The Mookie Betts contract situation is tricky, but here’s a solution
The Red Sox are so good, so good, so good right now. It’s hard to argue that they don’t know what they’re doing. Avuncular president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is the architect of three straight American League East champions and crafted a World Series winner last season that set a franchise record for regular-season victories (108).
But one of the enduring elements of baseball is spurring lots of unsolicited advice for players, managers, front office folks, even ownership.
I have some for the Red Sox in regard to retaining Markus Lynn Betts, the franchise’s most important player. Betts, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, is due to become a free agent after the 2020 season. He appears lukewarm on a long-term commitment to Boston before he reaches the open market — or at least what passes for baseball’s open market in these tightwad-ish times.
Still, Betts can’t ignore the current economic climate in Major League Baseball, one that has Bryce Harper unsigned and forced Manny Machado to slum it with the San Diego Padres and wait until Feb. 19 to get his 10-year, $300 million deal.
Here’s my modest proposal. The Sox should offer Betts, who avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $20 million deal for this season, an extension that is similar in construct, but not average annual value or length, to the deal that Sox slugger J.D. Martinez signed last offseason. The key to Martinez’s five-year, $110 million contract is that he has opt-outs after the second (2019) and third (2020) seasons, allowing him to reset his value.
This could be a compromise construct that keeps Betts in a Boston uniform beyond the 2020 season while still allowing him to bet on his talent and a future shift in the free agent landscape.
It’s a win-win scenario. The Sox buy out a year of Betts’s free agency and get more time to convince him not to leave. Betts can lock in lucrative long-term dough in this current flinty free agent environment with no risk. But if the MLB Players Association gets up off the mat when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season, he’s in prime position to opt out and cash in.
Admittedly, this is tilted heavily in Betts’s favor. The reality is that Betts is the Kyrie Irving of the Red Sox. His team has to bend over backward to appease him and stop at nothing to keep him.
As talented and charismatic as Betts is, as much as he moves the WAR (wins above replacement) needle in a way that only Mike Trout can, he can’t ignore “the realities of the marketplace” as Sox owner John Henry (you know what else he owns) termed it. Betts is aware of the landscape, even in the wake of Machado finally breaking the ice of another nuclear winter.
Maybe the Machado deal marks a turning point for reversing the current coupon-clipping environment, caused by a combination of analytics groupthink and a luxury tax replete with such stiff economic and competitive penalties it’s acting as a de facto salary cap. Maybe it’s Trout who reverses the market when his current contract expires after the 2020 season. Maybe it’s the brewing acrimony between frustrated players and MLB. But Betts can take the money from the Sox now and figure that all out later.
So, what would this deal look like? I’ll leave the exact details to more educated negotiating minds, but let’s say the Sox offer Betts a nine-year, $310.5 million extension that kicks in next season with an opt-out after the 2021 season and possibly another one after the 2022 season. How does he say no?
This deal is a complete no-lose situation for him. He’s locking in mega-money and retaining his freedom to explore other options while still in his prime. After the 2021 season, Betts will be just 29. He would be 30 if he exercised an opt-out following the 2022 season.
From the Sox’ perspective, such a deal guarantees them another year with arguably the best player in baseball in this win-now window. Last season, Betts led the majors in batting average and slugging percentage while hitting 32 home runs, stealing 30 bases, and winning a third consecutive Gold Glove in right field.
We know bridge years are bad for the Sox, but a bridge contract with Betts makes sense.
There is another advantage for the Sox of this setup. It serves to gauge Betts’s temperature and intentions on staying in Boston. If Betts is reluctant to sign such a no-lose contract, then it telegraphs his reservations regarding remaining with the Sox. It would indicate he’s iffy on subjecting himself to the Boston Baseball Experience for the bulk of his career.
Perhaps the easygoing Brentwood, Tenn., product would be more comfortable outside the Fenway fishbowl, in a less fractious environment. Maybe he has witnessed the rough treatment of fellow Tennessee native David Price and determined that another MLB lifestyle is worth exploring.
If that’s the case, and Betts is a real flight risk, it’s better for the Sox to figure that out now. Then they can divert their focus and funds to some of the other important impending free agents like Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Martinez, Rick Porcello, and Jackie Bradley Jr. It’s better to know that now than lose a Bogaerts because you’re saving up to sign Betts.
Henry stated at his annual ownership address with team chairman Tom Werner that the Sox won’t be able to retain of all of their upcoming free agents. It’s simply not realistic.
If this type of contract offer with opt-outs isn’t enticing to Betts, the Sox know where they stand. They would have to consider getting what they can for Betts in a trade after this season instead of risking him walking away in free agency and receiving only a compensatory draft pick.
To get some clarity on Betts, the Sox have to get creative with their contract proposals.
This one is a home run for Betts, and it would let the Sox know how serious he is about making Boston his baseball home for years to come.