The Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers on Tuesday night. Betts, David Price, and roughly half of the $96 million still owed the latter the next three years, to be exact. Agreed in principle, to be exact, in exchange for young outfielder Alex Verdugo and fireballing righty prospect Brusdar Graterol, formerly of the Twins, who got four-season starter Kenta Maeda from L.A. for helping Betts and Price follow the Nick Punto path west.
How do you even grasp they really did it? For every one of us, in one way or another, we’ve been wrestling it for months, as 2019 went down the tubes, then picked up speed as it hit the city sewer in a way that made “$244 million buys 84-78” barely tell the story of the disaster.
Would Chaim Bloom really christen his Red Sox tenure this way? Would his new employer really trade its most popular player and MVP, arguably its greatest home-grown talent since Carl Yastrzemski, and raise ticket prices in the wake of that 84-78? After another sign-stealing scandal that cost them Alex Cora, he of the 119-win superteam that dispatched the Dodgers not even 16 months ago?
Would the Red Sox essentially punt 2020 and chase the nebulous “brighter future” of the hopeless baseball middle class when, at absolute worst, they could bring back the band and be a fringe pennant contender with it one last time?
Yes to all. And it stinks out loud.
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) February 5, 2020
It stinks out loud even though Mookie Betts rebuffed every attempt by the Red Sox to sign him long-term, playing his part in this by being hell bent to taste free agency after the 2020 season. It stinks even if it keeps Betts from leaving for nothing more than a lottery ticket draft pick. It stinks even if it gives the team its sought-after reset of its luxury tax penalties — the same reset, mind you, that both the big-spending, more-valuable Yankees and Dodgers made a priority in the last few seasons.
Because for every valid reason that Tuesday’s transaction happened, whether you want to hear them or you don’t, whether I’m trying to inject reason into a frenzy of fanaticism or just apologizing for John Henry (who owns both the Red Sox and Boston Globe Media Partners, including Boston.com), the story is the same.
Baseball’s a business for them, because it has to be. It’s a passion for you, because you want it to be. And those two are never, ever going to get along all the time.
And when they don’t, it stinks.
Franchises spend millions upon millions, employ hundreds upon hundreds, fly them domestic and international 12 months a year, in hopes of what the Red Sox did with Mookie Betts. Find the talent. Acquire the talent. Develop the talent. Watch it blossom. Watch it excel. Watch it become an MVP and watch it win championships and watch it pop up on the back of most of the T-shirts and the jerseys and the bobbleheads in the place.
Before the 2013 season, Betts wasn’t even in the Red Sox top 10 prospects and blocked by Dustin Pedroia. By August 2014, he was locked into the starting lineup at a completely different position. In the following five full seasons, he produced to the tune of .302/.374/.524. One MVP, four All-Star Games, four Gold Gloves, one ring, and a bWAR of 39.7 that trailed only three-time MVP/three-time runner-up Mike Trout (44.9), with Nolan Arenado (30.9) a distant third.
They traded him. For only half the money owed David Price. And they got two guys. The star is Verdugo, a 23-year-old who was a “ray of light” on this year’s Dodgers, but whose one MLB season ended two months early with a mysterious back injury he’s still fighting through. The real lotto play is Graderol, who throws 100 and slots in with a higher upside than just about anyone else in the Red Sox system, but he remains a prospect with 9 2/3 MLB innings.
Graterol has huge velo, so an obvious chance at plus or plus-plus fastball, a chance for a plus slider, and a functional changeup. One evaluator sees him as having the ceiling of a starter who could be a No. 3 or better; and there’s a floor of a late-innings arm or opener.
— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) February 5, 2020
In other words, we start over. Albeit with far from nothing.
The face of the franchise is now Xander Bogaerts, who last March chose the Tom Brady/Jason Varitek path that Betts rebuffed and declared, “I want to stay here. What’s not to like?” as he took a below-market deal. Rafael Devers, who just had a breakout 54 doubles and 201 hits at 22 and is already in Florida, sweating and musing that “we have to find a way to keep on getting better.”
J.D. Martinez, who passed on his first contract opt-out this winter and helped push Betts that octave higher. Chris Sale, potentially better than any starter in the game, but probably looking back at his 20s as his best, most durable years. Eduardo Rodriguez, potentially looking ahead at a run as an annual 200-inning workhorse, but probably with as much to prove as Nathan Eovaldi, who got $68 million last winter and had zero months with an ERA south of 5.00 last season.
All are good, if not great. None are Betts, whom we need to scroll back to only his last play in a Red Sox uniform (for now) to remember exactly as we should.
“He can dominate a game in every aspect,” Cora said after Betts raced home from first for the winning run on a two-hopper to second base. “It wasn’t a gamble. It was a great baseball play.”
“He has a different type of vision,” Bogaerts said. “Man, he’s special.”
As Betts yelled skyward as he rose from his headfirst slide and pounded his chest, as Jerry Remy laughed with the sort of amazed bemusement you don’t get a lot from old cranks with 50 years in the pros, it didn’t matter that it was a meaningless season-capper against the Orioles. It was the sort of play you just don’t see, from the sort of player you just don’t see. Anywhere, never mind in your uniform, produced entirely by your team’s own making. Mookie Betts made them regularly, which got him on all those jerseys, and deeper in your heart that stats alone ever could.
The Red Sox just traded him. With one of the contractual errors that left them in this spot, in a deal that still didn’t push the Dodgers into the luxury tax zone or cost them any of their top prospects.
Is Betts worth a 12-year commitment at $35 million per year, as has been reported he wanted to shun free agency? That’s a tall order for anybody, himself included, because we don’t live in the world where he or his ilk get the money they’re actually worth in a sport about to cross $11 billion in annual revenue. And for everyone who rightfully brings up Jon Lester, whom the Sox also traded with hopes of a free-agent reunion only to later hear him say, “I feel like that [trade] broke that barrier of, ‘I wonder if I can play for another team'”? I counter with Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees traded for the fireballing closer before the 2016 season, got Gleyber Torres (among others) for him at the trade deadline, then got him back in free agency.
That was a coup. It would be here as well, and noting it’s a possibility is far different from calling it a probability. If the Sox even get in the running.
But that aspect of the story is just beginning. We will watch Verdugo and Graderol, them forever graded against the guy they replaced. We formally welcome Bloom to Boston, the people person with the penchant for trades just writing the first line of his baseball obituary, one way or the other.
Now? We lament what we just lost. One of the greatest players we’ve ever seen. A guy that could have been, even for this star-laden franchise, this generation’s Chipper Jones, George Brett, Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, Robin Yount, or Derek Jeter.
Blame can come later. Value discussions and potential lineups can too. I’m here for today.
And today stinks.