The Bartolo Colon trade would never happen today. The Mark Teixeira trade would never happen today. Hell, the Ryan Ludwick trade would never happen today.
Ryan Ludwick? Surely you remember the deal that sent Colon from the Indians to the Expos in 2002 for a massive haul of future All-Stars: Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore. You might also recall that five years later, the Braves kickstarted a rebuild in Texas by swapping Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia for 363 days of Teixeira.
What you're less likely to remember is the three-way deal on July 31, 2010 that sent Ludwick, two years removed from 37 homers and his only All-Star appearance, to the Padres. San Diego was clinging to a small lead in the NL West and hoped Ludwick would power them to the postseason. He instead hit just .211 and San Diego finished two games behind the Giants in the division and one behind in the Braves in the wild card. No playoffs for you.
The price they paid ended up being far steeper. The Indians joined the trade by sending promising right-hander Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals. The Padres completed the swap by shipping a Double-A pitching prospect to Cleveland. Perhaps you've heard of him. His name is Corey Kluber.
A decade later, it's hard to imagine a team parting with any one of the prospects listed above, let alone the many-for-one swaps that characterized the first two deals. A player like Ludwick would never command a prospect like Kluber.
"Teams understand the value of their young players and want to find a way to build around them, not necessarily always trade them away," said Twins GM Derek Falvey. "That's why you don't see as many of those players moving anymore."
There was a time when farm systems, especially in big markets, existed primarily to produce prospects to be fed into the trade chipper for established stars. Those days are gone for a variety of factors. For one, teams recognize the importance of building around young, cost-controlled players. For another, the diminished influence of performance-enhancing drugs has restored more traditional aging curves, meaning fewer players remain productive into their late 30s. And for another, teams have become risk-averse, recognizing that if they really want a top-level talent, they can sign him in free agency without surrendering more than a draft pick.
Where this leaves the Red Sox is murky, but it's worth considering the response of White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, who never mentioned Betts by name when discussing why his club is unlikely to dip into its considerable well of prospects for a rental, but also didn't make it hard to read between the lines.
Three years ago, the White Sox began discussions with the Red Sox on the deal that would send Chris Sale to Boston for mega-prospect Yoan Moncada and flamethrower Michael Kopech. The White Sox were a mess and effectively starting over. Sale, with three years affordable years remaining on his contract, represented one of the most desirable assets in the game, and the Red Sox weren't the only team to step up.
The Nationals also got involved, and were willing to part with some serious talent, including speedy outfielder Victor Robles and pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. At that point, the White Sox made a pact.
"We made a commitment, starting with Jerry Reinsdorf, Kenny Williams, and all of us in the baseball department, that once we got ourselves in the position to be on the opposite end of these trades, where you were giving up talent for short-term gain, that it was going to be important for us to still try and remain committed to the long-term," Hahn said. "We were excited to get this process started, where we got the Bostons and the Nationals and the teams talking about acquiring premium talent and using premium prospects to get it. But when we got there, we wanted to do the same thing, but not at the expense of multiple years."
How does this relate to Betts? Let Hahn continue.
"When there's a guy like Chris Sale available who had multiple years of control and you're ready to win, making that push makes all the sense in the world," he said. "If you're talking about a guy on a one-year basis, we're not to that point yet. And if we do get to that point, that's going to be a tough trigger to pull, because we're trying to build something sustainable for an extended period of time. Quick hits don't necessarily do that. After three years of rebuilding, we've gotten ourselves in a very good position, but not in one where we're going to do something just for an immediate bang in 2020 if we feel it compromises us in the long term. We've paid too big of a price to get to where we're at to compromise long-term."
The White Sox have built a consensus top-three farm system replete with both pitching and position prospects who will soon join young breakout stars like Moncada and AL batting champ Tim Anderson in Chicago. There once was a time when an MVP like Betts would've been too tough to ignore on the open market, even if he represented a risk to fly the coop after a year.
But now? The White Sox see little point in engaging, because acquiring him will just short-circuit the rebuild that is close to bearing fruit.
That kind of patience didn't necessarily exist when teams were willing to trade their best prospects for one shot at the postseason. Now they hoard their prospects because the alternative is trading a future Cy Young Award winner for an outfielder who fails to put you over the top.
Mookie Betts is no Ryan Ludwick, but teams have come to view them similarly for this reason: neither is worth mortgaging the future over anymore.
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