There you have it. The Red Sox have officially given up on the 2020 season.
The Sox won’t tell you that, of course. They won’t even utter the toxic “bridge year” phrase. They will speak of being competitive and staying on message (last year’s promotional theme was “you can never rest”), but make no mistake, trading Mookie Betts and David Price for prospects and salary relief is a white flag for 2020. And your ticket prices will not go down when you are asked to support a team that goes into the upcoming season with virtually no chance to compete with the Yankees.
Welcome to Tampa Bay North. Say hello to your Boston Rays. The Sox might as well borrow the Cape Cod Melody Tent and perch it over Fenway next summer so we can pretend Boston’s home games are being played in the Tropicana Dome. The 120-year-old Red Sox at this hour are being molded in image of the middle-market Rays.
On the 100-year anniversary of the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, the Red Sox Tuesday night traded franchise player Betts, and veteran lefthander Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a deal that will impact the Boston franchise for the next decade. The Minnesota Twins are the third team in a blockbuster that (pending medical clearances) will bring Dodgers outfielder Alex Verdugo and Twins pitcher Brusdar Graterol to Boston in exchange for the 2018 American League MVP and Price, who should have been MVP of the 2018 World Series. The Dodgers are said to be picking up half of the $96 million owed to Price over the final three years of his contract. The Sox will also save the $27 million they would have paid Betts this year. This means that new baseball boss Chaim Bloom, in nifty Tampa fashion, has put the Sox under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold for 2020.
The party line will be that the Sox are making this deal so that they can be competitive for the next five years. We will be reminded that it’s all about the long view, not the short-term satisfaction. The Sox will promote the notion that Mookie wasn’t going to stay here under any conditions so they had to get what they could before he walked in exchange for a mere fifth-round draft pick at the end of this season.
Swell. But we don’t really know that all that is true. The only way to establish that Betts won’t stay in Boston would be to let him play here this season, then try to sign him with everybody else in the winter of 2020-21. If the Sox had been willing to match any offer — and Betts still said no — then we would know that Mookie was never going to stay here.
Now we’ll never know. And it’s going to be a tough sell. Betts and Price for Verdugo and Graterol is impossible to measure today, but it’s highly unlikely that the Sox got value-for-value in this deal.
The bottom line on this is . . . the bottom line. The Red Sox just traded one of the best players in franchise history because they were unwilling to pay the hefty price for his future services. It’s clear that the Sox owners and their analytics folks decided they did not want to get into the $350 million-$400-million sweepstakes for Betts. They did not think he was worthy of being the second-highest-paid player in baseball (Mike Trout will rightfully remain No. 1). They elected not to compete financially for their best player. It’s a dubious narrative when you play to a full house every night, charge the highest ticket prices in baseball, and bombard fans with promotions and sales pitches.
Trading Betts is going to be a PR nightmare for the Sox. For years to come. Betts was a fan favorite on a par with David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez. He was easily Boston’s most marketable player. He’s only 27 years old and he’s already got an MVP award and four Gold Gloves. He’s a career .300 hitter with home run power. He’s a brand unto himself. Even his name is sprinkled with stardust. What kid doesn’t like cheering for Mookie? Fans are unlikely to be rational about Betts’s departure. Most are furious. Plus, the deal puts a lot of pressure on young Verdugo. Not every player responds well to the Boston baseball experience.
The Sox will remind us that the Washington Nationals won a World Series one year after losing Bryce Harper to free agency. Betts could flame out like Andrew McCutchen. Good luck selling those story lines. I’ve had fans tell me Betts is the best homegrown Sox talent since Ted Williams. I’ve had fans say they would abandon the team if Betts is traded (nobody ever follows through on that one).
In a strange way, the inclusion of Price bothers me most about this deal. It’s strictly a salary dump. It it not something a club does if it intends to win this year.
Much as we disliked him, Price was 46-24 in his four troubled seasons in Boston. He was a pain in the butt with a giant chip on his shoulder the whole time, but he came up big in the 2018 postseason and was Boston’s best pitcher in the early months of 2019. A lot of fans are quick to say “good riddance” to Price, but his departure does not help the 2020 team. Boston’s starting pitching is thin. The Sox don’t know what they are going to get from Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi. A healthy Price could have been the ace of this year’s staff. Now the Red Sox simply do not have enough pitching.
So you have a team with not enough pitching, no manager, a depleted farm system, and potential sanctions coming when Major League Baseball rules of cheating allegations from the 2018 season.
At a time like this, it’s always good to dump your best/most popular player and one of your best pitchers.
When the Red Sox parted ways with the much-loved Alex Cora last month, Sox owner John Henry said, “If I could give one insight into the people of this organization it is that virtually all of us see this organization as a family . . . It’s how we approach holding each other accountable and to the highest standards with the highest goals. We will continue to move forward in that manner with what continues to drive all of us and that is the burning desire to host the World Series here in Boston.’’
Not this year. The Sox are on the five-year plan now. A plan that no longer includes Mookie Betts.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.