SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It's hard to determine which side has more to lose in a Mookie Betts trade -- the Red Sox or the team that acquires him.
From the Boston perspective, receiving fair value for the defending MVP will be a struggle, since he's likely to play out his contract and reach free agency next fall, thus limiting any potential return. On the other end, his new team runs the risk of surrendering assets for a rental.
While there aren't any perfect analogies to provide a roadmap, the Diamondbacks and Cardinals can offer some insight into how the process might unfold, based on their blockbuster Paul Goldschmidt trade last winter.
The six-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glover went from Arizona to St. Louis on Dec. 5 for a trio of prospects. He had one year and $14.5 million remaining on his contract, and the Diamondbacks suspected they wouldn't be able to keep him long-term.
General manager Mike Hazen agonized over how to proceed before pulling the trigger.
"We treaded very, very lightly, knowing it was a tricky situation for us," Hazen said on Wednesday at the GM Meetings. "Paul is a franchise player and he meant everything to our clubhouse, our leadership. But we felt like the position we were in, not necessarily being one player away, if we weren't able to come to a contractual extension with him, what was it going to mean to us down the road?"
On the other end, the Cardinals jumped at the chance to acquire an impact right-handed bat despite having no guarantees he'd wear red for more than a year. Based on their experience with prior rentals like Matt Holliday and Mark McGwire, who ended up committing long-term, the Cards believed they had a chance of retaining Goldschmidt beyond 2019, and indeed they struck a five-year, $130 million extension in spring training.
Still, they couldn't acquire him on the assumption that he'd sign, a lesson worth remembering for anyone considering Betts.
"When you do a trade like that, you make the trade assuming he's going to be a one-year rental, because otherwise, you're setting yourself up to make a bad decision trying to justify the trade that only works if he stays around five or six years," said Cardinals GM Mike Girsch. "We were hopeful. We've had good success with one-year rentals who have come to St. Louis, enjoyed the environment we have, the fan base, the full stadium and everything else, and signed here. We've had success doing that over the last 20 years and were hopeful that would happen again. But you've got to make the trade assuming it's a standalone, and if you're not comfortable with it as a standalone, then we wouldn't have done it."
THE FOUR OPTIONS ON THIS KIND OF DEAL
The deliberations in Arizona centered on four options that should sound familiar to Red Sox fans: trade Goldschmidt in the offseason, move him at the deadline if the team isn't contending, let him play out his deal and walk for a compensatory draft pick, or hope the season unfolds in a way that produces a long-term extension.
"All of those scenarios were in play," Hazen said. "The offseason, the in-season, the end-of-season scenarios that you know would be associated with trading now, trading then, holding all the way through, successful year leads to something else [contractually]. There was no real answer sheet to it. We had to make a decision and we did."
One major difference between Goldschmidt and Betts is salary. The $14.5 million remaining on the former's deal fit St. Louis's 2019 salary structure, whereas the $27-$30 million Betts will earn in arbitration could end up pricing him out of all but a handful of markets. Goldschmidt's relative affordability allowed the Cardinals to offer a better package of prospects, while his age (31) kept that package reasonable. Betts just turned 27 and is in his prime. His extension should end up being more than double Goldschmidt's.
"Budgets are real and payrolls are real," Girsch said. "The higher the salary, the less I can give up, because I don't have money left to go do something else, and the lower the salary, the more I can give up, right? So it's just how you'd expect. You're not just trading for the player. You're trading for the player with his salary commitment, so you have to figure that in."
Meanwhile, Hazen knew the team would lose the trade in the court of public opinion, at least initially.
"We were very cognizant," he said. "Had to turn that off pretty quickly. We knew that was coming, and understood why it came. That's part of what we do. I think separating that out and still feeling like the decision was the right decision, I felt OK about it because of that."
THE RETURN ON THE BLOCKBUSTER
The package he received -- catcher Carson Kelly, right-hander Luke Weaver, minor-league infielder Andy Young -- appeared underwhelming, but all three ended up showing promise.
Kelly hit 18 homers with an .826 OPS as Arizona's starting catcher, Weaver went 4-3 with a 2.94 ERA in 12 starts before being shut down with a sore elbow that did not require surgery, and Young slammed 29 homers between Double- and Triple-A. It's a virtual certainty none will become a star on Goldschmidt's level, but that doesn't mean they can't provide value, which is a calculus the Red Sox front office is currently considering.
In St. Louis, Goldschmidt hit 34 homers, but posted his lowest OPS (.821) since 2011. He still helped lead the Cardinals to the playoffs, where he hit .429 with two homers in an NLDS victory over the Braves before St. Louis fell to the Nationals in the NLCS.
"Our sense was he was a guy who'd be comfortable in a midwestern city in a baseball-crazed market in a place that was competitive in the type of clubhouse environment we have," Girsch said. "It felt like we had a good shot at making this work, but until you meet him, you're never 100 percent sure."
While Hazen is happy with both the return and the fact that Goldschmidt received a long-term extension, he's not going to pretend he enjoyed trading a franchise icon.
"I don't know how you value that stuff," he said. "I still don't know if we did it appropriately. History will tell us, I think. It still doesn't feel great, but look, at some point, we're charged with making the best decisions we can moving forward."
The Red Sox know the feeling. Making a palatable deal for Betts feels like an even greater challenge than what the Diamondbacks and Cardinals managed to swing for Goldschmidt.
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