Mike Trout

Red Sox' Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers get some MVP recognition in AL voting

Red Sox' Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers get some MVP recognition in AL voting

In a disappointing season for the Boston Red Sox, the productive years of Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers did warrant some MVP recognition.

Bogaerts finished fifth in the American League MVP voting (The Angels' Mike Trout was your winner for the third time in six years), Betts, who won the award a year ago, was eighth and Devers 12th in the voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Bogaerts hit .309 with 33 homers, 52 doubles and 117 RBI; Devers .311, 32 HR, 54 doubles and 115 RBI. They became the first teammates to ever reach the 30-homer/50-doubles mark in the same season. The numbers for Betts (.295, 30 HR, 80 RBI), the subject of trade rumors this offseason, were considered by many to be a down year for him.

The Dodgers' Cody Bellinger was voted National League MVP.

Justin Long, the Sox Senior Manager of Media Relations and Baseball Information, points out that having three players in the top 12 is the best showing for the Red Sox since 2011:    

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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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Bryce Harper rooting for Mookie Betts 'to make more money than I do' in free agency

Bryce Harper rooting for Mookie Betts 'to make more money than I do' in free agency

BOSTON -- Bryce Harper was one of the earliest passengers on the Mookie Betts bandwagon, even as its namesake made him a victim of highway robbery.

The 2015 Fenway home opener featured the Nationals and their superstar 22-year-old, but Betts stole the show. He not only went 2-for-4 with a homer and two steals, he also made a leaping catch in right-center to rob Harper of a homer and then gushed about what an honor it was to share a field with him.

The two future MVPs were born only nine days apart in October of 1992, but by 2015 Harper had already established himself as a superstar, while Betts was still finding his way. "He'd be in the lineup every day if he was mine," Harper said at the time.

Fast forward just four short years, and there's no missing either of them. Harper is in the first year of a record 13-year, $330 million contract with Philadelphia, while Betts is a year away from hitting the market himself and discovering what riches it holds.

With the Phillies in town for a two-game series, that made Harper the perfect man to discuss Betts' future, because he has lived it.

"Just seeing him play through the minors and then when he got up here, he was such an electric player," Harper told NBC Sports Boston. "He's one of those guys who can change the game in an instant on both sides of the ball. He's a really good person as well off the field. Just a guy you'd want on your franchise for a long time."

The Red Sox agree, but they won't be the only team vying for his services if Betts reaches free agency. Harper faced a similar predicament with the Nationals last year, at one point reportedly declining a $300 million extension.

Whatever connection Harper felt with Washington, the team that made him the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, it didn't supersede his collectively bargained right to test the market.

"For myself and other players, you earn that opportunity to go there," Harper said. "You're locked in for a long period of time with one team once you get drafted, and then you have an opportunity to go and listen to other teams and see what they have to offer. It's a fun time, it's a good time to feel wanted, and Mookie is going to be wanted by a lot of teams and I think Boston is going to be one of them."

Harper rattled off a list of former teammates and executives in Washington he expects will remain lifelong friends. He has nothing but good things to say about his seven seasons there. But he also recognized that perhaps his time had run its course in ways that should make sense to Red Sox fans wondering how the team will find the money to pay Betts, MVP candidate Rafael Devers, and young outfielder Andrew Benintendi, among others.

"It was time for both sides," Harper said. "[The Nationals] have Juan Soto and Victor Robles, [Anthony] Rendon, a lot of players coming up. It was time to go somewhere else and I'm just happy I'm here and very happy I'm in Philly."

Harper's free agency experience lasted months, which is perhaps baseball's new normal. He didn't sign with the Phillies until the end of February, but he didn't sweat it, and he doesn't think Betts should either.

"I didn't mind it," he said. "Only having a couple of weeks in spring training was nice, some extra time with family and friends. But it's part of the process. It's part of what teams and players are doing now. It's going to be a long process for him, but I think he'll be able to handle that. He has a great head on his shoulders and a great family."

While Harper's contract remains the biggest ever signed by a free agent, it was in short order eclipsed as baseball's richest by Mike Trout's 12-year, $430 million extension with the Angels. Harper would love to see Betts achieve even greater financial heights.

"Just like Trout did," Harper said. "Mookie's an incredible player. If he has an opportunity to make more money than I do, then I hope he does."

Whatever Betts ultimately lands on the market, Harper still has one bone to pick. He ended up winning the MVP in 2015 after hitting .330 with 42 homers and 99 RBI. All of those numbers would've been higher, except Betts had other ideas.

"It should've been 43," Harper said with a wry smile. "So, appreciate it, Mookie."

 

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