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Principal owner John Henry on Red Sox’ operating model, smart spending and the quest for a fourth title

02.19.14 at 3:44 pm ET
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FORT MYERS, Fla. — A year ago, when Red Sox principal owner John Henry met with the media at the start of spring training, the press conference seemed more like an interrogation. The Red Sox were coming off three straight years without a postseason appearance, along with their worst season in nearly half a century. The publication of “Francona: The Red Sox Years,” a book that offered several less-than-flattering depictions of the team’s ownership group, further made the team’s owners seem embattled.

No longer. A World Series has a way of reshaping a narrative. Instead of being the steward of a faltering, ill-managed organization, Henry this year faced questions about the foundation of their success in the past — three titles in 12 seasons — and going forward.

“This is an ever-changing challenge. It’s incredibly difficult,” said Henry. “You have 30 teams that are doing everything they can every year on and off the field to try to win. For us to win a fourth championship would be cornerstones of the careers of everyone involved here and who have been involved in these three, all the way down to two or one.”

Henry said that the Sox would remain true to the operating philosophy that helped the organization achieve its titles in 2004, 2007 and 2013, chiefly, an emphasis on avoiding the sort of cumbersome deals that bogged down the club in the 2010-12 seasons and searching for market inefficiencies to exploit. In other words, rather than flexing financial muscle at the risk of inefficiency, Henry articulated a vision for a club that spends a lot, but spends wisely and carefully.

“We got away from [the model of contracts of limited terms and dollars] for a long, for a certain period of time. Not a long period of time. I think we learned from it,” said Henry. “I think there are a few other clubs that have learned from it. All you have to do is take a look at the results over the last, say, 10 years of what that kind of approach has meant. It’s a very very risky thing to do. I don’€™t see us necessarily changing.

“I don’€™t see us going back to where we were,” Henry said about the possibility of returning to the big-contract model that preceded the team’s get-out-of-jail-free blockbuster trade of Adrian GonzalezCarl Crawford and Josh Beckett in August 2012. “I feel we were fortunate to be able to do those deals. That was fortunate.”

While Henry suggested that the Yankees were “pretty fortunate” for having the resources to acquire a number of players for top dollar on the open market (Jacoby Ellsbury, Masuhiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran), he noted that the Sox were “fortunate” that they “addressed a lot of the needs that we had” in the offseason following the 2012 season. Indeed, the multi-year deals that the Sox signed coming off of that year for players like Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes and David Ross ensured that the team wouldn’t have to dive back into the open market following the 2013 season; instead, the Sox’ primary needs could be addressed by homegrown options at shortstop (Xander Bogaerts) and in center field (Jackie Bradley Jr.), with the organization’s catching prospects — Christian Vazquez, Blake Swihart — permitting the team to acquire a one-year option behind the plate (A.J. Pierzynski).

All of that said, Henry said that the Sox are happy to spend for talent. He hinted that the $189 million luxury tax threshold was not a hard cap on the team’s spending, following back-to-back years in which the team’s payroll came in just under the $178 million threshold in 2012 and 2013. Whereas the Sox had made it a priority in their planning in order to get under the $189 million threshold for 2014 because there was an expectation that the team might be able to capture a significant rebate of millions, perhaps even tens of millions, of dollars in revenue sharing thanks to a new provision in the CBA, Henry implied that the size of the rebate proved far less significant as an incentive.

“[The luxury tax threshold] has been [the payroll ceiling]. It really depends on, there’s some reason to believe that it may not be as important as we thought a couple of years ago,” said Henry. “There were certain incentives built into the [2014] season that at the time I doubted they would really carry the day, and that appears to be the case. They probably won’t.”

Still, the fact that the Sox can spend up to the luxury tax threshold — and perhaps even beyond — raises the question of what they might spend on. The current CBA has limited teams’ flexibility to spend heavily on amateur talent, whether through the draft or the international amateur market for players who are 23 and under, and so beyond major league payroll, the Sox are trying to decide where to channel their resources.

“It’s a question we’ve been talking about and discussing internally over the last couple years,” said Henry. “It has gotten harder to spend your money in ways we normally were doing it. We spent a lot of money in the amateur draft and got tremendous results from that. It’s an issue and something that we’ve talked a lot about. It is more difficult. How we’re going to address that and deal with that is, because you always focus on payroll in the media. There are a lot of external dollars that don’€™t head up there. Those avenues have been closed off.”

Of course, ultimately, the fortunes of the franchise have derived from more than just the dollars that Henry and his ownership group have committed to the team.

“It doesn’€™t matter what resources we can bring to the table,” said Henry. “You still have to have 25 guys and another 25 behind them when it comes to coaching and general manager and manager. You have to be fortunate to have the right team in place. I feel very fortunate.”

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