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The Red Sox Cannot Justify Trading Mookie Betts

In the wake of Dave Dombrowski’s firing, rumors about shopping the reigning AL MVP to clear salary began to swirl. Here’s how the Sox can save without losing one of the best players in baseball. (Hint: Literally almost any other move makes more sense.)

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Boston Red Sox are unlikely to retain one or both of Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez this offseason, according to The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier, as the team attempts to shed enough payroll in the next year or two to get under the league’s competitive balance tax threshold. This tidbit was just a nugget in Speier’s Dave Dombrowski postmortem earlier this week, but like the Elephant’s Foot under the ruins of Chernobyl, it demands further inspection.

Trading Martinez, who’s hitting .317/.391/.600 in his two seasons with the club, would be shocking all on its own, but it wouldn’t be unthinkable, as he’s a 32-year-old DH. Betts, who’s five years younger than Martinez, is a phenomenal all-around player, one of the best handful of baseball players in the world, and the most irreplaceable player on Boston’s roster.

There’s a long and unpredictable path from September rumor to offseason trade, but if Red Sox sources told the Globe that aliens were on the cusp of invading Earth and forcing humanity to do their evil bidding, it’d be worth contemplating. And to be clear, the idea that a team that aims to contend again in the near future would trade Betts, the reigning AL MVP, is only marginally less bizarre than an alien invasion.

During his tenure in charge of the Red Sox, Dombrowski constructed a team loaded top to bottom with excellent players, and as a result that team went on a run of success unprecedented in Red Sox history. But less than a year later, the Red Sox sat at 76-67, which is a good record in a vacuum but left the club 17.5 games out of first place. Ownership, led by multibillionaire John Henry, handed Dombrowski his walking papers.

Dombrowski set the team up for short-term success by trading away the deep farm system he inherited for established stars, and after winning the World Series he locked up players like Nathan Eovaldi, Xander Bogaerts, and Chris Sale with long-term contracts to keep the core together. Dombrowski also depleted a farm system Baseball Prospectus ranked sixth in the league when he took over in 2015, but was dead last heading into 2019. The Red Sox would not have won a World Series without promoting or trading their prospects, but their failure to replenish the system is a concern.

Now, that core is not only failing to compete with the Yankees, it’s more expensive than it was last year, with little short-term help on the way from the farm system. The Red Sox need to replenish their prospect pool and cut payroll in order to reset repeater penalties for the luxury tax, the argument goes, and trading Betts would not only free up money, but also bring back considerable minor league talent.

Now, it bears mentioning that the Red Sox are worth about $3.7 billion, about $3 billion more than owner John Henry (himself a multibillionaire) and his syndicate paid for the club in December 2001. On the heels of their World Series victory, the Red Sox are fifth in MLB in attendance in 2019, despite playing in the fourth-smallest ballpark in the league, and the Red Sox rake in money not only through leaguewide revenue streams but through their stake in NESN, the local cable channel that carries the club’s games.

About that dreaded luxury tax. This year, the Sox are over the cap for the second straight year, which means they’re paying 30 percent of the amount by which they exceed the tax cutoff, up to $20 million, plus 42 percent of the next $20 million. In 2019, the Red Sox have exceeded the threshold by $35.7 million, which comes to a tax bill of $12.6 million for a team that’s paying $18.46 million to not have Pablo Sandoval play for it this year. It’s a pittance, and if winning were the goal, and not a byproduct of profit, the Sox would pay it gleefully. And while they can reset the repeater penalty only by getting under the line—$208 million in 2020—the Red Sox could substantially reduce their expenditures in both salary and tax without taking on a full-blown austerity project.

Unfortunately, other big-market teams like the Dodgers and Yankees have begun to treat the tax threshold as a hard salary cap, and now that it seems the Red Sox are determined to do the same, it’s worth exploring how they might achieve that goal without trading Betts. Because while dumping their best player to meet arbitrary financial goals would certainly be a festive way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Babe Ruth sale, it shouldn’t be Plan A.

A team that wants to challenge for the World Series shouldn’t trade Betts to save a few million dollars—in fact, it would be better off not only keeping Betts but extending him, and trading everyone else on the roster.

Betts, who turns 27 next month, is not only the reigning AL MVP, he combines consistency and excellence the way nobody else in the American League does, with the exception of Mike Trout. In each of his five full MLB seasons, Betts has produced at least 5.9 bWAR and appeared in at least 136 games, and given his special combination of athleticism, intelligence, and versatility—i.e., his whole game isn’t predicated on one physical attribute, like foot speed or bat speed, that could fall off a cliff—he seems like the kind of player who will age quite well.

