Enough is enough!
There is and was a litany of reasons why trading Mookie Betts (and David Price, and the 3/$96M remaining on his deal) made sense, including not wanting to spend nearly $60M for both players this season. The AL East is getting even more competitive with the Yankees looking like the “Evil Empire” of old, the Rays doing “Rays Things,” and the Blue Jays increasing their spending to surround their ridiculous core of young players. The Red Sox didn’t make the playoffs last year, and were looking at long odds at being anything other than a one-game player in this year’s post-season. But 2021, 2022, and beyond are still there for the taking; provided the team is not saddled with massive penalties in the coming seasons (going above the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) again this year would open them up to the highest level of penalties). The club considered all of that when Betts (and Price) went on the market. Plus, they knew that if they acted now, they could ensure they received value in exchange.
The Red Sox Are Not Cheap
Can we please dispense with the tired trope that the Red Sox traded their best player because they are cheap. Enough with the conventional wisdom that they dumped a perennial all-star and face of the franchise because they had to get under the CBT (set at $208M this year) after being the only team to exceed the CBT threshold the previous two seasons. Enough with tossing the ownership group and their checkbooks under the bus.
The Red Sox have shown that they are not miserly. Yes, they try to be (see their opening offer to Jon Lester), but when push comes to shove, they pay. They signed Carl Crawford to a $142M contract; they signed David Price to a $217M contract; they signed Chris Sale to a $145M contract. Some may disagree with the wisdom of those deals, but sign them they did.
It is true that the Chaim Bloom, the new Chief Baseball Officer for the Red Sox, was given “guidance” to get under the CBT in 2020. And it is true that one way to help achieve that goal would be to trade Mookie Betts and his $27M salary. But that is not why (or not the only or even the main reason why) they did it. And to assert otherwise is simply Masshole myopia.
Paying Mookie Betts $35-$40M/year for a decade or more may be the right thing to do, but that is a decision they can make next off-season, when they have a better sense of the market…and after they have received a few players in return.
The Future (But Not 2020) Looks Bright
The Red Sox are nothing if not forward-thinking (even before they brought in Bloom). And they looked at the upcoming season, and the 2021 and 2022 seasons beyond that, and saw the following: J.D. Martinez having the ability to opt out two more times; Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers heading into their arbitration years; Chris Sale on the books for $29M/season (for 5 more years); Nathan Eovaldi on the books for $17M/season; and David Price still owed $96M coming off three seasons in which he hasn’t averaged 120 innings.
And they looked at the Yankees and saw a team that won 103 games and got better; and the Rays and the Athletics, each of whom won 92 games and got better. And they also looked at the win total projections for their team and saw 86-92, with Betts. And 84-88 without. The Red Sox knew – in their hearts and in their heads – that this team (with Betts and Price) was a Wild Card contender at best. So then the question became: how much do you stake on a single game elimination tournament?
The cost of going all out was simply too much – even for a team with as many resources as the BoSox.
What Does Mookie Want?
Bill Simmons, no stranger to Boston fandom – and a massive critic of this deal – has the five-year grace period theory. That is, an organization gets five years after any championship during which fans cannot “complain about anything that happens…(trades, draft picks, salary-cap cuts, coaching moves)…There are no exceptions.” By my count, the Red Sox are still within that window – seeing as they won the World Series about 16 months ago. So, even by the Sports Guy’s standards, the fans and the pundits need to let this go.
But, “No!” scream the masses(holes), “we are tahkin’ about Mookie Freakin’ Betts heah, a once-in-a-generation stah, and we let him go so John Henry can make a few million more!?!” I guess there is a relativism in every theory.
Unfortunately, this jeremiad assumes facts not in evidence. Actually, it denies facts in evidence. Maya Angelou once said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Well, the corollary would be: “When someone tells you what they want, believe them.” Mookie Betts has told the Red Sox, in pretty uncertain terms, that he wanted to go into free agency. He understands this is a business. As Buster Olney reported: “[He] understands his importance to the union and wanted to get to free agency, as Gerrit Cole did, to push the free agent [financial] ceiling for the union brethren. That is his right.”
It was reported last week that prior to the 2019 season, the Red Sox offered Betts a 10/$300M deal, and he countered at 12/$420M. Maybe this is accurate, and maybe the Red Sox could have locked Betts up until he was 39 years old at $35M/season. But my guess is that Betts was testing the waters. If he thought the Red Sox would bite at $420M, why wouldn’t he go to the market to see if he could get $421M somewhere else? Or maybe he countered at $420M because he didn’t want to play the rest of his career in Boston, and he knew the Red Sox would reject the proposal. We have no idea what he is thinking – other than what he has told us:
“It doesn’t really matter who’s there. It’s going to be the same answer. Nothing’s going to change. [Dombrowski’s firing] is proof that this is a business. I love it here, but definitely it’s still a business.”
We live in a time of “player empowerment,” as we have seen time and again in basketball and football. When possible, players now design their careers and dictate where they want to play. Mookie seems to be no different.
I guess the Red Sox could have made a Godfather offer – say $500M over 12 years – and forced Betts to say “no.” The argument being that it is just money – and the Fenway Sports Group has tons of it and they will raise ticket prices anyway – so just pay whatever it takes to keep the player.
