Dan Shaughnessy

Sox not spending? We aren’t buying

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / January 20, 2012
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The Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of American held its 73d annual dinner last night. With visions of the Super Bowl dancing in our heads, it was a chance to think about baseball on a cold winter night.

You remember baseball. That’s the six-month, 162-game warm-weather season that is supposed to wind up with the Red Sox in the playoffs. It hasn’t happened the last couple of years here, and the offseason of 2011-12 hasn’t done much to boost fans’ hopes. The Sox are the only folks having a worse winter than New England ski resorts.

Terry Francona, Theo Epstein, Jonathan Papelbon, and Heidi Watney are all gone, and we just learned that Carl Crawford had surgery on his wrist, which isn’t going to make things easier for his big bounce-back season.

I can live with all of the above - even if we won’t have J.D. Drew to kick around anymore - but I can’t stand talk about payroll limits and luxury tax obligations.

After spending like Charlie Sheen on a weekend bender, the Sox suddenly are fiscally responsible in this bad-news winter? They got burned when they signed John Lackey and Crawford, and now they’re worried about going over the dreaded $178 million luxury tax threshold (they were taxed at a rate of 30 percent last year, and that goes to 40 percent if they exceed the limit again this year)?

“There’s been significant commitments made the last two offseasons which pushed our payroll further north, and we made those decisions knowing that it wasn’t going to continue to go further north at the same trajectory forever,’’ said new general manager Ben Cherington before last night’s feast.

“At some point, there’s a limit. There’s no marker necessarily on where that limit is, but we made decisions over the last two offseasons knowing we were going to be closer to where that threshold is.’’

Pete Townshend translation: We won’t get fooled again.

It is Cherington’s bad timing that he happens to be in the chair at a moment in Sox history when ownership has said, “Enough with the spending.’’

And while the Sox have been standing still, holding the line, the Angels, Rangers, and Yankees are getting better.

In fairness, this was a good offseason to stay away from free agents. Nobody wanted the Sox to pony up for C.J. Wilson. But most of us would have been OK if the Sox matched the four-year deal the Phillies gave Papelbon. Instead, the Sox went for “value’’ with their closer search.

It was a little alarming to hear Cherington’s response when he was asked how his starting rotation compares with his rivals’.

“I think we have more questions right now than Tampa and New York, for example,’’ he said. “There’s probably less competition for the rotation with those two teams. The Yankees made some moves to strengthen their rotation and Tampa has had a strong rotation.

“Ultimately the answer will be written on the field. There have been very recent examples of teams that looked like they were going to be struggling for depth at this point in the offseason and found some ways to put it together.’’

Honest. But alarming. Is this all because of the luxury tax?

Here’s Cherington on the dreaded tax factor: “I can’t comment on where we’re going to be, or whether we’re going to be over or under.

“As everyone knows, we’ve gone over it in the past. Ownership has had willingness to go over it in the past, if it thinks it is the right thing to do.

“We’ll just have to take every decision as it comes and look at the effect on the team on the field and the effect on the payroll and figure out what makes sense.’’

The Sox charge fans a ton of money for tickets. NESN makes a bundle. John Henry and friends have demonstrated a willingness to spend in commensurate fashion during their 10-year stewardship. But now it feels like they are pulling back, holding the line, worrying about luxury tax, and (gulp) monies spent on Liverpool soccer.

And they have Cherington telling us that re-signing Marco Scutaro and offering arbitration to David Ortiz is this year’s equivalent of signing big free agents. There’s a tough sell. It’s not quite the same as bagging Albert Pujols, is it?

Sox spinmeisters need to cease promoting the notion that the ball club is tapped out and can’t spend more. The money is there. Holding the line on spending is a choice, not a necessity.

“We just didn’t feel like we needed wholesale changes,’’ said Cherington. “This was a team that was on pace to win a lot of games and make the playoffs and we had a tough September.’’

Followed by a tough October, a tough November, a tough December, and a tough January.

Pitchers and catchers report less than two weeks after the Super Bowl.

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