BOSTON -- Mookie Betts gave the Red Sox every last ounce of his considerable talents right to the bitter end, and Sunday afternoon sure felt like the end.
Let the record show that if this is it, Betts' final act in a Red Sox uniform was quintessentially, electrifyingly Mookie. He scored from first on a single to walk off the Orioles, exploiting a lazy relay and diving in safely before popping to his feet and letting out a scream while pounding his chest.
You can count on one hand the number of players who possess the instincts, athleticism, and explosiveness to make that kind of daring read and then actually engage the afterburners. It's the kind of play you'd expect to see out of a five-tool MVP, and Betts is one of those.
He also happens to be worthy of a monster contract at exactly the moment the Red Sox hope to slash payroll. With just one year of arbitration eligibility remaining, Betts has reached a crossroads. The Red Sox speak gamely of negotiating an extension, but with David Price and Chris Sale already on the books for more than $30 million apiece next season, let's just say Betts' teammates know which way the wind is blowing.
"I think everyone knows we don't think they're going to be able to afford Mookie," DH and potential free agent J.D. Martinez told NBC Sports Boston. "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 Red Sox team without Mookie Betts? After they drafted and developed him and watched him blossom into a superstar? How can that happen?
"I've been on too many teams where people come and go," he said. "For you guys (it's hard), because you've seen him grow. I came into this situation. To me, everyone is expendable. That's the business of it. I've seen it in Houston. I saw in Detroit. I saw it in Arizona. It's the business of it. That's why people want to blame the players, that they just want money. You've got to look at the big picture."
When owner John Henry spoke on Friday about his philosophical differences with deposed president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, it's clear he was talking about money. Dombrowski assumed the Red Sox would spend their way to continued contention. Henry would like to see some restraint in order to reset the team's luxury tax penalties by dropping the payroll from $240 million to $208 million.
That leaves Betts in no-man's land. He's worth a $300 million extension and more than $30 million annually. The Red Sox aren't in a position to offer it without either blowing up their roster or blasting their payroll into the stratosphere and paying luxury tax penalties that could easily top $20 million, effectively turning Betts into a $50 million player.
A case can be made that they can afford it, but Henry is entitled to decide his payroll isn't limitless.
"It goes back to the whole CBA and the whole agreement," Martinez said. "The competitive balance tax or whatever the hell they call it. That's something the Players Association is trying to get rid of. Some owners are trying to keep it. The way I look at it now, Tampa's got $60 mil. There are other ways to win. (Commissioner Rob) Manfred went on record by saying he doesn't think salary affects teams trying to win or not. It's kind of how (Justin) Verlander tweeted -- Perfect, then get rid of the luxury tax. Then everyone is happy. You've got teams that want to pay $300 million salaries, they'll pay it."
For his part, Betts accepted as many well-wishes from teammates as anyone as he packed his bags for the winter, signing bats with a silver Sharpie and leaving the clubhouse with what felt like his first smile of a trying season.
He saluted the fans and deflected questions about his future.
"It's been amazing," he said. "I can't thank the fans and teammates and front office enough for everything. I'm still here. It's not like I'm gone until whatever. I'm not going to focus on that now."
Unfortunately for those who treasure their No. 50 jerseys, Sunday felt like more than just a season finale. It felt like a sendoff for the defending MVP, and his teammates know it.
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