Here’s one way to define a genuine Major League Baseball superstar: In what feels like a down year, or at least one that has come with pockets of surprisingly prolonged frustration, he’s still one of the premier players in baseball.
Mookie Betts is not going to repeat as American League Most Valuable Player this season. He’s not even the most valuable and productive player in the Red Sox lineup, and we’ll save that fun Rafael Devers vs. Xander Bogaerts argument for another day.
His slugging percentage is down 156 points from his majors-leading .640 last year. His batting average is down 61 points from his MLB-leading .346 last year.
He has 15 home runs, as many as catcher Christian Vazquez, one fewer than Michael Chavis, and two more than Mitch Moreland, who has played one game since May 25. He’s made a couple of uncharacteristic defensive miscues in right field.
No, it’s not the best sequel to an MVP season we’ve ever seen. Given the high expectations of Betts, you could say it’s even been disappointing. If this year’s lineup was anchored by last year’s version of Betts (or the 2016 version, when he was runner up to Mike Trout for AL MVP), perhaps the Red Sox would not be the American League’s greatest enigma as the July 31 trade deadline approaches.
And yet, per baseball-reference’s version of wins above replacement, here is the entire list of Major League position players that have provided more value this year:
Cody Bellinger, Trout, Christian Yelich, Matt Chapman, Ketel Marte, Alex Bregman, Jorge Polanco, and D.J. LeMahieu.
Eight players. That’s it. Eight have been better than Betts, who is tied for ninth with Oakland’s Marcus Semien at 4.2 WAR.
Go ahead, hit me with your WAR-what-is-it-good-for clichés, and yes, it does favor players like Betts that do everything well. Those are, after all, the kind of players you want.
I’m not arguing that this season has been ideal for him, though he is leading the majors in runs (88) and has been Mookie: Back with a Vengeance in recent weeks, having had a 12-game hitting streak during which he hit .451 with a 1.217 OPS end Sunday.
There have been real frustrations.
My point is intended to be taken in a broader context. It’s not just that he’s very good even when he’s not near his best, it’s this:
Any suggestion of trading Mookie Betts right now is ludicrous. And I don’t get why a single Red Sox fan would even ponder such an idea.
His contract is up after next season? A lot can happen between now and then. We have no sense of what he has told the Red Sox, or whether his asking price has been affected by this season, how he really feels about playing here, none of that. He hasn’t said what we’d like to hear, but he hasn’t said I’m outta here, fellas, either. The process is playing out. And we shouldn’t presume. Admit it: You thought Bogaerts, a Scott Boras client, was going to head to free agency, didn’t you? We just don’t know what Betts is thinking.
The Red Sox are middling along in a six-team wild-card race, just lost two of three to a Baltimore team that should have been relegated to the International League before the season, and it’s not happening this year, so why not see what you can get for everyone? Hey, I get that frustration. This was a lousy week, going just 4-3 against the Jays and Orioles, with the Rays and Yankees ahead. There have been so many potholes along the way to becoming the team we thought they could be that perhaps we should realize that causing self-inflicted extra degrees of difficulty is just a part of this team’s makeup.
They’ve got a couple more days here to determine whether they’re buyers, whether they’ll just ride it out, or whether they should sell. If they do sell, it should be smaller parts — Rick Porcello, if a team thinks he’s salvageable this year, or Brock Holt, or maybe even J.D. Martinez if they think he might opt out and head elsewhere.
But you don’t trade Betts. You don’t trade a 26-year-old superstar more than a year from free agency to replenish a farm system with prospects that most likely will never approach what he is as a player. Who are these prospects? How close to the majors are they? And why do you prefer lottery tickets to a great player in his prime who is under contract for another year?
This is not 2014, with a bunch of aging veterans on short contracts ready to be moved.
This is a team that has signed Bogaerts and Chris Sale long-term in the last six months, has watched Devers turn into one of the best hitters in the league, suddenly has a good-hitting catcher in Vazquez, and still has All-Star quality players like Martinez and David Price.
This is not a franchise in disarray that needs a rebuild. It’s a team that should be contending now, and is built to contend in the near future.
What it needs is roster tweaks and about three major league arms in the bullpen. You don’t trade Betts, a player who comes around just once or twice a generation, because Dave Dombrowski built an excellent 20-man roster.
You do everything you can to make him stay.