Red Sox gain nothing in Clay Buchholz salary dump

Sure, they cut payroll. But shipping Clay Buchholz to Philly just to save a buck is a decision the Red Sox will regret. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

BOSTON -- In the end, one of the more enigmatic Boston Red Sox careers in recent memory comes to a close in an equally puzzling way: with a salary dump by the Red Sox.

Let's be clear: This was a salary dump.

The Red Sox will say that isn't entirely true. Dave Dombrowski will cite a roster crunch and note that seven major league starters don't fit into a five-man rotation or, given the options in the bullpen, even a 12-man pitching staff. You don't need to be Copernicus to figure that out.

But on Dec. 20, the only valid reason for the Red Sox to trade 10-year veteran Clay Buchholz to the Philadelphia Phillies -- for a Class A infielder, no less -- is to guarantee they shed his $13.5 million salary from the 2017 payroll in order to stay below the $195 million luxury-tax threshold and avoid paying a 40-50 percent tax on their overages.

"To me, I think it's advantageous to be below the [competitive balance tax, or CBT] just based on the new basic agreement. It's something that we're hopeful of doing," Dombrowski, the Red Sox president of baseball operations, said after the trade was announced. "It fell into play here very well for us."

Terrific. Owner John Henry must be so relieved. But remind us again when, exactly, the Red Sox began prioritizing fiscal conservatism over pitching depth?

Look, Buchholz is hardly irreplaceable. He went 8-10 with a 4.78 ERA in 2016. He got booted to the bullpen in May, went 19 days without pitching in July, and looked like a surefire candidate to be traded or, worse, designated for assignment.

There was also a reason Buchholz stuck around in Boston through the no-hitter in his second career start in 2007, the beer-and-chicken saga in 2011, the accusations of doctoring the ball with suntan lotion in Toronto in 2013, the two World Series titles and all the injuries in between. Almost every season, the wafer-thin right-hander with the wispy goatee was as good as any starter in the American League for a stretch of 50 to 75 innings -- even longer in 2010 and 2013.

Without that eight-start stretch this August and September, when he returned to the rotation and went 4-0 with a 2.98 ERA, the Red Sox wouldn't have won the AL East as easily as they did, if at all.

There's value in that. Every team needs more than five starters to get through a season, and unless you've seen something in the Triple-A trio of Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Roenis Elias that nobody else has, no amount of major league pitching depth is too much for the Red Sox.

It became clear two weeks ago -- after the blockbuster trade for Chris Sale left some Red Sox officials boasting about having three of only 15 pitchers who logged 200 innings last season (Rick Porcello, David Price and Sale) -- that trading a starter was all but inevitable, even though Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright have yet to reach 175 innings in a season.

According to Dombrowski, parting with Buchholz "made the most sense" because he was the only starter among Pomeranz, Rodriguez and Wright who isn't under club control beyond 2017. He also would have cost the Red Sox $13.5 million against the luxury tax, roughly as much as offseason additions Sale, reliever Tyler Thornburg and first baseman Mitch Moreland combined.

"It's a situation where it creates some flexibility for us as we go forward, staying below the CBT with areas we may want to address as the season progresses," Dombrowski said. "Who even knows, maybe even as the wintertime progresses?"

Ah-ha! So, by moving Buchholz, the Red Sox could potentially swoop into the market? Say, for free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion, whose options are dwindling and who would answer the Big Papi-sized question of how the Red Sox plan to replace the production left behind by retired designated hitter David Ortiz.

Don't count on it, according to Dombrowski.

"We really don't have a major drive right now that we're looking to fill," Dombrowski said. "I think we'll continue to keep our ear to the ground in the sense you can never tell what ends up happening, if somebody comes available that you never would have anticipated at a certain time period. [But] if we started spring training right now, we would be content where we are."

After Tuesday, that means more payroll flexibility and less pitching depth.

Miss Buchholz yet? At some point, the Red Sox will.