Why Mookie Was Traded

The last time anything was posted in this space, Markus Lynn Betts – better known as Mookie – had never won a major league championship. He was also the starting right fielder for the Boston Red Sox. As of Tuesday, assuming the medicals clear and this cryptic warning proves to be resolved, neither of those things is true.

The trade of Betts was certain to send shockwaves through Boston and beyond simply because of the quality of player he is. As Ben Lindbergh notes, no one as young and good as Betts has ever been traded. In the non-Trout cohort of Major League Players, Betts is probably at the top of the list if we ignore contracts. Unfortunately, however, contracts do matter which is how we ended up where we ended up, which is with the best positional player the Red Sox have had in my lifetime being traded for two quality players, neither of which approaches his ability level.

Even given the caliber of player that Betts is, however, the level of vitriol this trade has unleashed is like nothing I’ve seen before. That’s expected from the Shaughnessy’s of the world whose stock-in-trade is spewing poison, but when typically calm and level-headed columnists such as Chad Finn go scorched earth in this fashion it’s clear the trade hit a nerve. Even writers with no attachment whatsoever to the Red Sox were incensed, from Michael Baumann of The Ringer to Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports.

Like the fans currently calling for the heads of Henry, Bloom and everyone else involved in the Red Sox decision-making process, for most the explanation for this trade is simple: it’s the money. Nothing more, nothing less. The normally mild mannered Finn rebranded the club “Tampa Bay Rays North,” and Calcaterra’s pithy summary was “This trade was born of the Red Sox being unwilling to spend a few million bucks to field a championship caliber team.”

Ambiguous, the returns are not.

There are, to be fair, a few lonely souls out there arguing that the deal while profoundly depressing made baseball sense – Soxprospect’s Chris Hatfield and Ian Cundall, for two, along with whoever it is that mans the invaluable @redsoxstats account. But to Calcaterra, Finn and – sadly – Ken Tremendous, dissenting takes on the deal are signs that one “roots for the financials over the ballplayers” or, worse, “the spreadsheet column that tracks this year’s net profitability for one of many divisions of a billionaire’s company’s portfolio.”

Like the heretics above, however, as much of a tragedy as the deal is, and it’s a tragedy make no mistake, the take here is that it’s also a deal that is a logical response to a set of market conditions. Market conditions that are in some cases at least are not the responsibility of the Boston Red Sox, and yet which they are being held accountable for. Let’s unpack the context here to try and get beneath superficial rage to understand the motivations, the mechanics and ultimately the choice faced by Bloom.

The Player

One of the players headed out in this deal is a very accomplished lefthander who set the major league record for pitcher salaries at the time of his signing, and yet this will never be anything but the Mookie trade. That is a testament to the player’s ability, which is surpassing. On or off the field, there is basically nothing Betts does not do well. He can hit, he can field, he can run the bases. He’s a marketer’s dream, always smiling and seemingly always upbeat. Never a whiff of controversy off the diamond, and in fact ran out to feed the homeless after a playoff game.

There’s nothing not to like about Mookie. His career trajectory is consistent with two other players Red Sox fans are likely to be familiar with, which is notable because both are in the Hall of Fame and one has an argument for being the best hitter that ever lived.

Betts is not, in other words, a player to trade, he’s a player to build around. Why will he not following in the footsteps, then, of the great Red Sox outfielders that preceded him?

Part of the answer is context, and part of it is the player. We’ll come back to the context, but it’s important to acknowledge Betts’ agency in this regard.

It is true that Betts never once said he would not resign with Boston. But it is also true that he rarely – but admittedly not never – expressed an outsized affection for the city. Like most players, when pressed his response was something generic and noncommital like “this is all I’ve known.” This was usually in conjunction with sentiments such as, “it’s a business” – which is, besides being an entirely accurate statement, it’s his absolute right to view it that way. According to Jim Rice, Mookie Betts told him on Tuesday night that “I wanted to stay.” That may be the case, but it seems curious that never once until he was traded did he express his wishes that plainly. Bogaerts did, and was signed shortly thereafter.

None of which should be taken to mean that Betts should have felt compelled to fall over himself saying how much he loved Boston and wanted to stay, let alone accept less than his full value. If his goal was to strictly to maximize his value by reaching free agency, no one has the right to question that.

Unless his private communication with the club was materially different than his public statements, however, his consistent ambiguity must have left the club with questions about whether the player was signable even with a top of market offer. Bloom and Dombrowski before him, therefore, had to allow for the possibility – even as critics of this deal generally have not – that even if the money was there, Betts might depart for climate, geographical or other reasons.

It is interesting to speculate, on that point, whether Betts would have been traded had he promised the club the right of first refusal. Alas, we’ll never know.

The Trade

One of the other criticisms of this trade is the return. And on the surface this makes sense; even two well regarded major league or near major league ready players seems a light return for a player of Betts’ caliber. But, as mentioned above, contracts matter.