But, as I stated above, that may not have done the trick. We saw Anthony Rendon turn down the Dodgers because he didn’t want to play in Los Angeles (shh!, don’t tell him the actual name of the team he did sign with). Back in 1976, Reggie Jackson turned down a 5/$5M deal from the Expos for a 5/$3.5M from the Yankees. Why? Because he wanted to be the straw that stirred the drink in the Big Apple. Fans castigate teams for not signing free agents, forgetting the “agency” part of the equation on the player’s side. The bottom line is that no matter what you offer, you cannot compel someone to sign a contact.
Again, reading the tea leaves with Betts made it too risky to hope you could sign him before he hit the open market.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
So what were the Red Sox to do? Should they have played out the 2020 season knowing that Betts was leaving? Should they have felt lucky to get six-plus years of his greatness and be pleased with their draft pick compensation (which, because the Red Sox would be over the CBT, would be – wait for it – between the fourth and fifth round)? Should they have allowed their fear of fan blowback to keep them from improving the team for 2021, 2022, and beyond? If you answered “yes” to these questions, you are thinking with your sports heart, not with your sports brain. As Bob Sugar once said:
The Sox were in an impossible situation. Losing Betts at the end of 2020 and getting only a pre-fifth round draft pick was unthinkable. Waiting until July was perilous. What if they were only five games out and playing great; what if Mookie pulled a hamstring or broke a wrist on an errant fastball right after the All-Star Break; what if the offers at the deadline were weak, and what was available was substantially less than what they got from the Dodgers? Chaim Bloom is a bright guy; he did all of this math. The Red Sox had lemons – again, because Mookie told them he was going to test free agency – and they made lemonade.
It appears from Ken Rosenthal’s reporting that the Red Sox are paying half of what’s left on Price’s contract. And the deal does leave a hole in the Red Sox rotation. But at least they can attempt to address that now – eight weeks before opening day. Imagine (it is not hard to do) that Price ended up on the IL a time or two this season, and then the Red Sox had to scramble to fill his slot – with a converted reliever, a Quad-A guy, or an opener. The guys at the Cask ‘n Flagon would be none-too-pleased with that turn of events. With this deal, they now know what they (don’t) have, and they will have about $48M over three seasons to make do – more than enough to pay a Joe Musgrove-type.
And yes, Price could come to Los Angeles and be the next coming of Sandy Koufax and help lead the Dodgers to their first World Series title in 32 years. But there is simply no guaranty he would have done that with a “B” on his cap. Price is a much better bet to be successful in the cavernous ballparks of the NL West than in the cozy confines of the AL East; and I feel relatively confident that Price won’t pick a fight with Orel Hershiser, regardless of what “Bulldog” says about him on the air.
The Red Sox Got Value
It took some time, and many machinations, for this deal to get finalized, but the end appears in sight. In return for Betts and Price, the BoSox get a proven big-league outfielder with great bat-to-ball skills and a cannon of an arm. Alex Verdugo hit .294/.342/.475 as a rookie last season with a 114 OPS+. Simply put, he is a very good ballplayer, 14% better than average. No, he won’t be Mookie Betts. But neither will the 138th pick in the 2021 draft (that is approximately where the their compensation pick would land).
And, in lieu of hard-throwing and injury-prone Brusdar Graterol (who now goes to the Dodgers), the Red Sox get high-end infield prospect Jeter Downs. Downs is ranked 44th on the MLB and 86th on the Baseball America prospect lists. He can play second, third, or short, and with the impending retirement of Dustin Pedroia, could pencil in as Boston’s second baseman of the future. It says a lot that the Dodgers were extremely reluctant to part with Downs, and only did so at the eleventh hour to ensure this deal came to fruition.
And, as a kicker, the Red Sox also get catching and middle infield utility prospect Connor Wong. He is much in the mold of Blake Swihart. They didn’t get Gavin Lux or Dustin May, but the Red Sox got some players who can grow with the organization in the coming years. And it is worth mentioning that Verdugo is under team control for another five years, and neither Downs nor Wong have any major league service time.
None of that is sexy, and it isn’t something you can put on the back of a t-shirt, but it is important when trying to (re)build a championship ball club.
The Winner Now May Not Be the Winner Later
The Dodgers won the trade (or trades, if you want to make this two 2-team deals), of that there is no doubt. They have incredible depth, and will not miss Verdugo or Kenta Maeda (who went to the Twins in return for Graterol) or Downs. That is, unless/until Betts goes 0-fer and the Dodgers’ middle relief gets shellacked in the NLCS, and they lose to the Braves in seven games. I am sure Bill Plaschke or Dylan Hernandez or Molly Knight or Pedro Moura will write some column raising the following questions: “Could Maeda have done a better job in those important innings? And what of Betts, who was just another Machado, who flamed out on the big stage, and is now leaving in free agency?”
As a Dodger season ticket holder, I hope that neither happens. Insofar as I don’t have high hopes for the Red Sox this season, I do hope that Betts leads the Dodgers to a World Series title over the Yankees, enters free agency, and signs a 12/$421 deal next November. And I hope he signs that deal with…the Red Sox. A man can hope.
Previous post: Gotta Go Fast…to Cooperstown: The Case for Kenny Lofton