We ended last week with a rare bit of action in this quiet MLB offseason with the deadline coming and going for teams to exchange arbitration figures. Essentially, this day serves as the day when most teams and players come to agreements for 2018 salaries so they can avoid going to an arbitration trial. The Red Sox generally avoid going to trials with everyone, and they almost got that accomplished this year. On Friday, they came to an agreement with nine of the ten players who were still up in the air, including some key players. Overall, they saved a little over a million bucks compared to MLB Trade Rumor projections, a decent but ultimately meaningless sum of money for a Major League Baseball team. Of course, there is one unanswered question leftover from the end of last week, as the one player who did not come to an agreement with the Red Sox was Mookie Betts.
So, in case you missed the news on Friday, Betts was the one player with whom the Red Sox did not reach an agreement and it seems likely that the two sides will be heading towards an arbitration trial, though it’s not impossible they can agree to a deal between now and a potential hearing date. The player and team are relatively far apart with their exchanged figures as Betts proposed a salary of $10.5 million and the Red Sox proposed a $7.5 million salary.
Looking into the near-future and the immediate impact, there are some implications to whatever ends up happening with this situation. This is not simply about how much Betts is going to make in 2018, but also about what he’s going to make moving forward for the next few seasons. You see, arbitration involves a steadily increasing salary for players, with the rate at which a salary increases depends on year-to-year performance. This is Betts’ first year in arbitration, which is arguably the most important year as it sets the baseline for his payday in the next two winters. Simply put, Betts will make significantly more money over the next three years if he wins this arbitration hearing while Boston stands to save a significant amount of money over that time if they win. This is why the two sides are standing so firmly over a three million dollar difference.
Despite that relatively short-term impact and the importance of that for the two sides involved, the conversation among fans and analysts since the news came out on Friday has been focused on the long-term. Clearly, it’s never ideal to take your star player to an arbitration trial in which you will be forced to argue why he doesn’t deserve the money he is asking for. The fear is that this does not set the table well for the hopes to keep Betts in Boston for the long-term. The way I see things, there are two takeaways from this entire situation. For one thing, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Betts has no interest in negotiating a long-term extension right now. Secondly, that’s fine, and nothing to get overly worried about.
Not too long ago, I devoted a hefty number of words to what a possible Betts extension would look like. Even in that post, I acknowledged that this was not likely at the time, and that it would have to assume that Betts was willing to discuss an extension. That seemed unlikely at that time, and even more so now. The end conclusion of that post was that Betts would likely command about $150 million over seven years or so, which is a solid amount of money but also a lot less than Betts could ultimately make if he waits a few years to sign a contract. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last couple of years about Betts in relation to how he values himself, it’s that he wants his paycheck to accurately reflect how much value he provides on the field. It’s an admirable stance, an it’s one we’re seeing more and more of around the league as ultra-team-friendly extensions years before free agency are becoming rarer and rarer.
This doesn’t mean that it’s bad news for the Red Sox in the long-term, though. More than anything else, it seems that Betts has his heart set on making a point about how contracts are handled for players like him around the league. This isn’t something he’s said explicitly, but it seems clear that he isn’t wild about the pre-free agency stage of a player’s career. Remember, last year the Red Sox gave Betts a salary of $950,000, the second-most ever given to a player with his service time. It was more than the Red Sox had to offer, but still far less than Betts was worth. As such, he refused to sign the deal. Signing that kind of pre-arbitration deal is all symbolic, though, and Betts made it clear that he had no animosity towards the Red Sox. It’s the system in which everyone participates, not the team. Once again, the reports this winter are that Betts has no animosity towards the Red Sox during this arbitration process. Once again, we can only assume that the animosity would be towards the system.
As far as what this all means for Betts’ long-term future from the franchise, nothing should really change. Well, not nothing. If you were hoping the Red Sox would get a deal locked up soon and keep Betts for a below-market-value deal, that has changed. That being said, there shouldn’t be anything keeping the Red Sox from keeping Betts. They’ll have to pay free agent prices, but there’s nothing to suggest Betts won’t want to come back to Boston when the time for a decision comes. Now, some have argued that if they are going to pay free agent prices they’d rather do so for someone like Bryce Harper next year, and I can see that argument. I may disagree because I think there’s value in keeping a player around for his entire career, but that’s not the point here. The point is that the Red Sox should still be able to keep Betts long-term if they want to. It’ll be more expensive than it would be if he were more open to an extension, but it doesn’t appear to be something Betts is against entirely.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t worry about what this means about the likelihood that Betts stays in Boston for the foreseeable future. Instead, I see a player who is fighting against an archaic system and the Red Sox are being put in an awkward position because of it. Of course, that’s their problem and Betts shouldn’t feel bad about it. Until it comes out that he actually does have some animosity towards the Red Sox, though, I won’t be concerned. Instead, I’ll support Betts in seemingly fighting against an archaic compensation system in whatever way he can.