Red Sox didn’t have to trade Mookie Betts

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2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts is no longer a member of the Boston Red Sox. The club reportedly agreed tonight to send him and David Price to the Dodgers as part of a three-team trade that also included the Twins.

Betts spent six glorious seasons in Boston, becoming one of the best outfielders in the game. Between 2014-19, he hit .301/.374/.519 with 229 doubles, 139 home runs, 470 RBI, 613 runs scored, and 126 stolen bases. He won four Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, the aforementioned MVP Award, and helped the Red Sox win the 2018 World Series.

The Red Sox disappointed in 2019, however, finishing in third place in the AL East with an 84-78 record. The club fired president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski — who helped build the championship-winning club — in September, signaling a change of course for the organization. Once concerned with packing the roster chock full of talented stars, the Red Sox became concerned with self-imposed austerity.

According to Cot’s Contracts, the Red Sox exceeded the competitive balance tax threshold in both 2018 and ’19, and were in danger of doing so again this year. A team exceeding the CBT pays a 20 percent tax on the overage. A team exceeding it in a second consecutive year faces a 30 percent tax and a third consecutive year results in a 50 percent tax. If a team exceeds the CBT by $20 to $40 million, they face an additional 12 percent surtax. Above $40 million results in a 42.5 percent rate if it has happened for the first time and 45 percent if it happens in a consecutive year. Only teams that exceed the CBT threshold by $40 million lose Rule 4 draft picks.

The Red Sox, per Cot’s, stood at about $228 million. The CBT threshold this year is $208 million, which means the Red Sox exceeded by about $20 million. The Red Sox were looking at a 50 percent tax on that $20 million overage ($10 million) plus the 12 percent surtax ($2.4 million). That’s a $12.4 million penalty. If the club really wanted to avoid that surtax, they could’ve done nothing and just not signed, say, José Peraza (one year, $2.85 million). Instead, the club slammed shut its window of contention by trading two of its best players. The club cleared Betts’ $27 million salary for 2020 as well as Price, whose salary as it pertains to the CBT (average annual value) is $25.6 million through 2024. The Red Sox payroll is now below $180 million.

According to Forbes, the Red Sox are valued at $3.2 billion. The franchise has increased in value every year since 2010 and its operating income these last three years were its highest in the decade. The Red Sox ranked in the top 10 in attendance every year in the 2010’s. This is not a ballclub struggling to make ends meet.

Red Sox fans now have to deal with losing their star player and a decent starting pitcher. Hopefully the return was worth it! Actually, the Red Sox only got outfielder Alex Verdugo and reliever Brusdar Graterol. That’s it. In rumors leading up to tonight’s trade, some combination of the Dodgers’ top prospects like Gavin Lux (MLB Pipeline No. 1 in Dodgers’ system), Dustin May (No. 2), and Jeter Downs (No. 5) were expected to be involved. The Red Sox got none of them. This is not to say that Verdugo and Graterol aren’t good, but the return is light if you’re a Red Sox fan. The return is great if you’re concerned with balancing the Red Sox ledger, since the Dodgers agreed to take on a hefty portion of Price’s remaining salary.

And there lies the disconnect, emblematic of this era of austerity baseball. The fan experience has taken a back seat because that stream of revenue (tickets, concessions, et. al.) no longer holds as much importance for many MLB teams. Teams used to be motivated to build perennial contenders to attract fans to the ballpark. Instead, with TV deals, revenue sharing, and ancillary business ventures, front offices are free to do the bare minimum to maximize profits.

The Red Sox disappointed last year because many of their players regressed towards the mean (including Betts), but they were still good enough to win 84 games. A modest regression in the other direction plus an upgrade or two via free agency has them right back in the thick of things with the Yankees and Rays in the AL East. Instead, the Red Sox seem content with a sub-.500 season.

Betts, of course, was going to test free agency after the season anyway, so the Red Sox got what they could while they could. He and the Red Sox briefly discussed a contract extension, with the club reportedly offering a 10-year, $300 million contract extension. Betts turned it down. Considering that Bryce Harper fetched 13 years and $330 million from the Phillies and Manny Machado signed a 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres, as well as the fact that Betts would be hitting free agency two years later, it makes sense that he would turn down the offer. Mike Trout would later ink a 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension with the Angels, resetting the standard for elite outfielders. Additionally, starter Gerrit Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees. The offer was large enough to be considered a legitimate offer, but low enough for the Red Sox to know Betts would turn it down. There was never any intention for the Red Sox to retain Betts, and that’s a real shame for Red Sox fans and for the sport at large.