The lines have been clearly drawn in the Mookie Betts debate. The Sox are committing heresy by even contemplating trading Betts as he approaches free agency. Or it’s logical and practical for the Sox to explore moving Betts before he moves on from a Red Sox uniform following the 2020 season.
We can all agree Mookie is a marquee attraction. If Betts could be batting in the inning, it’s worth holstering the remote to bear witness. Emotional attachment and sheer entertainment value aside, it would constitute management malpractice if the Sox didn’t explore the market for Mookie at this point.
If the Sox are going to open the bidding, they have to think outside the box and outside their sport in an era of baseball team-building when clubs cling to prospects like childhood talismans. The Sox must market Betts as the baseball version of Kawhi Leonard, a transformative franchise player who might be only a one-year rental but in that short time could change the entire complexion and fortunes of a franchise.
Ask the Toronto Raptors if they regret dealing for one year of Leonard. He changed their culture and their reputation as faux contenders. He delivered a championship to the North before bolting for the Los Angeles Clippers. One year of the Kawhi Experience was worth it for the Raptors. One year of Betts could do the same for a lucky bidder.
New Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom is no stranger to creative methods from his time with the Tampa Bay Rays. He has to employ the Leonard comparison to create proper value for Betts, who will cost a team not only premium prospects/young players but also a one-year arbitration salary estimated at $28 million.
Betts is a transcendent player, and his trade value should transcend his contract circumstances and the risk-averse, homogenous ethos of his sport. Admittedly, it’s easier for one player to influence a team’s fortunes in basketball than it is baseball. But there are some favorable parallels between Leonard and Betts for the Sox.
Leonard was 27 with a championship and an NBA Finals MVP under his belt when he was traded by the Spurs to the Raptors, along with Danny Green, for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20-protected first-round pick. Betts is 27 with a World Series title and an MVP to his name. Both players are multi-time All-Stars and top-five talents in their prime. Both players can impact the game defensively as much as offensively. Both prefer to quietly go about their greatness.
Let’s just hope Bloom can concoct a better deal for his team than acerbic Spurs coach Gregg Popovich did for his. He should.
When the Spurs were shopping Leonard, there were real questions about whether he would ever be physically able to return to form after a troublesome and mysterious case of quadriceps tendinopathy that created a rift between him and the Spurs. He was limited to just nine games the season before he was traded.
No such issues exist for Betts. He was bothered by a left foot injury toward the end of Boston’s Lost Season. It cost him back-to-back 30-homer campaigns. But the fewest games Betts has played in a season since becoming a full-time regular in 2015 is 136. That came in his tour de force MVP season of 2018, when he became the first player to record 30 homers and 30 steals and win a batting title in the same season.
There’s no debating that Betts can be a difference-maker for a team that already has contending pieces in place and is looking for a push to get over the top. Hello, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. Perhaps Bloom should make that pitch to his former boss in Tampa Bay, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who has been thwarted in delivering the Dodgers their first World Series title since 1988 despite back-to-back World Series appearances (2017 and 2018) and a club-record 106 wins last season.
Since his MLB debut on June 29, 2014, at Yankee Stadium, Betts ranks first in the majors in runs (613) and second in extra-base hits (394). According to baseball-reference, the only position player with a higher collective WAR since 2015 is Mike Trout, who boasts a 44.9 to Betts’s 39.7. The next closest player is Nolan Arenado of Colorado (30.9). Betts is the only player during that time period to be top five in both offensive WAR and defensive WAR, according to baseball-reference’s WAR.
For good measure, Betts also measured as the best baserunner in baseball from 2015 through 2019 at 31.9 runs above the average player.
For all the sabermetric values placed on players today, what’s the value of winning the World Series? Ask the Washington Nationals about that.
No one is saying this is going to be an easy sell for the Sox, either to other teams or Boston baseball fans. But there should be a market filled with teams that are either looking for that missing piece or that realize that, in a baseball epoch of front office uniformity, zigging when everyone else zags by loading up might be the new Moneyball.
Could old friend Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians, owners of baseball’s longest active World Series drought dating back to 1948, be convinced to retain Francisco Lindor, load up, and roll the dice on Betts for one season? Led by one of the game’s most creative executives in Chris Antonetti, the Indians still have two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and an enviable pitching staff, but desperately need outfield upgrades.
Betts could be a game-changer for a rising Mets team that shocked the baseball world by adding Marcus Stroman around last year’s trade deadline and is always competing for the back pages in New York.
The Baby Braves have won the National League East each of the last two seasons, but have failed to get out of the Division Series round. St. Louis ranked 21st last year in right fielder OPS, and center fielder Dexter Fowler has been a disappointment. The Cardinals gambled on a would-be free agent last offseason, trading for Paul Goldschmidt and inking him to a long-term deal.
In a worst-case scenario, a gambling club could always repackage Betts at the trade deadline.
Actions always speak louder than words, and if Betts hears his name being floated in trade rumors and doesn’t want to come to the table with the Sox, that would be telling. It has been duly noted that Betts has publicly expressed affection for the Red Sox organization, his teammates, the fans, Faneuil Hall, and everything else Boston. But, really, what else can he say?
Yes, Betts feels a responsibility to his fellow players to maximize his value, but does he really strike anyone as a mercenary who is going to simply report to the highest bidder, if that’s, say, the Seattle Mariners? He has destinations in mind.
How well the Sox can sell Betts’s impact will inform their options and their decision. But simply throwing up your hands and lamenting that there can’t be a reasonable return because he comes with only a year of control shows a lack of imagination and determination.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.