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Tomorrow is for suckers and slackers except, apparently and especially, in baseball, where tomorrow is the new today. Sometimes the game plan doesn’t lead to anything but a lot more tomorrows, as somehow tomorrow keeps getting further away. But it does work just enough to convince the next suckers and slackers to take their non-shots at today, which is the long and sorrowful way of saying the Boston Red Sox just traded one of the finest players in the game, and during his prime, too.
The Red Sox might just win anyway. They just cut payroll with a chainsaw. They just grew more flexible on their roster. The new guy from Tampa is great with flexible. And they will not be terrible, though terrible to a Red Sox fan looks a lot different than terrible does to, say, a Miami Marlins fan. That said, a superstar is a superstar and a sell-off is a sell-off. In this game, there are far fewer of the former than there are of the latter and, while the new general manager is quite smart and is the shrewdest of strategists, at the end of this today he has traded away at least seven more months of Mookie Betts for however long of not Mookie Betts.
The Red Sox would argue they’d gotten themselves into this semi- (and temporary) mess — $240 million for a third-place team in 2019 — because of their commitment to so many previous todays. That is probably true. It is also why they fly four World Series banners hung since 2004. Keep throwing yourself at it, be somewhat clever, get a little lucky, parades can happen. Not in L.A., but about everywhere else.
In a three-team trade on Tuesday night, sources said, the Red Sox agreed to trade Betts and veteran left-hander David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have flat freakin’ run out of tomorrows. In turn, the Dodgers sent 23-year-old outfielder Alex Verdugo to the Red Sox. The third team in, the Minnesota Twins, sent 21-year-old right-hander Brusdar Graterol to the Red Sox. And the Twins received right-hander Kenta Maeda from the Dodgers.
So, as they’ll say, everybody wins. The Dodgers take on a great player in Betts to pair with Cody Bellinger in an outfield that will be elite. For that pleasure, they also take on Price and at least a good portion of the three years and $96 million left on a contract the Red Sox no longer wanted. The Red Sox get a charismatic and talented left-handed hitter who hit .294 with 12 home runs in 106 games last season. Graterol was a top-five prospect for the Twins. Minnesota puts Maeda into a rotation with Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Homer Bailey and, eventually, Rich Hill.
Medicals needed to be looked over. Money needed to be evened out. And at the end of this today, what resonated is that the Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts. Or, if you prefer, the Red Sox traded away Mookie Betts.
Betts, 27, can be a free agent after the 2020 season. He was the American League MVP in 2018 and was in the top eight of that vote in each of the past four seasons. In addition to a four-season run in which he was among the better offensive players in the game and perhaps second only to Mike Trout in that regard, defensive metrics rated him as the league’s best outfielder, as well.
So, he is young and charismatic and endlessly talented, and yet the Red Sox found themselves at an organizational crossroads. There they took the turn that traded another season of Betts, one of the finer players in their history, for a chance to perhaps duck under the competitive balance tax threshold and build for a future without him.
They were a third-place team in 2019. Eleven months after winning a World Series, that would seem disappointing but perhaps not calamitous. The Red Sox, however, fired their head of baseball operations, president Dave Dombrowski. Six weeks later, they hired Chaim Bloom, who had been vice president of baseball operations in Tampa Bay. In 2019, the Rays finished one place ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East on one-quarter the Red Sox’s payroll, the sort of dollars-per-wins ratio for which the Rays had become known.
That a hearty Red Sox team would seek to remove the best player on its roster in exchange for a few future maybes would seem counterintuitive. The Red Sox, after all, are one of the teams that actually values every season. In fact, being one of those teams is sort of how the Red Sox got here, by single-mindedly chasing championships. Those have a tendency to cost plenty in dollars and prospects. Not always. But often enough.
The point of the exercise is to get good players. Then, given how difficult it is to get good players, the next step is to hold onto those players, usually by paying them market value. To have the Red Sox risk a season, to have them intentionally become a little less than they could be for even a single season, seems … odd.
Again, the crossroads, beginning with the change at the top of baseball operations, transitioning to a leader accustomed to getting more out of less. Then, a change in the dugout. Manager Alex Cora was fired after it was learned he’d played a key role in the systemic and technology-driven stealing of signs by the Houston Astros two years earlier, and as MLB opened a new investigation into the Red Sox over similar allegations.
Perhaps, if not the third-place finish of 2019, if not the front-office changes, then this — field-level changes — would provide the cover for moving Betts, who, given the time, might have become an iconic baseball figure in Boston. That assumes he hadn’t already become that, and maybe he had. Betts also seems to have his heart set on a run at free agency and a contract like Trout (12 years, $426.5 million), who is a year older than Betts, received from the Los Angeles Angels. It’s a reality that likely weighed heavily on Bloom, who in roster building generally led with his head and not his heart.
Still, these are the Red Sox and that’s Mookie Betts. What stood between them, by appearances, was money. Some of it, by virtue of the luxury tax, was other people’s money. And what is pertinent now is how good the Red Sox can be without him, and the answer is they might not be as good in the near future, and that the Red Sox did this intentionally.
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