Someone is going. John Henry decided that for his Red Sox long before Monday. All J.D. Martinez’s opt-in for 2020 did in that regard was close an avenue where it could be painted some form of involuntary.
Of course, the idea one of the biggest revenue teams in baseball can’t ante up for any bidding war is specious, but reality is often just this: What the writer of the checks tells you it is. Let us all be reminded of that again, and how this sport has changed, good or bad.
Two years ago this week, ESPN reported Boras and Martinez, about to play his age-30 season, were shooting for $200 million in free agency. It was laughed off from the start, given Robinson Cano (in December 2013) was the only position player to hit that mark in the prior five years, but the Red Sox getting Martinez for $110 million still felt like a steal.
In the two years prior to his first potential contractual opt-out, Martinez has been the fifth-best hitter in baseball by wRC+ while not being one of its 15 highest paid. A .985 OPS, built on a .317/.392/.593 slash line, with 79 homers — tied for fourth in 2018-19 — and an MLB-best 235 RBI.
His fWAR is far lower given his defensive limitations, but he’s still been a top-25 player by that measure, and the raw numbers don’t measure what we know he’s been: An obsessive student of hitting who’s made Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and others better. And heck, go back just to 2016 and look at the highest-earning position players: Miguel Cabrera, Yoenis Cespedes, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Cano, Prince Fielder, Chris Davis, and Joe Mauer all made between $23–$28 million as offense-first oxen.
Martinez, slated to make $23.75 million four seasons after that, chose to stay put. A surprise to a lot of us, myself included, though maybe that opt-out after the 2020 season — when his salary drops to $19.375 million for the last two years of his contract — was the smart play all along.
Be that as it may, Henry’s decision made Monday’s decision somehow non-celebratory. Martinez staying means a greater chance Betts will be going. It means trading Martinez. It means we’re no closer to freeing ourselves from this whole Damocles thing we’re living through: With great payroll comes great luxury, but eventually, great danger from the lurking competitive balance tax structure or something.
There’s nothing I, or anyone else outside the owner’s suite, can say to change all this. There are, however, a few things we can focus on with some hope while we wait for the proverbial horsehair to snap and cleave our $40 Red Sox hats.
Chaim Bloom’s been through this before.
In seven of the 12 Tampa Bay Rays seasons, they’ve finished with a better regular-season record than the Red Sox. They’ve certainly not been the better franchise since 2008, but doing that at roughly 40 percent of the payroll deserves more than a little admiration.
Boston’s new CBO — that’s for chief baseball officer, though the thought of the Congressional Budget Office feels apt — Chaim Bloom wasn’t the primary driver for any of that, but he was certainly in the room while the Rays let a litany of talent go elsewhere. Evan Longoria, dealt for four prospects. Chris Archer, dealt for three. Matt Garza, part of an eight-player trade that netted them Archer. Ben Zobrist, part of a five-player trade. James Shields, part of a seven. David Price, gone in a three-team deal.
Jake Odorizzi, Jeremy Hellickson, Logan Forsythe, Steven Souza Jr., even Scott Kazmir … “traded by the Tampa Bay Rays” might as well be the slogan of Baseball Reference it’s on there so much, and that crew doesn’t even include Carl Crawford, Alex Cobb, and the relative few other stars they’ve let go as free agents.
To be clear: The Red Sox do not have to run this way, nor should they given the financial advantages baseball lets them wield. Letting a key piece go, however, is no death sentence. Especially if you can produce a quality starting pitcher out of the draft more than once every dozen years, both things Bloom is here to remind us.
Dustin Pedroia is a critical puzzle piece
There are a lot of avenues to pursue for the Red Sox to get to their magic $208 million this winter, and we’ve started to see the rumor mill churn with ideas. Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News speculated last week about potential Rangers interest in Boston’s big-money starting trio of Chris Sale, David Price, and Nathan Eovaldi. ESPN’s Jeff Passan threw out the idea of a “2.0 version of the Adrian Gonzalez trade” involving Xander Bogaerts, leaving Betts and Rafael Devers to build around.
Martinez was a key piece in solving this offseason’s conundrum. Pedroia’s another.
As of now, the largely former second baseman will be No. 7 on the team’s payroll in 2020, his $13.125 million salary behind Price ($32M), Sale ($30M), Betts (a projected $27.7M via arbitration), Martinez ($23.75M), Bogaerts ($20M), and Eovaldi ($17M). While anything feels possible in a world where Daniel Bryan can go from retiring due to brain injury to delivering flying headbutts off the top turnbuckle in a couple years, the odds of Pedroia being an everyday contributor on the field again have to be close to zero.
After all he’s meant to the franchise in its golden age, Pedroia — whom the team moved off the 60-day disabled list on Monday and who should be in the latter half of a 12-week strengthening program — deserves the right to go out on his terms. He owes the Red Sox nothing, and they owe him another $25 million in 2020-21. That said, the player who did the team a tremendous favor by taking a below-market deal six years ago could do them another one this winter.
The long-term benefit might even be greater.
Mookie Betts can end all this.
Much like Pedroia, Boston’s four-time Gold Glover, four-time All-Star, one-time MVP, and PBA icon, owes nothing to his employer. By Fangraphs’s dollars per win calculations, he’s given the Red Sox just shy of $300 million in production while paid just $32.5 million. This is the structure owners and players agreed upon: The teams capitalize until the players reach free agency, at which point the players get to hold a little power.
Betts, that hammer seeming smaller than ever, wants that free-agent bidding war. He wants what he’s worth. There’s no reason to think he’s lying every time the topic comes up and he says some variant of the same thing.
“I have made it known this is my second home. I have been here. This is all I have known. I’ve loved it here. I love the fans, everybody — my teammates, front office, everybody here,” Betts said on WEEI in August. “That doesn’t change the business of baseball and what value is there.”
Asked Mookie Betts if he expects to begin the season without getting an extension done. “That’s exactly what I expect. Didn’t expect anything to happen until I’m a free agent.”
— Jason Mastrodonato (@JMastrodonato) March 20, 2019
There’s the desire to come up with some comparable, to point out the Red Sox let Pedro Martinez play out his walk year in 2004 to some mutual benefit, but it doesn’t work. This is, as a litany of people have already told you, perhaps the greatest draft-era prospect the franchise has ever produced. Its greatest home-grown talent since Carl Yastrzemski. He’s the ideal. The dream. The superstar who is entirely, totally theirs.
If he wants to go up for bid after next season, he’s earned that right. But make no mistake: If Betts called up John Henry tomorrow and gave him a number, there’s a good chance we’d be reminded that $208 million was always “a goal, not a mandate.”
If only we could be so lucky.