Betting on tomorrow: Dodgers sign Mookie Betts as their superstar for the long haul

Amidst uncertain times that foretell an uncertain future, the Los Angeles Dodgers and All-Star outfielder Mookie Betts will ride it out together.

On the eve of the strangest opening day in the history of the sport, the Dodgers and the 27-year-old Betts, who has yet to take an at-bat for the club, agreed Wednesday to the terms of a 12-year, $365 million contract befitting one of the league’s best players.

A former American League MVP who twice hit more than 30 home runs, Betts, a career .301 hitter and a defensive standard in right field, commanded one of the largest contracts in league history.

Betts joins Trout, Harper in contract ranks

Mike Trout, the game’s only player who by consensus has exceeded the production of Betts’ past five seasons, is in the second season of a 12-year, $426.5-million contract extension. Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Gerrit Cole and Manny Machado each are under contract for $300 million or more. By average annual value, Cole, who signed with the New York Yankees during the offseason for nine years, has the contract with the highest average annual value, at $36 million.

The contract came as most franchises assess their financial stability during the coronavirus pandemic, which shortened the 2020 season to 60 games, forced layoffs and furloughs; canceled the minor-league season; led to an ugly labor fight; and, if owners are to be believed, threatens the future solvency of some among them.

The Dodgers clearly are not one of those. Betts’ deal includes a baseball-record $65 million signing bonus.

Betts has yet to officially play for Dodgers

On Feb. 10, more than a month before the virus caused the shuttering of spring training, the Dodgers acquired the multi-dimensional Betts from the rebuilding Boston Red Sox for promising outfielder Alex Verdugo and two minor leaguers. The Dodgers also acquired veteran left-hander David Price in the trade, and sent Kenta Maeda to Minnesota. (Price, citing concerns for his family, opted out of the 2020 season.) Because Betts would be a free agent at the conclusion of 2020, the Dodgers risked losing him after a single season. As the nation struggled to contain the virus, and when the season seemed less and less viable, the possibility arose that Betts would never wear the Dodger uniform in an official game.

“When we made that trade,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said, “we did it with more than 2020 in mind. We appreciated the risk that came with that, but we did it with our eyes wide open and a commitment from all of us that we were going to do everything we could to try to keep Mookie here for the rest of his career.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 19: Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts (50) looks on during a MLB exhibition game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 19, 2020 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Dodgers star Mookie Betts, fresh off a blockbuster trade from the Red Sox, signed a long-term deal in Los Angeles. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

At the same time, economic uncertainties threatened the free agency landscape. The collective bargaining agreement expires shortly after next season. It appears regular season and postseason games will be played in empty stadiums, if indeed the virus allows any games at all, and there is no guarantee this season will be the only one affected. It seems a given that the losses of 2020 will influence payroll decisions for years.

Asked just two weeks ago about his view of free agency in such a climate, Betts said he was at peace with however it shook out.

“Free agency is like on the back burner,” he said. “That’ll come. That’s nothing I’m really thinking about right now. I think the main concern is the safety and health. There’s a lot going on.

“The market will be what the market is. We’ll just kinda cross that bridge when we get there.”

Red Sox tried to extend Betts

He’d reportedly rejected at least one extension offer worth as much as $300 million from the Red Sox. Their inability to sign Betts, who seemed destined — even eager — for free agency, was among the factors in trading him. Not five months later, Betts said he’d quickly grown fond of his new organization.

“It’s obviously a special day,” Betts said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s kind of what I’ve been working for for my whole life.

“I’m super happy to be part of this organization for the rest of my career. It’s just an amazing, amazing opportunity. … The market wasn’t what I was worried about. It was just fair value. That’s been my No. 1 thing for my whole career. The value, that’s it. Obviously we got to that point. Being somewhere I love being, it matched perfect.”

At the end of the day, the Dodgers would feel right to him, or feel right enough, given all of the variables. And Betts, squarely in his prime, would feel right to the Dodgers, who in spite of their economic might have been reluctant to invest in players too far past their primes. In their bidding for high-end free agents, they generally have offered larger annual values over shorter terms. Also, Cody Bellinger, an MVP himself, will not be a free agent until after the 2023 season. Shortstop Corey Seager is a free agent after next season. There is little on their books after the ’22 season.

Beyond all that, one day the country, Los Angeles, the sport and the Dodgers will return to something like normal. The Dodgers of seven consecutive National League West titles and no World Series championships since 1988 will return to the business of baseball. When that day comes, and maybe it starts Thursday night against the San Francisco Giants, they will have committed to one of the more productive, more charismatic, more diligent players in the game for a long time.

‘Mookie can impact the game in every facet’

“When you’re making an investment of this magnitude, you’re not just betting on the player’s ability,” Friedman said, “you’re also betting on the person. And with that we couldn’t be more comfortable to make that bet than on Mookie Betts.

“Obviously he’s an extraordinary talent. Mookie can impact the game in every facet. But I think what’s really stood out to us in our couple months of being around him is just the work ethic. The burning desire to get better on a daily basis. I think the tone that he will set for that standard for our young players that are in our clubhouse now and also the ones that will come up in the future will leave an indelible mark on this organization.”

Meantime, the uncertainty for them, the uncertainty for Betts, almost surely helped bring them together. While much of the game rightfully wonders what tomorrow will bring, the Dodgers have brought something to tomorrow.

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