First, the player was owed close to thirty million dollars, which immediately narrows the potential destinations to a small handful. The fact that Betts had a single year left limited his market value further. The fact that he had expressed no willingness to sign an extension before hitting free agency limited it yet again. Having the potential albatross of Price’s contract stapled to him brought it down to the return we saw.

In spite of these hindrances, however, Bloom was able to extract multiple years of two Top 100 prospects from the deal while simultaneously granting himself maneuverability this season under the CBT and, with the reset, the ability to spend freely next.

Assume if only for the sake of argument that Mookie Betts had to be traded with David Price: it’s difficult to imagine a materially better return given the limited suitors and nature of the two contracts involved.

The Payroll

As discussed, the conventional wisdom about this deal is that it’s strictly a function of money, and that this is essentially nothing more than a billionaire lining his pockets with more money. Which is, in the strictest sense, true. This deal was certainly motivated by the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT threshold) and the penalties involved – though those extend beyond just the financial as we’ll come back to.

But accusing this ownership group of being cheap is an interesting assertion given that the Red Sox had the highest payroll in the major leagues last year, and the year before that. And for the three years before that, John Henry and co ran the sixth, fifth and third highest payrolls in the game.

Were the Red Sox profitable in spite of those high payrolls? Presumably. But just two seasons ago they outspent the second ranked San Francisco Giants by nearly $30M; last season they outspent the second ranked Chicago Cubs by less than ten million. On a possibly related note, neither club made the postseason.

Surely the Red Sox are unique in their newfound apprehension about going over the threshold, however? Not so much.

The Dodgers avoid it.

As do the Yankees.

If you want to criticize the Red Sox for their budgetary constraints, then, it seems fair to acknowledge that they have historically been more willing to exceed it than larger market counterparts.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Speaking of…

The System

The subtext to all of this discussion is the CBT, so it’s probably useful to take a moment to examine what the CBT actually is and what it means. The CBT is a multi-tiered threshold of escalating penalties which is theoretically a soft cap but is, in practice, treated like more of a hard cap. It gets worse a) for each level of spending you exceed and b) for each year you’re over. We’ve been over the maximum threshold two years in a row; this would be three.

Besides a fifty percent tax on every dollar spent above the threshold and the loss of revenue sharing – this is one side of the money that everyone is complaining about, there are draft penalties. If you exceed the maximum threshold, your draft spot – and more importantly, the budget associated with it – is knocked down 10 spots. Additionally, the draft compensation for departing free agents drops from the first or second round to the fourth. The draft penalties are suboptimal if you’re generally a successful club; if you’re a club facing potential draft sanctions for sign stealing, as the Red Sox are, they’re potentially ruinous.

Ten years ago, none of this would be an issue, because amateur spending wasn’t capped. Which is how Henry’s ownership group invested close to $70M (with the 100% tax on amateur spending) on Yoan Moncada, later the headline piece in the acquisition of Chris Sale. But in 2020, amateur pools both domestically and internationally are capped such that exceeding them is simply not done.

Which in turn means that while the CBT’s most obvious implications involve financial penalties on overages, the ongoing impacts to amateur talent acquisition have the potential to harm the long term health of a club’s talent pipeline.

Given that the club flaunted the old draft systems without hard caps on amateur spending by investing liberally in amateur talent (Rusney Castillo is making $13.5M to play the outfield in Pawtucket, remember), it seems safe to assume that the Red Sox are not in favor of the new system. A system, as described by Calcaterra:

in which the threshold where such decisions allegedly must begin to be made — $208 million this year — has grown at a far slower rate than player salaries have. A system which actively works against teams getting good and staying good. A system which is antithetical to the very ideas of competitive sports and the cultivation of fan loyalty. A system which is designed for the express purpose of suppressing team payrolls, even if it means trading away generational superstars.

Somehow, however, this system that at least encouraged if not outright caused the Betts trade, that the Red Sox as a large market club are likely not in favor of, that was collectively bargained by the clubs and the players, is being held against Boston in singular fashion.

The Roster

It is ironic that one of the primary reasons the Red Sox are being criticized for not spending on Betts is that they spent too liberally on players more willing to sign. Before the trade, the combination of Sale ($30M), Price ($32M) and Eovaldi ($17M) were projected to cost the club nearly $80M. In 2019, they got a tick over 300 innings out of those three pitchers – combined. All of them had ERA’s north of 4, and all had significant injuries (elbow for Eovaldi and Sale, wrist for Price).

For context, to open 2019, there were five clubs whose total 25 man roster made less than $80M, and another within hailing distance at $83M.

This suggests, correctly, that Dombrowski was spending commensurate with his club’s big market status, but without much of a long term plan for fitting Mookie into the picture or regard for the risks involved. Which is certainly on the club for employing him, and likely explains in part why they no longer do so.