Somewhat predictably, Betts broke the record for largest salary for a second-time arbitration-eligible player last offseason, with a $20 million payday for 2019, and will almost certainly beat his own record once more this winter, as he heads into his final year before free agency, when he’ll get paid an unfathomable amount of money, but still not as much as he’s worth. Last spring, within a few weeks, Nolan Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million contract extension with the Rockies, Manny Machado signed a 10-year, $300 million deal with the Padres, and Bryce Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies. All three are star players in their mid-20s, and worth every bit of those deals. Betts, in addition to being in a similar age bracket, is substantially better than any of them.

But he won’t make much more, because Mike Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million deal has essentially set a cap on position player salaries. Betts might get close to Trout’s $35.5 million average salary, but he probably won’t beat it. And even if Betts makes $25 million next year in arbitration, or $35 million a year as a free agent, there are few better ways for a winning baseball team to spend $35 million than to give it to Betts.

Sure, the Red Sox could give his playing time to younger, cheaper players, but it’s not just a matter of conjuring a Cody Bellinger out of thin air—younger, cheaper players would almost certainly be worse than Betts, leaving Boston in the predicament of having not only to shore up an ailing pitching staff but replace one of the best players in baseball. And if they did trade Betts, as Jay Jaffe illustrated exhaustively at FanGraphs earlier this week, the fact that Betts has only a year left on his deal makes it impossible for the Red Sox to recoup full value for him.

So how much would the Red Sox have to trim elsewhere in order to get under 2020’s $208 million tax threshold? Not that much, which is surprising considering the ferocity of the conversation over Boston’s recent round of contract extensions for Sale, Eovaldi, and others.

Yes, the Red Sox will have to give substantial raises to Sale and Bogaerts, both of whom signed extensions this spring—those two players alone will cost Boston $23 million more in 2020 than they did this year. But several other players are due to come off the books: Rick Porcello, Steve Pearce, and Eduardo Núñez are all free agents after this season and combined to produce minus-1.5 bWAR at the combined cost of $32.38 million. Brock Holt and Mitch Moreland have both been useful, but replaceable, and both will be free agents next year. If Boston lets them walk, it’ll save another $10 million and change compared to this season. The Red Sox will also almost certainly move on from Andrew Cashner, who costs $8 million against the CBT, and watch their payment on the Sandoval deal drop by more than $13 million.

Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
J.D. Martinez
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In other words, the Red Sox can save a ton of money by doing nothing, and without losing much, if anything, in terms of on-field production. Even factoring in projected arbitration raises—including one for Betts—Baseball-Reference predicts that Boston’s Opening Day payroll will be $215 million, or just $7 million over the tax threshold. With just $7 million to make up, the Red Sox could deal Martinez, who’s due to make $23.75 million, and have room to spare. Martinez is one of the best hitters in the game, but he’s not the foundation of the entire ball club, as Betts is.

But if the Red Sox are serious about competing in 2020, not just saving money, they’d probably want to hang on to their second-best hitter too. Fortunately, it doesn’t take that much imagination to come up with a scenario in which the Red Sox could keep Martinez and Betts and beat the tax.

The most obvious target to move is center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., who like Betts is entering his final season of arbitration, and is due a raise on his $8.55 million salary from this year. Bradley is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, but a below-average hitter. He’s a good enough overall player for the Red Sox to not only find a taker for his salary, but to get tangible prospect value for him in a trade, but not so good as to be irreplaceable, particularly because both Betts and left fielder Andrew Benintendi are capable of taking over in center field.

If the Red Sox kept the rest of their roster the same, moving Bradley would be enough right there, but they’ll probably need some more wiggle room under the luxury tax threshold in case they end up paying out more in arbitration than anticipated, or to fill out the 40-man roster, because while the Red Sox can’t keep Betts, get under the tax barrier, and pursue, say, Gerrit Cole, they’ll probably need to spend a couple of million dollars on a reliever or a bench player. They could generate that space by nontendering catcher Sandy Leon, who’s making $2.48 million this year, and replacing him with a new backup catcher who makes the league minimum.

And while the Red Sox don’t have a strong farm system, and are hoping to replenish their pool of prospects, they could also orchestrate an NBA-style deal in which they entice another team to take on what’s effectively dead salary by attaching international slot money or a prospect to a player with a contract the team regrets signing. And Boston has one such contract: the last two years and $25 million on Dustin Pedroia’s deal. Trading a franchise icon like Pedroia in a salary dump might be a tough emotional pill to swallow, but it’d be a lot less detrimental to the team than deciding that Betts was too expensive to keep.

The reality is that Boston’s financial situation is nowhere near as dire as the rhetoric about trading Betts or Martinez would lead one to believe. So much so that rhetoric is probably all that will ever come of this hint at a Betts trade, unless the Red Sox, in addition to losing their ambition, have lost their imagination as well.

An earlier version of this story suggested that the Red Sox could save money against the competitive balance tax by trading Rusney Castillo; he’s not on the 40-man roster.