Bryce Harper

Why 2019 Nationals shouldn't be used to justify Red Sox' Mookie Betts trade

Why 2019 Nationals shouldn't be used to justify Red Sox' Mookie Betts trade

The Washington Nationals won the World Series in 2019 despite losing their best position player, star outfielder Bryce Harper, in free agency the previous offseason.

Could a similar situation unfold in Boston this season after the Red Sox traded their best player and former American League MVP winner Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers last week? Red Sox chairman Tom Werner quickly brought up the Nationals after being asked Monday if he thought his team could have competed for a title in 2020 with Betts on the roster.

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"Yes, but I also believe this team can compete for a championship with the pieces that we have," Werner told reporters at spring training. "You're all smart, so you also know the Washington Nationals won a championship without Bryce Harper. I understand what (Red Sox chief baseball officer) Chaim (Bloom) said -- that he feels in some ways we're not as strong without Mookie and of course that makes sense. But we haven't seen how this season plays out yet. I'm optimistic that we'll be very competitive."

There are a few key differences between the Nationals and the situation the Red Sox currently find themselves in.

First of all, Betts is a far better player than Harper. Since 2016, Harper has zero seasons with a WAR (wins above replacement) above five. Betts has an average WAR of 8.4 over the same span. Betts is an elite offensive player and one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. He's a rare five-tool player. The Nationals had a young star in Juan Soto ready to replace Harper's production at the plate. The Red Sox don't have that kind of player to fill in for Betts this year.

The Nationals also had a top player in the final year of his contract last season in Anthony Rendon, but they kept him through the trade deadline. Rendon ultimately left to sign with the Los Angeles Angels, but not before he played a pivotal role in Washington winning the World Series. The Red Sox, conversely, gave up on Betts before seeing how well the team would perform in his walk year.

However, the main difference between the 2019 Nationals and 2020 Red Sox is pitching.

Washington used the money that would've gone to Harper to sign Patrick Corbin, who was arguably the top starting pitcher on the free agent market after the 2018 campaign. Corbin teamed with two of the best starters in baseball, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, to form a strong 1-2-3 in the Nationals' rotation. The Red Sox rotation is far worse. Chris Sale hasn't been able to consistently stay healthy since the team acquired him in 2016. Rick Porcello is wildly inconsistent from year to year, and Eduardo Rodriguez has not proven he can perform at a high level in consecutive seasons. And we cannot forget that David Price was shipped off to Los Angeles as part of the Betts trade with the Dodgers.

Boston's offense should still be one of the AL's best in 2020, even without Betts. There's plenty of talent in the Red Sox lineup, as J.D. Martinez pointed out Monday. The problem for the Red Sox in 2020 will be pitching, and it's why the chances of seeing a 2019 Nationals-like miracle in Boston this season are slim.

Tomase: What Sox ownership should've said about Betts trade

There can be only one: Why it makes more sense for Red Sox to keep J.D. Martinez than Mookie Betts

There can be only one: Why it makes more sense for Red Sox to keep J.D. Martinez than Mookie Betts

Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez complement each other as well as any two players in baseball. Since the start of 2018, no one has scored more runs than Betts (264) or driven in more than Martinez (235). That's no coincidence.

But now the Red Sox face a stomach-churning dilemma: choosing between them.

Martinez's decision not to opt out of the remaining three years on his contract means that not only will he return in 2020, but the Red Sox will have $23.75 million less to spend on Betts, were they feeling inclined to keep him.

With ownership declaring it hopes to see the payroll drop below $208 million for luxury-tax purposes, it's hard to envision a scenario where both Martinez and Betts open the season on the roster. And so the next three months will be spent trying to find a new home for one of them.

It's a choice that feels like a loss no matter what the Red Sox choose, but if they can only keep one, it should be Martinez.

It sounds crazy, because Betts is clearly the better all-around player and he's in his prime. What big-market team trades a 27-year-old barely a year removed from winning the MVP?

But the Red Sox need to start thinking long-term after three years of loading for bear. Bad contracts to David Price, Chris Sale, and Nathan Eovaldi will almost certainly hamstring the franchise for the next three years at $79 million per. That's no way to sustain success, and I don't begrudge John Henry for setting limits.

While it's tempting to say that Betts is paying the price for those horrible decisions, it also ignores the truth: 10-year, $300 million contracts aren't good business. I wouldn't pay that to anyone. Even Betts.

Angels superstar Mike Trout will probably claim his third MVP next week after another absurd season that saw him blast a career-high 45 homers. That makes his 12-year, $428 million extension money well spent, right? Well, foot surgery ended his season in September. Maybe it's nothing, but he has missed at least 20 games each of the past three seasons. The Angels need no reminder of what his 30s might look like, because all they've gotten out of Albert Pujols's 10-year deal (signed at age 32, to be fair) since 2012 is one All-Star berth. Trout's on another level athletically, but that's part of the problem -- he plays like a freight train. If he wears down, it won't be reflected in his paycheck.

The same goes for Bryce Harper, who delivered solid overall numbers in the first year of his 13-year, $330 million megadeal with the Phillies, but was sitting at home when his former team, the Nationals, won it all. Last winter's other $300 million man, Manny Machado, hit .256 with a .796 OPS in San Diego, which is a big bag of meh.

Betts is better than everyone on this list except Trout, but he's also smaller than them at 5-9, 180. As great as he is now, signing him into his late 30s for more than $30 million annually is the definition of risky. What if he loses a step in the outfield, or the lightning in his wrists suffers a voltage drop? When the Red Sox signed Dustin Pedroia to an eight-year deal in July of 2013, they couldn't have imagined that he had just made his final All-Star team, or that he'd appear in more than 135 games just once before a degenerative knee condition effectively ended his career.

