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The case for trading Mookie Betts

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Reverse-engineering reasons a deal for the former MVP seems closer than ever.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
To be EXTREMELY clear, I do not think the Sox should trade this man.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox are not trying to win games at all costs. We know this because if you are trying to win baseball games at all costs there is no reason to trade Mookie Betts, and given how likely a trade seems at this point, that ship has sailed. We’ve come a long way in a month and a half, from Alex Speier writing a column titled “Trading Mookie Betts doesn’t seem to be high priority for Red Sox,” to Speier becoming the local de facto public trade conduit between the Sox and two National League West teams.

What happened? The short answer is on that the same day he wrote the Sox weren’t likely to trade Betts, Speier wrote a column outlining in exquisite detail the financial implications of going over the luxury tax, especially as a repeater, costs which he estimated at about $90-$100 million over three years if they maintained a payroll in the $240 million range. That’s a ghost Mookie on top of every season, to start, and if you want the gory details please check them out in the link. I barely understand them myself.

The problem, as it were, is that Betts has insisted to be paid absolute top dollar, which chafes both the management and some fans who think he’s being greedy, and definitely makes it a longer story. I consider it a luxury tax from his end and one that, like A-Rod, Robinson Cano, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado before him, he has every right to apply as a bona fide superstar. He also has to live with the results. The Red Sox clearly do not want any part of a bidding war, and the part of me that thinks all of this is posturing hopes that, well, we’re headed here:

If we are not, it’s for three reasons. First, Betts is committed to actual top dollar. Second, he’s worth more than what he’s going to get no matter what “top dollar.” Third, the Red Sox aren’t willing to pay even that, because if they trade Mookie now, as it increasingly looks like they will, they save the ghost Mookie on top. No doubt he’d still hang around for free to haunt us, though. We can all see where this is headed.

*

Right so John Henry is worth $2.75 billion, per a two-second Google search, and if I was feeling less charitable I’d suggest this would be where the column should end because, well, the financial constraints here are entirely self-imposed by Henry. Instead of challenging the dear leader, I will attempt to rationalize him. It’s just that doing so requires an article of faith before you get to the math, and the article of faith is that the desire to get under the tax represents something other than another tier on Henry’s yacht.

So… the Red Sox now have Betts under contract for $27 million for this year, after which he’s an unrestricted free agent. From what is generally understood, as I understand it — a double layer of plausible deniability! — Betts’ people have informed the Red Sox that he will seek top dollar on the free agent market, and the Red Sox have proven unwilling to meet whatever number, if any, exists as of now to make a deal work.

But it goes further than that. They also seem turned off by the whole idea enough to jettison Betts now so as to avoid having to bother with the bidding war. Much like the Nationals and Bryce Harper, they made their lowballish offer and were rejected, after which point the glass box around the “We tried!” button was unlocked and the Sox started looking to the future. It doesn’t seem more complicated than that. (And yes, while they could obviously bid on Mookie even after a trade I think the Jon Lester situation — which the Sox blew! — is a good object lesson in the many reasons not to expect that to happen.)

Accepting all that, the question can be narrowed further to: What is more valuable, a $27 million Mookie Betts on an expiring contract, or a pile of minor leaguers and huge cash windfall based on the luxury tax savings? If the savings were necessarily going to be reinvested in the team that would make this whole question much easier, and so to be overly fair let’s say the Sox have already done that with the Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers contracts. For the purposes of the exercise the luxury tax threshold is basically a hard cap, and given that they’re like $31 million in major league salary above it, you can see where getting rid of a $27 million player who’s gonna leave anyway looks attractive, given that jettisoning the same player will get you damn close to saving Fort Knox on top of that.

If I’ve gone this far without talking about a return it’s because the return for Mookie Betts is not going to be good enough to warrant the trade out of context, by definition, so it’s a second-to-third-order concern, especially considering the Sox will likely be unlikely to take on any real amount of big-league salary to make it work. I have become extremely acquainted with the minor leagues over the past few years directly due to dynasty leagues, and like anyone else in said leagues I know that the Dodgers and Padres are as good as anyone at developing players. There are enough pieces on either team to make a plausible enough deal. The question, crazy as it sounds, is how many of those parts the Red Sox even want. From the outside, their insistence on moving Mookie seems to underscore the degree to which they’re willing to vaporize their leverage just to push things forward.

I mean look, Luis Campusano, Padres catching prospect, seems pretty good. He’s not the Padres’ top or even second-best prospect, but a very good player. But as a headliner for a Betts deal he’s like guy who will forever be known as the headliner in a Mookie Betts deal. Maybe they do the deal and he’s the next Jason Varitek and hell, Varitek becomes manager and the Sox rebound in a couple years to win it all. Sounds fun, but I’d rather strike while the iron is hot, personally, and *Chris Sale* is still under contract.

Also, I forgot that Mookie Betts is about my size. Apparently small baseball players are rare and don’t age well, at least according to what I’ve seen on Twitter. And I know I’ve pledged to give the benefit of the doubt to the Sox-slash-the-idea-of-dealing-Betts. This one is a bridge too far, though, and I’ll merely point to the existence of Stephen Curry as why. Games change, relevant skills change, athletes change. Yeah maybe Betts can’t sustain his career like Curry has, but he’s reached comparable heights already maybe he can, and *if* he can sustain it then it’s worth almost anything.

The greater conclusion I’ve come to is this: It makes sense to trade Mookie Betts only if you plan to accept the possibility of $100 million over three years sabotages the 2020 season, which would be okay if you didn’t have the roster the Red Sox do. They still have Sale! And David Price! And Nathan Eovaldi! And Xander Bogaerts! And Rafael Devers! And more! These players, playing together, should be playing for a championship, and Mookie is better than all of them. Still. So it’s a bitter pill to swallow when, as spoiled fans, titles are the real currency, and the costs of being a fan go up no matter what. Trading Betts means it’s time to buy new jerseys for the players still on the team, money back into the owner’s pocket in Speier’s $100 million figure, and a whole host of second-order concerns it’s easy to overlook in service of the big picture.

For the Sox, the big picture is that Betts costs ultimately $200 million more than the team thinks he ought to be paid, which is the beginning and end of the discussion. The rest, as we’ve seen, is details. It just all seems like those details — the fans wanting a winning team, the kids with a favorite player, the team with its MVP — are exactly why we watch in the first place.