But in Dombrowski’s defense, it’s possible that his assumption based on repeated failures to sign the player or even find common ground led him to believe that Betts was unsignable in practical terms. An assumption that the player could not be secured would help explain why he was comfortable locking up Bogaerts, Eovaldi and Sale while cognizant that budgets, at some point, are finite and that he was going to run out of room for a Betts contract.

Regardless of the precise sequence of events, however, the Red Sox had a number of very high price assets monopolizing a large part of their budget. Which might still be workable if the farm system could be tapped for a reliable supply of major league ready players. Unfortunately, however, as is Dombrowski’s modus operandi, that had been systematically converted into major league assets, leaving behind a thin pool of potential prospects years away from playing meaningful roles with the club.

The situation that Bloom inherited then, was a roster in which a mere eight players (Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley, Eovaldi, Martinez, Pedroia, Price and Sale) out of a roster of 26 were set to be on the books for $175M, or more than all but four teams (Astros, Cubs, Nationals, Yankees) entire opening day payrolls last season.

Which, again, is poor roster construction on the club’s part, specifically Dombrowski. In this way, it is absolutely fair as Peter Abraham of the Globe did to characterize this as an organizational failure, because that’s exactly what this is.

It is curious given the above facts, however, that the Red Sox are being characterized as merely cheap when a more accurate diagnosis would seem to be be mismanaged.

The League

One argument for keeping Betts goes that the Red Sox could retain him for 2020, making one last run at the World Series with their MVP, accepting the risk he walks away for nothing at the end of the season. As it’s an argument based on contention, this argument necessarily must factor in the league context.

If you’re an optimist, as many in the audience are, you’d probably point to the fact that they still had the core of a roster that won 108 games and blitzed through the postseason en route to their fourth title this decade a mere two seasons ago. The counter to that, unfortunately, is that everyone on that roster is two years older and coming off a season in which they won 84 games, finished third in their division and missed the playoffs.

Worse, the Rays appear poised for sustained success – hence Bloom’s presence – and the Yankees chose this offseason to flex, landing easily the best free agent starter on the market to shore up one of the few weaknesses of their roster (though it’s worth asking whether Paxton’s injury after the fact would change that calculus at all).

Would the Red Sox roster with Betts and Price have a shot at contending? Certainly. But with two of their starting pitchers having been unable to finish out the season due to injury and a third almost wholly ineffective after coming back from his, the outlook was uncertain at best.

Which makes it a poor factor for consideration in regard to any move the magnitude of a trade of a talent like Betts.

The Choice

In case any of this is unclear, this is an awful deal, and a genuine tragedy for Red Sox fans. Nothing would be more satisfying than seeing that talent end his career never having worn another uniform, and nothing will be more painful seeing him in Dodger blue. This is, again, the best position player the Red Sox have had at least since Yastrzemski and arguably since Williams.

Saying it’s a tragedy is a different thing, however, than saying this is the wrong move for the team, and it’s at least mildly surprising that a region so reflexively enamored of Belichick’s absolutely ruthless lack of sentimentality and the results it produces can’t recognize that.

All other considerations aside, Bloom’s choice essentially amounted to:

  • Option A:
    One guaranteed year of Betts, after which he had no guarantee of resigning the player even if he was the high bidder. If the club doesn’t resign him, he gets nothing.

    Three guaranteed years of Price at $32M per. Best case, he’s healthy and adjusts to declining velocity. Worst case, his “special” elbow, wrist or some other ailment costs portions of some or all of those seasons and $96M is now effectively immovable and nearly $100M of dead money.

    The non-trade means the club is over the CBT, so financial and draft penalties apply. It also has limited room to maneuver in-season.

  • Option B:
    Three years of a good young outfielder worth 60-70% of Betts production.

    Five years of a young pitcher with a ceiling of #2/#3 starter and floor of late inning relief pitcher. Or maybe not.

    Financial flexibility for in-season moves and/or negotiating extensions with Devers or Rodriguez.

    2020 CBT reset allows for the signing of high dollar contracts beginning in 2021.

In a perfect world, one where budgets are infinite and money is no object, there is no CBT, no caps on amateur spending, and no one gave a lefthander heading into his thirties the largest contract ever handed to a pitcher, this is a simple decision. That not being the world we live in, this might have been the best the club could do. Much as those howling are loathe to admit it, this isn’t just about the money. It never was.

One last thing worth noting. Assume that the trade proceeds, and that the Red Sox reset their CBT threshold. Let’s further assume that Betts’ stance remains consistent following the trade and that he intends to hit the open market rather than re-signing prematurely with the Dodgers. There is, at that point, nothing stopping the Red Sox from using their 2020 reset to bring back the best free agent on the market…one Markus Lynn Betts. It’s a long shot, and smart money is on the Dodgers, but a useful reminder nevertheless that judging trades at the time they’re made is a fool’s errand.

Whatever happens from here on out, however, there is one thing that everyone – regardless of where they stand with respect to this deal – can agree on: Mookie is an absolute joy to watch, a credit to whatever team he plays for and a player and person that will be sorely missed.

Ave atque value, Mookie.

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