Maybe Betts is Manny Ramirez or Alex Rodriguez, two stars who delivered on massive deals. Then again, both of them were busted multiple times for using performance-enhancing drugs, and baseball's crackdown on those has led to a reevaluation of aging curves, which are steeper in their 30s than they used to be.

Martinez, meanwhile, represents cost certainty. He's signed for three more years, but can opt out of either of the next two. He plays a far less demanding position and style than Betts, and it's much easier to envision him delivering value commensurate with the $62.5 million remaining on his deal. He has averaged .317-40-118 in his first two seasons with the Red Sox, and he continues a trend that has existed since the heyday of David Ortiz, giving Boston far and away the best DH production in baseball. Paying him $23 million a year to mash while other teams split their DH slot among aging one-dimensional sluggers or glorified bench rotations feels like exploiting a market inefficiency.

I would argue that Martinez's presence is more important to the lineup than Betts', and I suspect Betts would agree. It's easier to be a table-setter than a table, to steal an old line from Pedroia, and Martinez is the latter, taking the heat off everyone else. Even in an era defined by analytics, the mental strain that Martinez eases by being The Guy means more than numbers can convey.

There's an obvious counterargument to all of this: keep them both. The Red Sox aren't poor, and Henry's desire to cut payroll is based on the artificial barriers created by the luxury tax. Outside of some minor draft order penalties, all that going over costs anyone is money, and Henry can afford it -- another $240 million payroll in 2020 might cost the Red Sox $20 million in tax payments, for instance. That's easy to dismiss when it's someone else's money and that someone else is a billionaire.

My counterargument to that counterargument would be that Henry has never been shy about spending, and if he looks at this past season's underachieving roster and sees more problems on the horizon because of bad investments, I can't blame him. After all, it's not like he hired Chaim Bloom from small-market Tampa to make it rain.

The next great Red Sox team won't be bloated like this one. Betts isn't part of that problem, but give him $350 million and he could be. Better to pay Martinez a more reasonable sum and trust that the team's considerable resources can be spread around to make up the difference.

 

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Mookie Betts was supposed to be next Andrew McCutchen, who now calls comparison 'laughable'

Mookie Betts was supposed to be next Andrew McCutchen, who now calls comparison 'laughable'

BOSTON -- Just 40 games into his major league career, Mookie Betts found himself in Pittsburgh, staring at the player many considered his doppelganger.

Pirates superstar Andrew McCutchen had to be honest. Was he supposed to know the 21-year-old? He barely recognized the name.

That was 2014. Five years later, McCutchen holds a very different view of the defending MVP.

"I've never done what he's done," said McCutchen. "For them to compare him to me, that's pretty laughable."

McCutchen is being too modest. Five years before Betts claimed the 2018 MVP award, McCutchen turned the trick for the Pirates with a very Mookie-like season: .317 average, 21 homers, 84 RBI, 27 steals. It came as part of a four-year run of top-five MVP finishes that also included a Gold Glove and four consecutive Silver Slugger awards.

In town with the Phillies while rehabbing a season-ending ACL tear, McCutchen reflected on all the ways Betts has surpassed him since becoming a household name and World Series champion in Boston.

"I've done all right. I've done all right for myself," McCutchen said. "But I think if anyone did what I did my MVP year, they probably wouldn't be winning an MVP nowadays. Mookie's doing exceptionally well. He's a guy who's not of tremendously big stature but generates a lot of power. He plays great defense. Plays great right field. He can do it all. He's fun to watch."

The McCutchen comparisons made sense as a Betts' best-case scenario because both five-tool players overcame a relative lack of size to post legitimate power numbers derived from lightning-quick hands while playing Gold Glove defense in the outfield.

That said, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound McCutchen is clearly bigger, stronger, and thicker than the 5-9, 180-pound Betts. Picture the difference between former Patriots running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Dion Lewis.

"He's gotten to the point now in his career where if he's not hitting .330 with 40, driving in 100 and scoring 100 runs, it's a down year," McCutchen said. "You look back at that, and you know you're doing something good. I'm sure people are saying he's having a subpar season this year. Ultimately, he isn't. He's actually having a really good season, but just maybe not like his MVP year. He's gotten to that point where people expect him to do well and do better than well. That means he's doing something really good and something really special."

McCutchen reached the majors in 2009 at 22 and was an All-Star two years later. Betts followed a similar progression, except he debuted at 21 before becoming an All-Star in 2016 at 23.

"He's only what, 26?" McCutchen asked. "He's only 26 years old and he's doing the things he's done and still has a lot of years left to play. It's safe to say he's going to have a pretty good payday when the time comes.

"You can't help but see and hear about him, just because of what he has done, because of the World Series last year and winning the MVP. You're going to hear his name, you're going to see him. The guy's bowling 300s. He's out there and he's done a lot in his career thus far. Like I said, a special talent."

One area where the two diverge is earnings. McCutchen's teammate, Bryce Harper, is already on record that he hopes Betts tops his $330 million contract when he reaches free agency next year. McCutchen signed a $51 million extension with the Pirates in 2012 and is currently playing on a three-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies. Betts could end up tripling his career earnings, especially since McCutchen hasn't held up as well since making his most recent All-Star team at age 28 in 2015.

"He deserves it, to say the least," McCutchen said. "There's not many people doing what he's done, putting up the numbers he's put up. So the contract should reflect that. I'll be happy for him when he does get that deal, and hopefully, it's not too hard for him. Hopefully, someone gives him what he deserves and go from there. He's just going to keep getting better."

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