After many, many months of rumblings that the Boston Rex Sox were shopping star outfielder Mookie Betts, the seemingly unthinkable has happened. The Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Betts, LHP David Price and cash from the Red Sox as part of a three-team blockbuster trade that sent RHP Kenta Maeda to the Twins and outfielder Alex Verdugo to the Red Sox, with the Twins sending RHP Brusdar Graterol to the Red Sox. Also, there was a subsequent inter-Angeleno deal between the Anaheim contingent and the Dodgers to sort out the latter’s newfound glut of outfielders. In other words, there’s a whole hell of a lot to unpack here, with implications stretching across both leagues.
If you follow baseball at all, then you’re almost certainly aware of Betts. He won the MVP in 2018, the same year the Red Sox clinched yet another title. He’s a career .301/.374/.519 hitter and a true five-tool player, who’s put up 42.0 bWAR in his five-and-a-third-ish seasons in MLB. In every one of the four full seasons after his first full rookie season in 2015, he’s been an All Star, a Gold Glover and placed in the top-ten of MVP voting. He’s unquestionably one of the best position players in all of baseball, quite likely the best behind Mike Trout, and he’s still only 27.
Even with only one year left before hitting free agency, it’s still extremely unusual to see a player of Betts’ caliber get traded, because players like that are basically impossible to replace, and it’s even more surprising given that the Red Sox won the damn thing the season before last. Sure things didn’t work out last year, but baseball happens and they might very well need a player like Betts in 2020, because every team could use a player like Betts in 2020.
Yes, Betts is going to make $27 in his lone season with the Dodgers before hitting the open market, but he’s still underpaid relative to his production. So, what exactly were the Red Sox and their new Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom thinking? Well, it’s pretty clear that this is ultimately a salary dump, executed by one of the richest teams in baseball. In addition to Betts’ paycheck for his final year of arbitration, Price was owed $96 million over the next three seasons, so they had to exercise some “fiscal responsibility.”
If you’re trying to make sense of Boston’s decision, it goes more or less like this: Betts had already made it abundantly clear that he’s going to test free agency after this season and had rebuffed Boston’s attempts to pay him with baked beans rather than many, many millions. Given that he’s not going to take a Trout-like hometown discount, he’ll likely be receiving a record-breaking contract next year. If Boston couldn’t afford to compete with other teams come next offseason, and they’re willing to cede the 2020 season to the Yankees (and/or Rays), then, yeah, there wasn’t really any reason to hold onto Betts for merely the draft pick they’d get through a qualifying offer.
In terms of the return, Verdugo isn’t exactly chopped liver, seeing as he hit .294/.342/.475 over 377 PAs for the Dodgers last year, and now Boston has an outfielder with four years of team control remaining who’s ready to play on Opening Day, as well as a pitching prospect with high upside in Graterol. The latter’s future is up in the air, as it is with all pitching prospects. He could end up as a front-of-the-rotation starter, an elite reliever or as a name that we only remember from this trade.
I suppose we should also mention that there’s the possibility that Betts could have had a truly down year this season, or maybe suffer an injury, but the return is relatively light for a player of Betts’ pedigree and it’s hard to imagine that they couldn’t have conjured up this sort of return, or an even better one, prior to the trade deadline, when Bloom and co. could have seen where their team was in the standings. But then they would’ve already paid Betts and Price many millions, so why not just do it now and save all those clams?
Which means it’s probably time to move onto the Dodgers side of the equation, now that we’re done with ragging on Boston (for now). L.A.’s President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman not only acquired one of the best players in baseball, he managed to hold onto his team’s top prospects and may have kept the Dodgers under the luxury tax/faux salary cap at the same time. It’s also worth noting that they’re almost certainly going to get that draft pick out of the deal, too, once Betts rejects his qualifying offer after the 2020 season.
And Betts wasn’t the only part of the deal. While Price is pretty clearly overpaid at this point in his career, that doesn’t mean he’s not worthy of a spot in the rotation. While he hasn’t topped 200 innings since 2016, he’s posted a 122 ERA+ from 2017 to 2019, and is clearly at least a mid-rotation starter as long as he’s healthy. Yes, we don’t know exactly how much money Boston is kicking in on the deal, but that certainly helps with the “overpaid part” of the equation.
Considering how the pitching market played out with relatively similar pitchers this offseason (Madison Bumgarner: five years, $85 million; Dallas Keuchel: three years, $55.5 million), it’s not unreasonable to think that Price might actually be an underrated part of this deal. After all, Los Angeles will be a better place for him, because of the ballpark and the fact that the Dodgers have become masters making the most of limited innings from projected starters in the regular season. There have been lots of injuries and relative ineffectiveness, but there’s also been lots of depth that allowed them to survive those injuries and poor showings. The Dodgers are pretty clearly only thinking about next October at this point, and their ability to not work Price too hard during the regular season and then let him go bonkers in the postseason is more than a little intriguing.
While they’re losing a solid starter and excellent reliever in Maeda, Price is an immediate replacement, albeit a much more expensive one. Maeda, however, makes plenty of sense for the Twins, because they’re a smaller market team assuming a win-now posture, Maeda’s contract considerations are relatively miniscule and he comes with four-years of control. Graterol had promise, but there’s a power vacuum in the AL Central and the Twins want to take advantage of it. You can’t blame them for mortgaging a couple of extra years of a top prospect for four years of a proven big-league starter.
In case your head wasn’t already spinning, the Dodgers’ acquisition of Betts left them with an overcrowded outfield, so they also sent Joc Pederson, Ross Stripling and Andy Pages to the Angels for infielder Luis Rengifo (and possibly another prospect). The Dodgers shed some salary and extraneous players and picked up a decent prospect; the Angels got a couple of useful, if flawed, players to help prop their team up around Trout. We’ll leave it at that so your head can recover.
Oh, but there’s more to discuss! Betts’ best year was the aforementioned 2018 MVP, World Championship season, one for which Boston is currently being investigated for sign-stealing. Is he merely one of the best players in baseball and not a generational talent? No clue, and I’ve already made it clear that I’m done talking about this mess (for now).
The Dodgers were a 106-win team who stayed mostly intact this offseason, and they just added a generational talent, while holding onto their best prospects. Just look at one take on their projected lineup. It’s absolutely terrifying. Does that mean they’re going to win the NL West/NL Pennant/World Series in 2020? Answers: Yes. No idea. No idea. The baseball gods are still going to do their thing, and there’s plenty of other contenders out there vying, but the Dodgers just upped the ante and they didn’t even have to spend particularly heavily to do so. While you can make an argument that Boston's hands were tied, you have to credit the Dodgers for making a move that puts them in the best possible position to win their first title in over three decades, after coming so incredibly close in 2017 and 2018.
Grade for the Dodgers: A
Grade for the Red Sox: C-
Grade for the Twins: B
Grade for the Angels: B+