Matt Barnes

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Don’t bash Mookie Betts for the trade. Bash the Red Sox and Major League Baseball

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You’ve no doubt heard about the Mookie Betts/David Price trade from last night. Since that all broke, most of the chatter I’ve heard from Sox fans and most of the sentiment I’ve seen from commenters echoes Bill’s take.

I’ve seen a considerable amount of sentiment, however, to the contrary. Sentiment which holds that this was a good and, more to the point, necessary deal for the Red Sox to make. This line of reasoning flows from two general propositions:

  1. That Mookie Betts had to be traded because he didn’t want to play in Boston, that he demanded to be paid more than anyone in baseball history, and that he planned to skate away from Boston after this season in pursuit of that goal; and
  2. That the Competitive Balance Tax compelled the Red Sox to make this move.

Let’s unpack those assertions, shall we?

I’ve seen exactly one report to the effect of the first proposition. It came from WEEI’s Lou Merloni, who claims that Betts rejected a 10-year, $300 million offer from the Sox and was demanding in excess of $400 million. That report is being taken as gospel and echoed by others. But color me dubious.

With all respect to Merloni, he has no track record whatsoever in breaking transaction news. Between that and his close connection to the Red Sox, there’s reason to doubt the objectivity and the veracity of that report.  At the same time, I’m well aware of how running down players and/or managers via leaks to team-friendly media as they leave town is something of an art form in Boston, so I’m not shocked that the Betts trade is being cast by some as something that was his fault, born of his alleged greed. Barring more credible information about the extent of negotiations, if any, between Betts and the Sox took place before the trade, consider me unconvinced.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Lou Merloni and those echoing his report about the state of negotiations between Betts and the Sox is correct. Let’s assume that the sides were far apart and that Betts was on his way toward free agency after the 2020 season. Those assumptions, this morning, are leading to this sentiment, voiced by Buster Olney and others, which I question:

Buster is presenting a false choice. Why are we assuming that if Betts could not get extended this offseason that the Red Sox could not sign him as a free agent next year? Mookie Betts wanting to test free agency is not the same thing as “Mookie wanted out of Boston.” Believe it or not, free agents often sign with their previous team. Ask Stephen Strasburg and a bunch of other guys how that works. And even if Betts seems hellbent on leaving Boston, the Sox still had an MVP candidate, in his prime, for way less than his market value in 2020, on a team that, 2019’s underachievement notwithstanding, still profiled as one of the better teams in baseball in 2020. Is Alex Verdugo — a guy who, however decent a player he is, does not profile as the centerpiece of a franchise — worth a serious shot at a World Series this year? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that those pushing the “Betts never, ever would’ve stayed in Boston” people are offering that argument with any actual knowledge of the circumstances or, in some cases, are they even doing it in good faith.

Moving on to the second proposition.

Bill dealt with the Competitive Balance Tax stuff last night, but let’s put this as bluntly as possible: yes, cutting the payroll like the Sox did will allow them to avoid the repercussions of the Competitive Balance Tax in 2020, but those repercussions, such as they are, would’ve led to penalty in an amount less than the combined 2020 salaries of Martín Pérez, Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes. It would’ve been doable, and anyone saying otherwise is blowing smoke.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Competitive Balance Tax was an insurmountable obstacle to the Red Sox’ long term plans. That they were absolutely compelled to trade Betts because of it. If that were the case, would that not, then, constitute a massive failure on the part of Major League Baseball and its owners?

If you assume that line of reasoning, you must assume that the Red Sox — and Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and other teams which may find themselves up against the tax — would be willing to support a high player payroll in the pursuit of World Series titles and fan satisfaction but that they can only do so if they contribute millions to the bottom lines of teams that have no interest in such things. And that they must be treated in a punitive manner on top of that. You must assume that Major League Baseball and its owners want Red Sox and Yankees fan dollars to go directly into the pockets of Bob Nutting of the Pirates as he fields a quad-A team in Pittsburgh. You must assume that, to avoid that outcome, it’s imperative that teams cast off superstar players that they drafted and developed and their fans have come to love.

Because that’s the system in the “Betts had to be traded” narrative. A system in which the threshold where such decisions allegedly must begin to be made — $208 million this year — has grown at a far slower rate than player salaries have. A system which actively works against teams getting good and staying good. A system which is antithetical to the very ideas of competitive sports and the cultivation of fan loyalty. A system which is designed for the express purpose of suppressing team payrolls, even if it means trading away generational superstars.

As I said above, I don’t actually think the Red Sox were compelled to trade Betts because of that system – I don’t care for the system, but the Sox could’ve weathered the fairly minor penalties here and to the extent they are citing it as an unavoidable reason for the trade, it’s being used as a P.R. crutch — but if you disagree and, like so many others I’ve spoken to since last night, think the Sox had no choice, you should probably examine the particular gun that is allegedly against their heads and ask yourself whether it in any way makes sense. You should ask yourself whether Major League Baseball and its owners should, perhaps, be dragged over the damn coals for insisting on such a system. And, of course, on the players and their union for agreeing to that system as currently constructed.

Whatever you think about all of that, let’s be clear about something: Mookie Betts did not ask for this trade or force this trade, nor did his demands, whatever they actually were. This trade was born of the Red Sox being unwilling to spend a few million bucks to field a championship caliber team. It is likewise born of the Sox taking advantage of a dumb, anti-competitive financial system which gives them cover to do it.

If you don’t like this deal, drag the Sox and the current CBA. Don’t drag Mookie Betts.