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The Mookie Betts Deal Is a Triumph of the Dodger Blueprint

Los Angeles just inked MLB’s second-best player to a 12-year, $365 million extension. The move shows where the Dodgers’ front-office philosophy succeeded—and where Boston’s approach failed.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday morning, one of baseball’s most respected and connected reporters, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, included the hazy financial future of Mookie Betts on a list of the 2020 season’s biggest story lines. “The financial impact of teams playing most or all of the season without fans almost certainly will prevent Betts from getting $400 million on the open market, or the $300 million the Red Sox reportedly offered him,” Rosenthal wrote, echoing comments by others. In the next sentence, he speculated that Betts might be better off accepting a qualifying offer in the $18 million range than testing a free-agent market suppressed by the pandemic. “For now, all Betts can do is enjoy his time with the Dodgers and put everything else aside,” Rosenthal concluded.

As we learned only a few hours later, Betts could do (and make) much more than that. At 10 a.m. ET, WEEI’s Lou Merloni reported that the Dodgers and Betts were close to a contract extension that was “said to be for 10-plus years and worth between $350-400 million.” By midday in Los Angeles, the 12-year, $365 million deal was done and announced, and the big Betts story line was over before the season even started.

I don’t draw attention to Rosenthal’s since-updated copy to flag it for Freezing Cold Takes. I’ve exhumed it to show how far-fetched the possibility of the Dodgers ponying up a pre-pandemic-sized superstar extension appeared to someone seemingly in the know. To plugged-in reporters and the public alike, Betts’s windfall was inconceivable before breakfast and done before dinner.

How did the Dodgers do that? And why were they the ones to sign Betts to an extension instead of the Red Sox, the team that drafted him, won a World Series with him, and reaped the rewards of every big league game he’s played to this point? The Dodgers and the Red Sox are both big-market, high-revenue clubs with recent track records of success. The Red Sox had the highest payroll in baseball in each of the past two seasons; the Dodgers had the highest payroll in baseball in each of the four seasons before that. The two teams met in the 2018 World Series. On the surface, they seem similar, at least in their capacity and desire to retain the services of the sport’s long-established second-best player. Yet the Red Sox, who had every reason to retain the beloved homegrown hero who was off to the best start of any hitter for the franchise post–Ted Williams, traded him five months ago, after concluding that they wouldn’t or couldn’t keep him around.

Those months remade the world and dramatically altered our assumptions about MLB teams’ offseason spending habits (before Betts signed his extension, at least). It’s entirely possible, and perhaps probable, that Betts was more amenable to an extension at terms like these now than he would have been over the winter. But if Merloni’s prior reporting about Boston’s back-and-forth with Betts was as accurate as his reporting this week—and yes, it feels strange to praise the reporting of a man I remember as a roughly replacement-level utility infielder—then the Red Sox never offered terms like these. In January, Merloni said the Sox had offered $300 million over 10 years and that Betts was “seeking” $420 million over 12 years. In 2016, ESPN’s Sam Miller found that free agents tend to receive 87.5 percent of the dollar amount they’re reported to be seeking. In this case, 87.5 percent of $420 million is $367.5 million, almost exactly what Betts just got (and what the stats say he’s worth). So maybe Betts’s target contract came down because he was worried about what decreased revenues would do to free agency, or maybe the Dodgers simply met him in the middle, which Boston was unwilling to do.

But why was Boston unwilling to do what the Dodgers did? The answer, of course, could be sheer stinginess: The Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Red Sox and the Liverpool Premier League club, was reportedly worth upward of $6 billion as of late last year, so it’s not as if FSG principal owner John Henry would have been bankrupted by a Betts deal. Yet these are the Red Sox we’re talking about. They aren’t known for fiscal restraint, and it’s harder to fault the team that just had MLB’s biggest payroll for not spending than it is a perennial penny-pincher like the Pirates or a relatively freer-spending but still often frustratingly tightfisted team like the Cubs that laments their so-called “biblical” losses.

Arizona Diamondback v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The decisive difference between the team that let Betts go and the team that just extended him is that the Dodgers were much better positioned competitively and financially to earmark this amount of money without flinching. This extension was the product of a purposeful approach to player acquisition and a developmental machine that freed up future payroll. “The baseball organizations we compete against have become much more strategic and thoughtful about how and where they spend their resources in their quest for titles,” Henry wrote in his statement about the trade in February. While the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988, no recent team has competed for titles as consistently; Los Angeles is a perpetual playoff machine that trails only the 1990s-2000s Braves and Yankees for the most consecutive postseason appearances. And no team spends smarter or develops more adeptly than the Dodgers do. Having apparently realized this, the Red Sox seem to be trying to remake themselves in the Dodgers’ image. But they didn’t do that in time to feel as comfortable as the Dodgers did in committing to Mookie long term.

