If recent reports are to be believed, the Boston Red Sox may be about to make a major mistake this upcoming offseason. At least it will be if they decide to part ways with their star right fielder, Mookie Betts.
The Sox, coming off a dominant 108-win and World Series-winning 2018 season, belly flopped into 2019 with a bloated payroll that has veered into luxury tax territory, and is ending with diminished results outside the postseason. Hamstrung by a roster dotted with fat contracts and a minor league system largely barren of talent, it was reported earlier this month that the team intends to listen for trade offers for Betts, the reigning American League MVP and a free agent following the 2020 season.
With a 2019 payroll of over $240 million, Boston is on track to receive a bill for $13.05 million in luxury tax this offseason—the equivalent of a solid veteran starting player’s salary. Additionally, the money coming off the books will likely be matched, if not exceeded, by what will need to be spent giving out raises and arbitration, and what is sure to be a limited free agent shopping list.
With money obviously tight, it really couldn’t be a worse time for the Red Sox to have Betts entering his year-before-free agency season. The soon-to-be 27-year-old is one of the consensus two or three best players in the game and would be well within his rights to ask for and receive a contract that exceeds a total value of $300 million—in line with pacts like stars Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have signed this past year.
Betts is a proven commodity, who has mastered playing in Boston, already won a championship and is in line to be an all-time Hub sports great, a la Larry Bird, Tom Brady Bobby Orr and Ted Williams. He is affable, charitable, a hit with the fans and can play some pretty damned good ball. Despite his diminutive size, he is a true five-tool player, who has won an MVP award in 2018 and finished in the top six two other times (with a third possibly coming later this year). He also has four All Star nods and three Gold Gloves (again, another is likely a little later this fall).
2019 has been decried as somewhat of an “off year” for Betts. Appearing in 145 games, he has hit .291 with 29 home runs, 78 RBIs, 15 stolen bases, 95 walks and a league-leading 131 runs scored—all while playing the perhaps the best outfield defense in the game. His 6.5 WAR puts him eighth in all of baseball for position players.
In addition to his obvious physical talents, the affable Betts is criminally underutilized in marketing—both by the Red Sox and Major League Baseball. With Trout being a rather reticent face of the sport, Boston’s star has the benefit of personality, talent, success and playing in a major market. He is the type of person who connects with all demographics and should be viewed as the cornerstone that must be retained at all costs.
Yes, Betts scored $20 million in arbitration this past year and is a year away from securing a contract of ridiculous proportions. However, he deserves to get paid whatever the market yields and the Red Sox will be best served by figuring out how to keep him, rather than jettisoning him in an ill-designed attempt to create temporary financial relief.
Boston has wasted obscene gobs of cash in recent years. They are paying Rusney Castillo $72.5 million to essentially be a Triple-A fixture, and another $90 million for Pablo Sandoval to eat himself out of town after 161 games of well-below average production. Yes, it makes sense that they need to curb this kind of reckless spending. No, the remedy should not involve nickel and diming their best and most popular player in a generation or more out the door.
The absurdity of trading Betts instead of making every attempt to sign him is that the team would be receiving pennies on the dollar. With his free agency looming, no team is going to submit a trade package of any great significance to gain his services for a period that won’t be guaranteed for any longer than the 2020 season. Maybe the Red Sox could obtain some intriguing prospects; maybe they would even pan out. That’s quite the gamble, and frankly a sucker bet for a franchise like Boston, which has conditioned their fans to expect annual contention.
If you thought I would be presenting an alternate solution to the problem, you are sadly mistaken. I am not an accountant, and certainly not a master of MLB’s salaries and luxury taxation. One would hope that a team as successful and flush with money as the Red Sox could find another way than part with a player who not only puts then in the best position to contend, but also literally checks every box on what you would want from a superstar player to lead the franchise for the foreseeable future.
Let’s hope that the reports that the Red Sox will consider trading Betts is a smokescreen or a contract negotiation ploy. If not, it will be a grave mistake, and one that the team may be hard-pressed to recover from quickly. The possible reality of it all is shocking to contemplate and a disappointing end to an even more disappointing season.
********************************You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew
I have also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) on topics of baseball that are available on Amazon.