All Red Sox fans love Mookie Betts. And what is not to love? He was MVP in 2018, hitting .346 with 32 homers. He has led the American League in runs each of the last two seasons. He is a Gold Glove right fielder, playing half his games in the toughest right field in baseball. He is an electric player and has never done anything to tarnish himself or the uniform.
But he is also a free agent at the end of next season, shows no signs of re-upping with the Red Sox, and, quite frankly, is a tad overrated around here.
I have heard from some Sox fans who say they will abandon Red Sox Nation if the team trades Mookie Betts. I have read that the Sox might have to trade Xander Bogaerts in order to keep Mookie Betts. There are “Keep Mookie” hoodies for sale on the web and folks who believe that Mookie is the best player to wear a Red Sox uniform since Babe Ruth.
Calm down. Mookie is good, but he’s not that good. He’s not Mike Trout good. He’s certainly not Ted Williams good.
Thus far in his big league career, Betts is Fred Lynn good. Nothing more.
Betts has played 794 regular-season games for the Red Sox. Like Lynn, he has won an MVP and four Gold Gloves. In his first 794 games with the Sox, Lynn hit .309 with 122 homers and 505 RBIs. Betts is at .301 with 139 homers and 470 RBIs (leading off much of the time). Lynn had a better OPS (.908 to .893). Lynn was an All-Star in each of his six Sox seasons. Mookie is 4 for 5.
Lynn was traded to the Angels before the start of the 1981 season when it was learned he was going to be a free agent. Mookie might be traded between now and next summer’s deadline if the Sox conclude they are not going to be able to sign him.
Nomar Garciaparra was better than Mookie in his first 794 games with the Red Sox. Nomar hit 11 more homers (150 to 139), batted 24 points higher (.325), and knocked in 107 more runs (577) while also leading off at times. Garciaparra won two batting titles and finished second in MVP voting in 1998.
Defensively, Mookie no doubt is better than Nomar, but shortstop is a much more important defensive position than right field. It’s harder, involving many more balls in play.
Being in the conversation with Lynn and Garciaparra does not diminish Betts’s accomplishments. But it gives us a little perspective. Lynn and Garciaparra were both traded at roughly the same stage of their career that Betts will be at next season, and neither continued on a Hall of Fame pace after leaving Boston. Their careers were marred by injuries. There is no indication that Betts is headed for trouble in this area.
But no baseball player is a sure thing after five or six seasons, and there is plenty of reason for the Sox to pause if Mookie wants anything in the area of $300 million over 10 seasons. Trout got $430 million for a 12-year deal, which averages out to $35.8 million per season. Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies for $330 million over 13 seasons ($25.4 million per).
Mookie and his agent are going to be reminded 330 million times that the Washington Nationals went on to win the World Series after they let Harper play out his contract.
Few players make good on these kinds of deals. One was Manny Ramirez, who was great for 7½ seasons of an eight-year, $160 million contract he signed with the Red Sox way back in 2001.
The Red Sox at this hour have more math problems than young Dan Shaughnessy did in high school calculus back in the day. They are trying to remain competitive while cutting $35 million from their payroll and at the same time holding on to Betts and J.D. Martinez, who just opted in for $23.75 million in 2020. The Sox owe the Sore Arm Trio (Chris Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi) almost $80 million in 2020.
They are going to have to trade players, but it would be a colossal blunder to deal Bogaerts as a way to keep Betts. Bogaerts is newly signed to a team-friendly deal (six years, $132 million), and is coming off a .309-33-117 season. He is also a 6-foot-1-inch, 210-pound, 27-year-old shortstop with two championship rings. You do not solve your Betts dilemma by trading Xander Bogaerts.
In my view, the best play is for the Sox to keep Betts in 2020, try to get another great year out of him, while still trying to sign him (unlikely) and hoping he will listen to reason. If he goes, you say, “Thank you very much,” and you take the draft pick. You do not take dimes on the dollar now, or in midsummer. No one is going to give you commensurate value for one season (or two months) of Mookie Betts.
The Sox will survive. This is not anything like the sale of Babe Ruth. Betts is a fine player, but he is not a big guy (5-9, 180), he is not going to get any faster, and he has little power to the right side. Take a look at Betts’s spray chart (above left):
He almost never hits a homer to right (why would anyone pitch him inside at Fenway?). Twenty of his 139 career homers are against the Orioles. He has never put together back-to-back .300 seasons. His postseason sample is large, and poor (.227, 1 HR, 4 RBIs, with 17 strikeouts in 88 at-bats over 21 games).
Remember what we thought Andrew McCutchen was going to be? What if that’s all Mookie Betts ever turns out to be? If I could give a young player $350 million over the next 10 years, I’d lock up Washington’s Juan Soto.
Here’s hoping the Sox sign Betts. But it’s not a disaster if they trade him. Or if he plays out his contract. As so often happens here in New England, Mookie Betts is a tad overrated.