It’s been a while since I’ve been truly happy about baseball. Like many other Red Sox fans, the Mookie Betts trade broke me up. It was a landmark move that signaled a change in how the franchise was operating, going from an organization that leveraged their large revenue sources to treating the CBT number as a de facto salary cap. It took me a while to accept the new direction the league is gone. I still think it’s stupid, inefficient, and destructive but Major League Baseball is essentially a salary capped league. Deals like last week’s Adam Ottavino trade don’t happen in uncapped leagues.
A good cross-sport comparison would be the trade the Los Angeles Rams swung for Matthew Stafford in the NFL on Saturday. Jared Goff has a monster extension tied to him that, in combination with his declining play, has sunk his value under water. In order to move him, the Rams had to add value for the Lions to take him. So in addition to sending a future first round pick and a third round pick, the Rams had to offer another future first round pick. Think of it as an inconvenience tax. You’re burdening me with this sunk cost, so you need to pay me more to take it. Now, before someone in the comments yells about how the merits on either side of this trade in particular, that’s besides the point. This is a baseball site after all.
The point is that, effectively, Adam Ottavino is a sunk cost in the eyes of the Red Sox. The Yankees were facing a CBT crunch thanks to the signings of Corey Kluber and DJ LeMahieu, whose contract is its own fun exercise in CBT manipulation. But to the point at hand, first off, they’re wrong. A one-year deal worth $9 million for a reliever who’s been dominant by the results in two of the last three seasons and whose dominance can be traced and explained is below market value.
Second, Ottavino’s ERA plummets when you eliminate a September outing in which he gave up six earned runs without recording an out. Relievers’ stat lines are already prone to volatility, but if you cut out 63% of the season, one bad outing can ruin it. Ottavino isn’t a worse pitcher than Chris Mazza or Ryan Weber, despite whatever ERA might say. He didn’t have it one night and didn’t have enough of a season to pretty his line back up.
The economics of baseball are, frankly, out of whack right now. Nolan Arenado, who’s on a Hall of Fame track and only turns 30 during this upcoming season, just got traded for relative no-name prospects and the Rockies had to throw in significant cash along with the face of their franchise to make the deal happen. The things teams are valuing right now are cheap years of control with extra emphasis on “cheap”. This might sound familiar to you as the Sox had to deal with this in 2019 when shopping their own superstar who was on a Hall of Fame track. But the reason this Ottavino trade was the first moment of real happiness this team has drawn out of me in nearly 17 months was because they used the perverted economics of the game to their advantage and bought a prospect.
If we’re being honest, Ottavino isn’t going to do anything for this team in terms of competing this year unless they Bad News Bears their way into a wild card spot. He’ll likely be flipped at the deadline for a marginal prospect. But Frank German has a real shot at being something! The Yankees won’t miss him because their system is littered with guys like this, but German is a legitimate prospect for this team. Baseball Prospectus had him ranked at 15 for the Yankees, and their system blows Boston’s away. There’s a lot of reliever risk, but he throws hard and sometimes these guys work out as back-end starters and Aceves knows the Sox need guys like this in their system right now.
I applaud this move from Chaim Bloom and crew, who I am sure are reading this right now and are overcome with joy that he’s earned my approval. This is how teams going through a down cycle should be utilizing their cap space: By taking on dead money from other teams and in the process taking their prospects as a penance.