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With Mike Napoli back, what can the Red Sox do?

12.06.13 at 11:45 pm ET
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With Mike Napoli back in the fold for the Red Sox on a two-year, $32 million deal — in a week where the Sox also added catcher A.J. Pierzynski on a one-year, $8.25 million contract and reliever Edward Mujica on a two-year, $9.5 million pact — the Red Sox are nearly maxed out in terms of payroll commitments if they want to stay below next season’s luxury tax threshold of $189 million.

Based on those three deals, the Sox currently look like a team that — assuming it wants to maintain a contingency fund of about $9 million in case of injuries and in-season deals — has north of $187 million committed to its roster when factoring in all of the elements that count towards the luxury tax threshold (average annual value of contracts, minor leaguers on the 40-man roster, benefits, money transferred to the Dodgers).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean their offseason work is done.

Certainly, the team could stand pat and have a full roster. But more likely, the team will look to continue getting stronger, particularly in its group of position players.

How?

First, there’s the possibility that the Sox could exceed the luxury tax threshold. A team source recently acknowledged that, while the team’s strong preference is to remain under it for the coming season (the first in which teams have the possibility of a revenue sharing rebate, which is diminished by exceeding the luxury tax threshold), the incentive is not quite as powerful for the coming year as was anticipated. Because the Sox — thanks to the Dodgers blockbuster of 2012 — were able to restructure their payroll and get under the luxury tax threshold in both 2012 and 2013, the penalties associated with going over the $189 million payroll mark in 2014, both in terms of the luxury tax rate for dollars over that figure and in terms of the amount of the rebate that would be lost by exceeding the threshold, would be diminished. So, there’s at least a possibility that the team might be willing to go over $189 million.

Secondly, the team may be able to stay under the threshold and instead create greater flexibility simply by trading from what appears to be surplus inventory, most likely from its starting pitching. The team’s well-documented starting 6-for-5 surplus (with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster all under team control for next year) — at a time when a wealth of highly regarded starters will be in Triple-A — could allow the team to deal a starter, most likely Dempster (who runs $13.25 million in AAV) or Peavy (who, due to deferred payments that are owed to him, will account for $16.5 million against the luxury tax threshold in 2014), to free funds to make other moves. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Sox could find an interested team willing to pick up all or even most of either pitcher’s contract, but even some salary relief could open the door for the Sox to pursue targets on the market.

But what other moves?

The team would love to bring back shortstop Stephen Drew, but there now appears a degree of difficulty in doing so while remaining under the threshold unless it can, in the words of one industry source, “get creative,” meaning moving some of the salaries currently on the payroll. If the team can shed the complete contract of Peavy or Dempster, the considerable payroll flexibility could permit the club to bring back the shortstop.

If Drew doesn’t return, then GM Ben Cherington has articulated a desire to add a depth option on the left side of the infield who can give the Sox an insurance option for Xander Bogaerts (the shortstop if Drew doesn’t return, likely the third baseman if he does) and Will Middlebrooks (the likely third baseman if Drew isn’t back).

Beyond the left side of the infield, the Sox can be opportunistic with potential outfield options. They could investigate a versatile outfielder capable of playing all three positions, preferably a player who was right-handed, who could back up the Daniel Nava/Johnny Gomes tandem in left, Jackie Bradley Jr. in center and Shane Victorino in right (with the possibility that such a player might render Gomes expendable — thus potentially freeing up more money). Players like Franklin Gutierrez or Rajai Davis could fit that bill. Or, the team could look for a starting outfielder (most likely via trade) who would turn Bradley into a strong fourth outfielder who could play all three outfield spots.

In other words, the Sox don’t necessarily have a ton of financial flexibility in the wake of the Napoli deal, but they *do* have the roster flexibility to achieve the necessary financial flexibility to make the moves to round out their roster.

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