Red Sox

Mookie Betts trade will one day pay off for Red Sox, even if it feels terrible now

Red Sox

When did Red Sox ownership perform its about-face on Mookie Betts and pirouette from offering him a $300 million contract to deciding he must go?

My guess would be 3-8.

Last year's disastrous season-opening road trip stamped out the euphoria of 2018 like a flicked cigarette. If ownership had let its emotions overrule rationality when agreeing to more than $200 million in questionable money for pitchers Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi, that brutal West Coast swing served as a bracing reality slap.

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Owner John Henry admitted that his differences with former boss Dave Dombrowski started almost immediately after the World Series parade. Dombrowski envisioned a star-studded roster with the payroll to match. Henry recognized a need to reset — though in a classic example of wanting it both ways, signed off on a series of lucrative extensions that ran counter to that goal anyway.

The resulting clash led to Tuesday's still-shocking departure of Betts, a homegrown superstar entering his age-27 season with free agency looming in the fall.

The immediate, visceral reaction of most Red Sox fans is white-hot rage. They want to know how one of the game's richest teams — backed by some of its most expensive tickets — can justify crying poor at the cost of an MVP in his prime. It's an understandable sentiment, but this deal had to be made for a host of reasons that will pay off in the long run.

The first and most obvious is that the odds of Betts staying here beyond 2020 felt increasingly remote. According to NBC Sports Boston analyst Lou Merloni, the two sides remained more than $100 million apart at this time last year, with the team offering around 10 years and $300 million and Betts countering at 12 years and $420 million.

 

Were the Red Sox on the cusp of a three-peat, then the case to let Betts play out his contract in the hopes of hitting some Anthony Rendon-style walk-year magic would be compelling. But following an 84-win season, with major questions dogging the pitching staff, the Red Sox aren't configured to challenge the Yankees, Astros, or even Rays in the American League. Trying to convince yourself otherwise is an exercise in wishful thinking.

So if Betts isn't enough to propel you to a World Series, and if he's almost gone in the fall, then the Red Sox really had only one choice — trade him before he leaves for nothing.

They determined that cutting payroll in the form of a David Price salary dump took precedence over the young talent coming back in return, and I believe that history will prove them right.

Both the Yankees and Dodgers have reset their luxury-tax penalties since 2016 by slashing payroll, and they've combined for five 100-win seasons since. That temporary fiscal discipline put each in a position to spend this offseason, the Yankees by inking right-hander Gerrit Cole to a record $324 million contract, and the Dodgers by assuming $75 million of Betts and Price.

The Red Sox, who have routinely boasted the game's highest payroll, will spend again, and this deal gives them the means to do it. Heck, they're now in a better position to pursue Betts next fall than if they had kept him, but even if he goes elsewhere, they could still be in play for a cheaper impact replacement like Astros All-Star George Springer.

There's nothing worse, from a team-building standpoint, than a top-heavy, bloated payroll. The Yankees dynasty officially died, for instance, under the weight of giant bills for Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez.

Similarly, locking Price, Sale, and Eovaldi into contracts totaling $430 million is a recipe for fielding a rotation with a bunch of openers, since it precludes meaningful spending on depth.

That makes the $48 million in savings on Price the key to this trade, as gross as that sounds. The Red Sox dropped their payroll from more than $230 million to about $190 million. That leaves them wiggle room to add a starter (Clay Buchholz is still out there!) or improve at the trade deadline without fear of crossing the $208 million threshold that triggers third-time-offender penalties.

The removal of Price should also improve the team's culture and likability, though that's a story for another day. In the here and now, what matters is fixing the payroll, and this deal does it. Promising youngsters Alex Verdugo and Brusdar Graterol should contribute in 2020, with the latter a candidate to replace Price in the rotation after being named Minnesota's No. 1 prospect.

 

There's also the long-term wisdom of signing Betts to a contract that would take him to age 40. We recently wrote about the worrisome history of superstars standing no taller than 5-9, most of whom broke down around 30. Were Betts to join their ranks, his contract would become an albatross.

So take heart, Red Sox fans. You loved Mookie Betts, and he was a great player here. Losing him hurts, but not half as much as losing him for nothing.