In March 2015, I wondered what would have to happen for the Dodgers to falter in the future, given everything they had going for them: a strong roster, a stacked front office and farm system, an incredibly lucrative TV deal and the sport’s deepest pockets, and no clear rival for NL West supremacy. Since then, they’ve relinquished baseball’s best broadcaster to retirement, but they’ve lost little else. The Dodgers have won five more division titles since that piece was published (on top of the two they won from 2013-14), and their 2019 roster led the National League with 106 wins and qualified by some metrics as one of the best teams of all time. The 2020 Dodgers, meanwhile, are the consensus pick as baseball’s best team and the favorite to win the World Series.

Given that sustained success at the major league level, L.A. could be forgiven for any failings on the farm. But according to multiple sources, the Dodgers still boast baseball’s third-best collection of prospects, just as they did in 2015. That big league/bush league balance is tricky to strike; one typically maintains a strong minor league system by trading veterans and drafting early, two activities that commonly coincide with a down cycle. But pulling off the improbable was always the Dodger blueprint. In 2015, team president and CEO Stan Kasten told me that unlike some smaller-market teams, the Dodgers didn’t have to choose between winning now and winning later. “It’s different here in L.A., where we enunciated clearly on day one we were going to do both things at once … invest and make the current team competitive, as well as investing in the longer-range plan, the scouting and player development,” he said. The front office’s philosophy, he added, was, “No matter how good we are today, it doesn’t help us unless we’re also preparing for tomorrow.”

That approach has paid off. Although the West has worthier challengers than it did several seasons ago, the Dodgers are Dorian Gray. They don’t decline, and they’ve been doing it all since “Why not both?” became a meme. When I asked Kasten what the Dodgers’ title window was, he said, “No, we’re the Dodgers. We should be contending every year, period.” Kasten, who had long been with the division-dynasty Braves before his Dodgers days, has now known that feeling twice.

In envisioning a hypothetical Dodgers downturn, I figured that in 2015 front-office smarts weren’t worth as much as they had been before Moneyball went mainstream. The Dodgers’ R&D department was and is one of the biggest in baseball, but parity in sabermetric player evaluation looked closer than ever. But just as I didn’t see Betts’s new contract coming, I didn’t yet recognize that a new revolution in player development was dawning. “We are determined not to be left behind in anything,” Kasten told me. Indeed, the Dodgers were early adopters of advanced developmental technologies and techniques that would indirectly clear payroll room for Betts.

In a study published last year, Driveline Baseball comanager of baseball analytics Dan Aucoin tried to quantify the value that teams have extracted in recent seasons from player development. The Dodgers led his list with nearly half a billion dollars in surplus value generated, dwarfing the totals of every team except the second-place Astros. Almost 80 percent of that value was derived from position players, the Dodgers’ developmental specialty. Aucoin also determined that the Dodgers trailed only the Yankees in making the right calls on which prospects to acquire or unload. As Aucoin wrote of the cutting-edge teams at the top of the leaderboard, “Likely blending a strategy of continuous investment in prospects with superior scouting and player-development modalities, these organizations have seemingly developed a sustainable model of success for both present and future outcomes at the major league level.” Yeah, you could say that.

According to the Baseball Gauge, the Dodgers led all 2019 teams in WAR derived from the draft and lapped the league in total homegrown WAR and percentage of overall WAR produced by homegrown players. (Homegrown players were defined as those who had been with one organization for their whole careers.) That doesn’t seem set to change in 2020: Roster Resource lists the Dodgers with the second-highest number of homegrown players on their 40-man roster. Just look at the origins of the team’s eye-popping projected lineup behind Betts: Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, and Will Smith are all Dodgers draftees, as is recently optioned top prospect Gavin Lux, who will be back in that batting order soon. Max Muncy, Justin Turner, and Chris Taylor were castoffs from other organizations who remade themselves in L.A.—with some assistance from the Dodgers, in the cases of Muncy and Taylor—and became productive players, All-Stars, and even MVP vote-getters. A.J. Pollock is the lineup’s lone free agent initially signed to a multiyear, million-dollar-plus deal.

