Red Sox

The case for packaging Mookie Betts and David Price in a straight salary dump

Red Sox

The idea sounds positively repellant on first blush -- package David Price and Mookie Betts to the Dodgers (because let's be realistic, it can only be the Dodgers) in a salary dump.

No top-tier prospects. No impact players to give the Red Sox a chance in 2020. Just money coming off the books, and not all of it bad. How can a big-market team justify such a defeatist move when it negates the massive financial advantage the franchise holds over its rivals?

But the more I think about it, the more I believe that not only is the concept of a package deal acceptable, but it's the best course of action the Red Sox can take.

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The reality is that trading Price alone, while making long-term financial sense, severely decreases the likelihood that the Red Sox will contend in 2020. He probably represents the safest bet among the trio of overpaid wild cards in the Red Sox rotation, and removing him means either adding another starter on par with the recently signed Martin Perez -- his next ERA below 5.00 will be his first in three years -- or turning to an opener. 

And if that's the case, the Red Sox need to be sensible about the wisdom of retaining Betts for a lost season that ends with the former MVP walking in free agency.

As much as a win-now fan base might not want to hear it, the moves the Red Sox make this winter won't be about 2020, but whatever comes next as they address the organizational bloat that has left the franchise with the worst of both worlds -- an overpaid, underperforming roster.

 

Betts isn't part of that problem. If Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Anthony Rendon are worth over $30 million annually, then Betts definitely is. Were the roster better-constructed, paying him his roughly $27 million in arbitration would be an easy decision, even at the risk that he simply plays out his contract and leaves.

But let's be clear-eyed about the 2020 Red Sox. They're coming off an 84-win season and will be betting heavily on the column marked "chance" if they expect Price, Chris Sale, and Nathan Eovaldi to pitch effectively after watching the three combine for barely 300 innings while battling an assortment of injuries that required two surgeries to fix.

I'm sympathetic to ownership's desire to drop the payroll below $208 million not because I care about John Henry's luxury tax payments -- he can afford them -- but because building a team under those constraints forces the implementation of a long-term plan that isn't simply, "Pay everyone."

Since the Yankees started shedding payroll in 2016, they've won 91, 100, and 103 games. That put them in a position to address their biggest area of need -- ace -- with a record $324 million contract for free agent Gerrit Cole this winter. 

Given the well-documented unreliability of pitchers in their 30s, the Yankees may come to regret this deal as much as the one the Red Sox gave Price, but at least it fit a long-term vision.

Between 2015 and 2018, the Dodgers lopped nearly $100 million of payroll. Since then, they've averaged 98 wins per season and reached a pair of World Series. They're now in a position to take on Betts and Price, should the Red Sox decide to sell. 

The merits of such a move are open to debate -- Price turns 35 in August and is still owed $96 million over the next three years -- but both moves once again fit a plan.

Then there are the Red Sox. They committed over $400 million to three pitchers with varying degrees of reliability issues that have only worsened with time. They're paying All-Stars Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez more than $20 million each (they're both worth it, by the way). They'd love to extend superstar-in-making Rafael Devers, but that can't happen unless they pare some serious payroll.

The players knew where this was headed all season.

"I think everyone knows we don't think they're going to be able to afford Mookie," Martinez told NBC Sports Boston on the last day of the season. "It's one of those things. It's kind of hard to have three guys making $30 million on your team. He deserves it. He's earned it."

A case can be made that no player is worth a 10- or 12-year contract, because too much can go wrong. For all his obvious greatness, Betts stands only 5-9 and relies on lightning-quick wrists to generate power. Red Sox fans need no reminder of what can happen to a hitter when his wrists or hands go, as they learned with both Nomar Garciaparra, and to a lesser extent, Dustin Pedroia. Betts would be right to demand a 12-year, $400 million contract. The Red Sox would be equally justified in declining such a massive commitment.

 

And so that brings us back to the dreaded salary dump. How can the Red Sox justify using Betts to force a team to take more of Price's salary? Easy: if including Betts means the Dodgers eat all $96 million of Price, the $16-$20 million in annual savings is more valuable than any mid-level prospect the Dodgers could realistically send in return (the Red Sox aren't getting top prospect Gavin Lux, for instance). Build a package around right-hander Tony Gonsolin and lesser prospects and make the Dodgers pay Price.

Add the $27 million Betts would've made this year, and now you're positioned to extend Devers at an age (23) when he's much more likely to deliver value through every season of an eight-year deal.

It would take guts on the part of chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom to make his first major move a straight salary dump, because if he deals Betts without receiving considerable talent in return, he's going to hear about it from irate fans.

But let's call this what it is: an organizational rebuild. Those inevitably start with some painful decisions, and the Red Sox might as well not so much dive into that pool as cannonball.