As they embark upon this singularly fraught 2020 season, the Red Sox are defined as much by who is not present as who is. The absence of Mookie Betts remains both glaring and jarring, particularly now that the gifted 27-year-old outfielder on a Hall of Fame track has signed up to be a Dodger over the next 13 years for $385 million.
How did the Red Sox, a team with remarkable resources, end up walking away from their best homegrown player in a generation over money? Why were the Dodgers willing to make a commitment to Betts that the Red Sox weren’t?
At the time of the trade, Red Sox officials described the decision to send Betts and David Price to the Dodgers for outfielder Alex Verdugo and prospects Jeter Downs and Connor Wong as one motivated by baseball reasons.
“This trade is a very hard one to make. But our mission, our charge as a department, is to compete consistently, year in and year out, and to put ourselves in a position to win as many championships as we can,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said Feb. 10. “We can only accomplish that goal with a talent base at all levels of the organization that is deep, broad, and sustainable.”
In the winter of 2015-16, the Red Sox already had such a talent base ready for new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. had all arrived in the big leagues. Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, and Rafael Devers were behind them in the minors.
But the team’s roaring talent pipeline has been reduced to solitary drips in recent years. Prospect promotions and trades eroded the young talent base. So did a lack of impact from the draft.
Since 2012, aside from Benintendi (9.9 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference.com), the team hasn’t drafted a single player who’s been worth as much as 1.5 WAR in the big leagues. While the team has some players with at least average everyday potential in the upper minors and big leagues (Michael Chavis, Bobby Dalbec, Jarren Duran, Bryan Mata), it lacked the young base that it had when signing Price in December 2015.
By contrast, since 2012 the Dodgers have drafted All-Stars Corey Seager (2012), Ross Stripling (2012), Cody Bellinger (2013), and Walker Buehler (2015), along with big leaguers who project as above-average everyday contributors in Verdugo (2014), Gavin Lux (2016), Will Smith (2016), and Dustin May (2016). They have a handful of top-100 prospects behind them, waves of talent that project to make a significant impact through at least the first half of Betts’s contract.
Those homegrown talents — along with stars whose contracts are set to expire in the next couple years — positioned the Dodgers to push their chips into the middle of the table on Betts as they pursue their first championship since 1988.
The Sox, by contrast, felt like they were at a fork in the road. They’d already arrived at the conclusion that they weren’t going to be able to reach a deal with Betts before he reached free agency — and even less likely once he did reach it. That recognition led them to channel resources in a different direction with extensions for Chris Sale and Bogaerts in 2019.
But those two long-term deals, in conjunction with existing long-term deals for Price, J.D. Martinez, Nate Eovaldi, and Dustin Pedroia had the team in an uncomfortable spot. It had locked a lot of payroll into a select number of players, all but Bogaerts in their 30s, with the potential for increasing injuries and declining production.
There was a risk of joining the list of big-market teams that spend aggressively on payroll but don’t adequately replenish their young talent base, leading to painful and long rebuilds.
The 2012-19 Phillies and 2015-19 Tigers experienced steep cliffs after years of fielding championship-caliber teams. The 2012-19 Angels, who haven’t shied from huge contracts for Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton, have resided in a valley for some time.
“You could see that going both ways: ‘You know what, we’re going to be in for a world of hurt. The hangover is going to be really bad. So let’s just keep drinking,’ ” one American League executive said of the Red Sox’ predicament with Betts. “Or, you could see saying we don’t really want to be in that half-decade rut, so we should start thinking about it now and get in front of it.”
Walking for nothing
That either/or scenario didn’t exist in the same form when Betts entered the organization as a fifth-round selection in 2011. Back then, the team could hold on to an elite player until he reached free agency and get two first-rounders if and when he walked. It could also spend as it saw fit in the draft.
That was a formula the Sox employed in 2011, when they let Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre walk while investing money elsewhere (Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez). They got four draft picks as a result, with two — Bradley and Matt Barnes — emerging as key contributors to their 2018 title group. They also blew past the recommended draft slot pay scale to sign Betts away from a scholarship offer from the University of Tennessee.
The team used that formula — aggressive spending in the draft, draft-pick compensation — to balance its present and future. If that had remained available, perhaps the team would have kept Betts for at least one more year.
But the collective bargaining agreement negotiated after the 2011 season narrowed the mechanisms for landing top young talent. Since then, big-market teams have received no better than a pick between the second and third rounds for departing free agents. For a team that spends beyond the luxury-tax threshold (as the Sox might have done had they kept Betts), the compensation falls between the fourth and fifth rounds. The likelihood of landing impact players from such a spot — particularly given that the CBA introduced penalties for spending beyond slot recommendations — is poor.
“We felt we could not sit on our hands and lose him next offseason without getting value in return to help us on our path forward,” Red Sox principal owner (and Globe owner) John Henry said in February. “We carefully considered the alternative over the last year and made a decision when this opportunity presented itself to acquire substantial, young talent for the years ahead.”
The luxury tax
Getting payroll below the luxury-tax threshold was an important consideration for the Sox in dealing Betts. Had that not been the case, the team probably wouldn’t have focused as heavily on adding Price — who represented a roughly value-neutral component of the deal in terms of player return — into the deal. That said, lowering the payroll below the luxury-tax threshold was more a means to an end rather than an end in its own right.
The current CBA introduced significantly increased penalties for teams that spend beyond the luxury-tax threshold perennially, both in terms of the actual tax rates and lost revenue-sharing money. Those realities were at the heart of the Dodgers’ decision to get their payroll below the luxury-tax threshold in 2018 and 2019, as well as that of the Yankees to constrain their spending in 2018. The rules created massive incentives to reset the luxury-tax penalty rates once every three years.
When the Red Sox got under the luxury-tax threshold for the 2020 season with the trade of Betts and Price, they didn’t do so with the idea that they’d stay below the threshold — and steer clear of big contracts for superstars — forever. Rather, as has been the case in the past, they did so with the expectation that getting under the threshold for one or two years would allow them in future years to spend a greater percentage of their budget on star players as well as complementary contributors, rather than concentrating their spending on a handful of huge contracts and the taxes that go along with them.
Perhaps in the winter of 2021-22, if baseball can move past its rancorous labor climate and forge a new CBA at a time when new national TV deals are introducing billions of additional dollars into the sport and fans are back in parks, the Sox will be ready to jump back into the deep end of the market. That offseason also happens to be one when Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and other stars are slated to hit the open market.
Much as they did with their last Dodgers blockbuster in 2012 (unloading Gonzalez, Crawford, and Josh Beckett), the Sox dealt away talent in order to turn a rigid roster/payroll structure into a more flexible one.
It’s now up to the Sox to take advantage of their new financial latitude and to continue replenishing their young talent base. The team proved willing to take a gamble that, by trading Betts, it could better position itself to lay the foundation of success over the next decade. The Dodgers, meanwhile, are happily about to start testing their own belief that their best chance to win comes with Betts as a long-term anchor in Los Angeles.
“I’d be less than honest if there wasn’t a sense of disappointment and maybe sense of closure and finality to it,” Red Sox CEO and president Sam Kennedy said of the Betts extension. “We have a plan. We are very confident in the direction of our baseball operation. But it’s obviously hard to see Mookie Betts sign a long-term deal somewhere else. We wish him well, and now we move on as a group.”