Mookie Betts gave Red Sox fans a memorable finale to an otherwise disappointing 2019 season Sunday.
But the reigning AL MVP’s daring, bottom-of-the-ninth dash to home plate had a hint of bittersweetness, as many were left wondering if it was the last play they’d ever see Betts make in a Red Sox uniform.
“Hopefully that’s not the last time we see Mookie right here,” Dennis Eckersly said during the NESN broadcast as the team celebrated the walk-off win.
Betts won’t be a free agent until at least next offseason. And while he has repeatedly said he loves playing in Boston, the 26-year-old superstar won’t be re-signing on the cheap; after declining contract extensions, Betts has consistently signaled his plans to enter free agency in 2020 in order to make the most of his value, whether that’s in Boston or elsewhere.
That has created a dilemma for the Red Sox. Betts is set to earn around $30 million in 2020. However, Red Sox owner John Henry (who also owns The Boston Globe and Boston.com) said last week that the team needs to get under the costly luxury tax threshold next season. And with several other players (David Price, Chris Sale, JD Martinez, Xander Bogaerts) also set to make over $20 million, the Red Sox will need to shed salary somehow to make it happen.
That has raised the — for some, unpalatable — prospect of trading Betts this offseason. His teammates even seem to be anticipating it.
“I think everyone knows we don’t think they’re going to be able to afford Mookie,” Martinez told NBC Sports Boston after Sunday’s game.
“It’s one of those things,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to have three guys making $30 million on your team. He deserves it. He’s earned it.”
Martinez — who could opt out of his contract himself this offseason — acknowledged that it could be difficult to bear the idea of such a homegrown talent leaving, but said it was inherent to the cold realities of the MLB, according to NBC Sports Boston (the Red Sox are the 32-year-old slugger’s fourth team).
“To me, everyone is expendable,” Martinez said. “That’s the business of it. I’ve seen it in Houston. I saw in Detroit. I saw it in Arizona. It’s the business of it.”
Red Sox president Sam Kennedy says it won’t be easy to keep both Betts and Martinez.
“There is a way,” Kennedy said during his end-of-season press conference Monday. “But obviously, it will be difficult, given the nature of the agreements and the contracts that we have in place.”
Kennedy said the team has a “very strategic and targeted” offseason plan. During the press conference, he also noted that the Red Sox have gone over the luxury tax threshold in 10 of the last 17 seasons, suggesting to get under it wasn’t a “hard-and-fast mandate.”
“We will continue to demonstrate a willingness to go over,” Kennedy said. “That said, John made it clear that there is a goal to try and get under the [the luxury tax threshold] in 2020. But he also said … that that is a goal, but not a mandate.”
The Red Sox president said that Betts was “absolutely” a once-in-a-lifetime player.
“You hope that he is here for the long term,” Kennedy said. “Tom Werner has made in clear that we have engaged, with some frequency, his representatives in years past. We met with them recently. He’s got very, very, very smart and shrewd representation. And so we’ll continue to talk and see where we go.”
Whatever decision is made, Betts has already made his mark on the Red Sox franchise with four All-Star appearances, three Gold Glove awards, and — of course — last year’s World Series trophy. He even capped off the 2019 season with a few indelible plays, from last week’s 300-foot laser throw from right field to third base to Sunday’s game-winning theatrics on the base paths.
“We’ll see what happens,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts told the Globe after the game. “But, man, he’s special.”