Under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who was poached from Tampa Bay in October 2014, the Dodgers haven’t held on to every young player who blossomed in the big leagues: They would take back the Yordan Álvarez for Josh Fields swap from 2016, although Álvarez wasn’t highly touted at the time. But they’ve largely resisted jettisoning promising prospects for short-term upgrades. Because L.A. has kept its young, cost-controlled prospects-turned-stars and avoided long-term outlays on aging free agents, it slipped under the competitive balance tax threshold without suffering on the field (unlike the Sox), and was nearly free of long-term contract commitments before the Betts extension.

Besides Betts, the only cash on the Dodgers’ books for 2023 is the combined $6.5 million they would owe Pollock and Muncy if their player and club options, respectively, for that season aren’t exercised. (The Yankees, by contrast, are already on the hook for $81.25 million that year.) If we sort Spotrac’s list of 2023 team payrolls, which includes the full option amounts, the Dodgers ranked 24th without Betts on the books—one spot below Pittsburgh and just above Oakland and Cleveland. The only other teams whose long-term payrolls were in L.A.’s vicinity were bad, cheap, or both. The Dodgers are neither. No wonder they sprang for so many more years with Betts.

In 2015, I proposed another way that the Dodgers could flounder: The team’s small-market, ex-Rays/A’s-executive tandem of Friedman and then-GM Farhan Zaidi could continue to operate as if they were still running resource-strapped teams. Friedman, who inked his own extension last year, hadn’t awarded a $100 million contract to any Dodgers player before Betts and still hasn’t signed a free agent for more than the $60 million it took to woo Pollock in 2019. However, he has spent to extend or re-sign his own stars, including Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Turner, and Muncy. He’s also spent on infrastructure: statheads and player development staff; innovative pitching programs and other high-tech training tools; international facilities. And he’s made trades to deliver veteran talent: Rich Hill and Josh Reddick in 2016, Yu Darvish in 2017, Manny Machado in 2018, and Betts this year.

When the Dodgers have opted against bidding or trying to make a trade, it’s generally been because their roster was strong already and the prospective player in question wasn’t elite enough to make a meaningful impact on their World Series odds. For years, they watched and waited for the right rare talent to come along. Anthony Rendon reportedly didn’t want to play in L.A. Francisco Lindor supposedly would have cost them Lux. Bryce Harper spurned their four-year, record-AAV offer. (The Dodgers did OK without him.) The Yankees barely outbid them for Cole. Then Mookie came along, and the Dodgers didn’t miss their shot to pair Bellinger and Betts in a fantasy outfield.

The Red Sox have homegrown stars too, but those players have entered or approached their prime earning years. With a farm system that rates among the bottom tier of teams, the Sox haven’t groomed replacements or a supporting cast. Theo Epstein once promised to construct a “scouting and player development machine” that would yield a “constant flow of impact talent” in Boston, and his successor, Ben Cherington, made good on that goal (as he’ll try to do again in Pittsburgh). But Dave Dombrowski, who displaced Cherington, wasn’t a Kasten-style steward. He spent (not always wisely) and hemorrhaged prospects. And hey, he won a World Series—the one thing Friedman’s Dodgers haven’t done. Maybe that was worth it. But the way he won, wrote The Athletic’s Evan Drellich when Dombrowski was dismissed, didn’t suggest that the Sox could “sniff a Dodgers-like run.” There was a window in Boston, and it quickly closed—for the Red Sox, Dombrowski, and Betts.

In August 2012, the last-place Red Sox dumped the declining trio of Adrián González, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett on Ned Colletti’s Dodgers in exchange for spare parts, prospects, and salary relief. The next year, the Dodgers paid those players almost $57 million for a combined 4.5 WAR and lost in the NLCS, while the Sox won a World Series. Boston went on to win division crowns from 2016 to 2018 and capped that streak by defeating the Dodgers to take another title. Now, though, the Sox are the ones looking up at Los Angeles.

And so, as the Dodgers once did, Boston hired a top-ranking Rays executive—a former Friedman lieutenant—to teach it how to pair small-market prudence with big-market bucks. At his introductory press conference, Chaim Bloom declared that his top priority with the Red Sox would be “sustainability and competitiveness over the long term.” Or, basically, being like Los Angeles, which can now look forward to an even longer love affair with Betts than Boston enjoyed. Since 2014, both Betts and Friedman have demonstrated that they don’t have holes in their games. When Betts landed in Los Angeles, a model player met the model team. And because of their exploits over the past several seasons, agreeing on a $365 million extension was doable for both.