind of financial flexibility and still go after pitching,'' Henry said. "We're in extremely good shape, I think.''
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington echoed Henry's thoughts.
"The payroll is something that is not a static thing," he said. "Whatever it looks like on Thanksgiving is not necessarily where it ends up and it can go either way."
Cherington confirmed that the team will shift the majority of its attention to finding pitching for the remainder of the offseason.
"We don't know yet what form that will take, but we're now probably more focused on that side of the ball than we are on the position player side of the ball, so we'll see what comes to us," Cherington said.
"I think we feel we're in a strong position to pursue all sorts of pitching options, either through trade our free agency," he added. "We have a little better idea than we did at the GM meetings as to what those possibilities are, but we're also not on the doorstep of anything. I'm sure we'll spend a lot of time over the next couple of days and into the winter meetings working on that."
ESPNBoston.com's Kyle Brasseur contributed to this report.