When you deal the face of the franchise, a superstar whose talents are matched by few, there is no such thing as a perfect deal — only degrees of imperfection. That’s part of the reason why trades such as the one sending Mookie Betts — along with David Price and money to subsidize roughly half of the rest of the $96 million the lefthander is owed — almost never happen, and more particularly, almost never happen with big-market teams.
Yes, franchises with deep pockets that are intent on contending have traded stars. But that decision usually requires unexpected circumstances, such as visions of contention getting blown up midseason (the trade of Jon Lester by the 2014 Sox, for instance) or demands for a trade (Ken Griffey Jr. with the Mariners before 2000).
A trade of a 27-year-old standout — even one who is a full year from free agency — for a franchise with enormous revenues and a desire to contend almost never happens. That rarity makes it difficult to find the right prism of context through which to view the deal of Betts and Price to the Dodgers for outfielder Alex Verdugo and righthander Brusdar Graterol. (As of Wednesday night, the deal had not been finalized, the review of player medicals still incomplete.)
Nonetheless, there are questions about the process that shaped the deal.
WHAT WAS THE MOTIVATION?
The Red Sox have been open about their view that getting their payroll under the luxury-tax threshold ($208 million in 2020) — after two straight years of exceeding it — represented an important goal. The team forged that stance for a variety of reasons.
It’s fair to question how much a major league team can or should spend, but insofar as the Red Sox — like every other sports team — operate with a defined budget, getting under the threshold and resetting their tax rates once out every few years allows them to channel more of their spending into players than taxes/penalties.
In the past, when the Sox have reset their tax rates, they’ve spent heavily in the years that followed. Moreover, with the Rays, Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom was part of a team that thrived even with limited funds.
“It’s real salary relief,” noted an American League evaluator. “That’s something Chaim really knows how to value.”
Still, a number of evaluators felt it was impossible to look at the deal and to think that the Red Sox had prioritized on-field return over long-term financial flexibility.
“It’s a money dump,” said one National League executive. “They chose to clear more money instead of getting more talent.”
Another AL evaluator said that once the Sox committed to seeking salary relief, their willingness to pursue it without half-measures made sense — but still didn’t clarify whether the deal will ultimately be a good one.
“What did they achieve? I don’t know. What it did was give them options. You can’t judge it right now,” said the evaluator. “They might do something good with those options. They might not do something good with those.”
WAS DOING IT NOW THE BEST DECISION?
Did the Red Sox really need to pair Betts with Price in a combination that led to less player return? Was getting rid of Price, and clearing roughly half his remaining salary, sufficient motivation to sacrifice the inclusion of additional talent, whether in a package from the Dodgers (for Betts alone) or arguably the Padres (for Betts, but with the Sox taking Wil Myers)?
The fact that the Sox took the deal they did led to an unflattering review by some in the industry. One NL executive expressed surprise that even while committing to pay roughly half the money owed to Price, the Sox still got just a two-player package. In the eyes of that evaluator, by the time the Sox paid down Price that much, he could have been a trade chip.
Price’s value was at a nadir — and was, in fact, negative — in the deal as constructed. His inclusion resulted in less talent going to Boston.
But if healthy, Price might have been able to emerge as a fascinating chip midseason — a proven veteran who now has demonstrated the ability to excel in October, and a master pitch manipulator. Yes, the remaining obligation was huge — but so were those of Zack Greinke (acquired by the Astros at the deadline last year) and Justin Verlander (acquired by the Astros in August 2017). Both fetched valuable multi-prospect packages with their trading clubs getting considerable salary relief.
There would have been a real risk for the Sox that this deal represented their only chance to shed Price and part of his salary. But the Sox also certainly gave up any chance they had of maximizing their return for Betts (by attaching Price to him) and Price (by trading him at a time when he was a negative asset).
COULD THIS HAVE BEEN DONE EARLIER?
The Dodgers have long coveted Betts, and have long anticipated that taking on Price’s contract might be a way to pry the superstar from the Red Sox. Yet according to multiple industry sources, the Red Sox didn’t engage Los Angeles in meaningful talks about the outfielder at the Winter Meetings or in the weeks immediately thereafter.
That lack of contact derived in part from LA’s efforts to talk to Cleveland about Francisco Lindor, but at least at the Winter Meetings the Sox seemed more focused on discussing a trade of one of their starting pitchers (most frequently Price) than a deal involving Betts. The stance was understandable, but ultimately may have proven costly if it prevented the Sox from having meaningful dialogue with teams about Betts earlier.
Did the Sox miss a chance to discuss Betts with teams when they could have involved even more suitors, before teams spent their money on free agents? And, perhaps more significantly, if the Sox had acted earlier, could they have taken advantage of their newly created financial flexibility to pursue a better-rounded team in 2020?
If the team, for instance, had traded Betts and Price in December — before or after signing Martin Perez to a one-year deal — then it could have reinvested some of the liberated money in a fifth starter, bullpen help, a righthanded outfielder, or some combination. Instead, while the Sox will end up with about $18 million in flexibility below the $208 million threshold, they’re doing so at a time when there are few remaining options on the free agent market.
In short, getting under the threshold could help the Red Sox pursue premium talent during or after the 2020 season — but the timing of the deal gave the Sox little ability to restock for the coming campaign.