I’ll admit it. The last few months, I’ve consciously tried to avoid talking about or listening to talk about Mookie Betts’s contract status.
The reigning American League Most Valuable Player with one of the most likable combinations of ability and charisma the Red Sox have ever had (at least since Dominican flags flew at Fenway during Pedro Martinez’s heyday) doesn’t hit free agency until two more seasons pass.
The Red Sox have to make decisions on several integral players — including Xander Bogaerts, Chris Sale, and Rick Porcello — before Betts’s deal is up. There’s always been some hope and of course genuine desire to lock in Betts as a Red Sox lifer before his deal expires.
But I wouldn’t have called it urgent, and fearing his departure was premature. Betts contract chatter usually felt like a way for the Chicken Littles in sports radio to try to cause alarm over the winter when they got bored of talking about another Patriots win.
Well, some things have happened, that you may have heard about, that have changed that don’t-worry-about-a-thing perspective at this address. Bryce Harper, arguably the third-most talented prime-of-career star in baseball, signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies on March 2, the largest total salary layout in the history of the sport.
After signing his record deal, Harper dropped more than a few hints that he’d love for Mike Trout — the best player for more than a half-dozen years now, the Willie Mays of our time, and at 27 years old, already the producer of more career Wins Above Replacement than Hall of Famers Dave Winfield, Hank Greenberg, and Vladimir Guerrero Sr. — to join him in Philadelphia.
It was conjecture, but it also seemed a fascinatingly real possibility that Trout, a New Jersey native and Philly sports fan, might join Harper someday. That is, right up until Tuesday’s whopper, when news broke that Trout had reached a megadeal to remain with the Angels the next 12 years for a mere $426.5 million.
Suddenly, the parameters were set for Betts, the game’s second-best player and one perhaps closing the gap on Trout. Harper gets $330 million. Trout gets $426.5. All logic immediately suggested that Betts should slot somewhere between them, albeit closer to Trout’s side of the ledger than Harper’s. We now know what Betts should expect for a contract, and that, rightfully, will amplify the talk about his contract, even with those two years left.
There is one question that must be asked now, a question with two interpretations and two distinct responses.
What do you want, Mookie?
That is foremost a request to know what it would take to get him signed to that long and staggeringly lucrative deal before free agency arrives, not to mention thwart that concern that he might depart.
But it asks a more important question, too. One not about money, but about his desired destination. All financial opportunities being equal and satisfying, does he want to be here long-term? Is Boston where he wants to be? What do you really want, and where do you want to be?
Betts wasn’t exactly encouraging, at least on the likelihood of signing an extension, when asked Wednesday about how Trout’s lucrative circumstances might affect his own.
“I love it here in Boston. It’s a great spot,’’ he said. “I’ve definitely grown to love going up North in the cold. That doesn’t mean I want to sell myself short of my value.”
Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported Tuesday that Betts turned down a $200 million extension in 2017. Betts has been content to play it year to year; he’ll make $20 million this year, the most ever for a player in his second season of arbitration eligibility. Betts confirmed Wednesday that he has turned down an extension offer before, and the bet on himself has proven a savvy move so far.
It sure doesn’t sound like he’s interested in an extension this year.
“That’s exactly what I expect,’’ he said when asked if he expects to play this season without an extension. “I don’t expect anything to happen until I’m a free agent.”
Those five scary words — “until I’m a free agent” — are the first confirmation that hitting the market is his current long-term plan. As a Red Sox fan, go ahead and sound the alarm. But don’t whine about the money he’s going to make.
There’s a segment of fans that liked to say it’s absurd to make that kind of money for playing a game. It’s nothing new to complain about salaries. I’m sure some fans were bothered by Carl Yastrzemski’s salary bump from $50,000 in 1967 to $100,000 in ’68, or when Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, and Bob Stanley all made more than $1 million in ’85, or when the Red Sox offered Kirby Puckett a reported and then-unheard of five-year, $35 million deal as a free agent in ’91.
But it’s not just a game. It’s a job that requires extraordinary skill, hard work, and a decent portion of luck just to make the majors, let alone become a legend in the making.
Yeah, it’s amazing that Trout will make $426,500,000 to play baseball the next dozen years. That’s a lot of zeros. It’s more money than Alex Rodriguez — the highest-paid player in baseball history ($396 million) made in his entire career. It’s more than twice what Barry Bonds made.
But the Angels’ television deal is worth $3 billion. They can afford this deal with ease, and before it’s over, Trout might look like a bargain. And I’ll never get the notion that players shouldn’t make the maximum a team is willing to pay them. Pay the best of the best as the best of the best. Would you really prefer the owners rake in that money?
It’s going to be tense and at times frustrating to wait to see what happens with Betts. You can’t help but wonder whether there’s a number the Red Sox could throw at him that would make him decide to forsake waiting for a free-agent jackpot. Would $450 million do it? $475 million? $500 million?
It’s not clear now, and maybe there’s no number at all that would keep him from exploring free agency. I don’t fault him for maximizing his value. I just hope we find out that number when the Red Sox make an offer that he cannot refuse.