In 2018, the Boston Red Sox won 108 games and the World Series to cap the best MLB season of the 21st century. In order to do so, they exceeded the payroll cap set under MLB’s competitive-balance tax system by $40 million; the club’s billionaire owner, John Henry, and his Fenway Sports Group were therefore obliged to pay an additional $12 million in penalties to the league.
For the past five months, the Red Sox, ostensibly an organization constructed to win baseball games, have denied their existential purpose at every turn in order to avoid paying the luxury tax again. This past September, the Red Sox fired Dave Dombrowski, who as president of baseball operations constructed the title-winning team. And late Tuesday night, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, they agreed to a three-way deal that would send star players Mookie Betts and David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers in order to save a handful of millions of dollars in tax penalties.
Betts was the best Red Sox position player in 50 years, a power-hitting speedster and top-end defensive outfielder who was the AL MVP in 2018 and would have more hardware if he weren’t a direct contemporary of Mike Trout. Price was Boston’s no. 3 starter, and his stellar performances in the 2018 playoffs were instrumental in Boston’s title run that year. But Price makes $32 million a year for the next three years, which is how the back half of big free-agent deals tend to work, as part of a cosmic balance for how galactically underpaid ballplayers are at the start of their careers.
Players like Betts, for instance, who at 27 years old will make $27 million this year—his final before free agency. A player of his caliber is a bargain at that price, as there’s no alternative anywhere who’s nearly as good and available for money alone. Betts doesn’t have to be a free agent next year, though; the Red Sox could have signed him to an extension if they’d offered a lucrative enough contract. Maybe Bets would have cost something on the order of the $37 million and change Trout is due each year, thanks to the team-friendly extension he signed last spring. Betts would be a bargain at that price as well.
But while re-signing Betts would have done as much to advance Boston’s championship hopes as any transaction could (except signing Trout, who’s spoken for), it would not have gotten the Red Sox under the luxury tax threshold in 2020. There could be no clearer illustration of where Henry and his confreres’ priorities lie than this.
This is a salary dump, and not from some woebegone Midwestern also-ran, but from the Boston Goddamn Red Sox. The most successful franchise of the past 15 years—a business concern that appreciates in value year-by-year run at a grotesque profit by hideously wealthy men—has announced that it won’t make a credible effort to compete, in the hopes that a public blinded by regional partisanship and hatred of player wealth will believe that it is in fact too poor to compete.
The average ticket price at Fenway Park is going up next year, by the way.
In addition to the primary trade return, a sudden short-term cash windfall for FSG stakeholders, the Red Sox acquired two young players. I’m not sure why you’d care who they are, since the Red Sox sure don’t seem to, but each offers interesting future value for Boston.
The first is pitcher Brusdar Graterol, who came by way of Minnesota when the Dodgers flipped Kenta Maeda to the Twins, making this a three-team deal. Graterol, a 21-year-old right-hander from Venezuela, made his debut with Minnesota last September, and in 10 relief appearances showed that if nothing else he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch. Graterol stands just 6-foot-1 with a frame best described as “cubical” and routinely hits 100 miles per hour out of the bullpen with a killer sinker. Graterol was ranked 32nd on Baseball Prospectus’s recent top 101 prospects list, with obvious upside based on his stuff, but substantial risk that he ends up in the bullpen. Even at his young age, Graterol has a significant history of elbow and shoulder injuries, and while he still profiles as an excellent relief pitcher, the chance he turns into a 200-inning-a-year starter is close to nil.
The other new arrival is 23-year-old Alex Verdugo, who hit .294/.342/.475 in his rookie season with the Dodgers last year. There’s a near-100 percent chance that in the next two months, someone who covers the Red Sox will pitch Verdugo as a like-for-like replacement for Betts based on anonymous quotes from the Boston front office. Like Betts, Verdugo is a good defensive corner outfielder who hits for a decent amount of power despite not striking out a lot, but even that facile comparison flatters Verdugo.
Last year, Betts outproduced Verdugo by 49 points each of OBP and SLG. Betts is also an incomparably better athlete than Verdugo, as evidenced by his superior stolen base totals (126 in 794 career games, compared to four in 158 for Verdugo) and defense. There’s good outfield defense and then there’s, well, Mookie Betts.
While the Red Sox are giving up more than they did in the 2012 salary dump that sent Josh Beckett, Adrián González, and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers, they’re also getting more in return. Verdugo and Graterol are talented, big-league ready, and under team control through 2024 and 2025, respectively. But this is not a return worthy of one of the best players of his generation and a good starting pitcher, who comes as a throw-in. Moreover, giving away a star for multiple less-talented players with greater team control was then–Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington’s justification for trading Gerrit Cole to the Astros two years ago. That logic got Huntington cashiered last October, as it’s indefensible even for the miserly Pirates. What a role model for what’s supposed to be a marquee franchise.
Talented as Graterol is, the Twins were willing to trade him essentially straight-up for Maeda. And the Red Sox weren’t able to pry either of the Dodgers’ top prospects—shortstop Gavin Lux and pitcher Dustin May—from Los Angeles. Not even for Betts. Verdugo has too much MLB experience to be included on prospect lists, but BP ranked him as the Dodgers’ eighth-best player aged 25 and under, behind the sainted troika of Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, and Corey Seager; Lux; May; catcher Will Smith; and Julio Urías, who’s had so many ups and downs by now he practically qualifies as a post-hype sleeper.
Make no mistake, this trade was about clearing salary, which the Red Sox wanted so desperately they were willing to cut off their big league club at the knees. The contrast to the Yankees’ nine-year, $324 million contract for Cole is so obvious it almost feels unfair to mention.
This trade is a disgrace for the Red Sox and for the league. I don’t understand why the owner of such a prestigious ball club—a de facto public institution—would charge his baseball operations department with ridding the team of a once-in-a-generation player when he could keep that player and continue to rake in unspendable profits. It’s such a mind-bogglingly greedy and self-defeating move that I resent being made to try to understand it.
It’s been 100 seasons since the Red Sox sold their best player in such a transparent cash grab. If there’s any justice, they’ll have another 86 years to regret it.