Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden has nothing on the debate likely to erupt when you put two baseball fans – especially Boston ones – together in the same room right now. Of course there are topics aplenty that crop up like the fallout of the Astros sign-stealing in 2017, but the one on everyone’s mind currently is the big trade. The three-way trade between Boston, the Dodgers and Minnesota … which is yet to be finalized because the Red Sox are apparently balking a bit at the medical tests of one pitcher they should receive.
We’ll streamline the trade by only really looking at the two main players in it, L.A. and Boston. And boy, the one trade certainly exemplifies a lot of the dilemmas for baseball – its fans and its operators both – these days. Who won? Who lost? Is Boston being sensible or giving the middle finger to its loyal fans? Unfortunately, there’s probably no one right answer to these questions.
As a recap, the Red Sox send “name” stars outfielder Mookie Betts and pitcher David Price to L.A. in return for young outfielder Alex Verdugo, and Minnesota rookie pitcher Brusdar Graterol, while Minny in turn get Dodgers’ pitcher Kenta Maeda.
At the west coast end of the trade, there’s not really a whole lot to debate it would seem, and from here, it seems like their fans are happy. And why not? While the team has won 7-straight divisions and seemed to already be cake-walking to an eighth straight before they even set foot on the grass. But, they have also been frustrated in their attempts to turn that into a World Series championship. Last year, they bowed out unexpectedly in the NLDS to the Wild Card-winning Nationals. There was a thought that they really lacked enough hitting … they had decent hitting, sure, but not the type of combination of bats that would take them to the promised land. Getting Betts should give them that. Meanwhile, David Price, no longer in his prime should be an upgrade over Maeda. They give up a good youngster in Verdugo, but they have lots of minor league talent and Verdugo projects to be a star but not a superstar. The only downside to the deal for L.A. is it jacks up their payroll and probably puts them into the luxury tax bracket.
For the Atlantic end though, the picture is much cloudier. The Red Sox give up their best, and most-popular player plus a good, if not great, starting pitcher and get back that decent, but not great young outfielder and a hard-throwing young minor league pitcher. The roster is clearly weaker now… but they save a bundle of cash and perhaps look better two, three years down the road. They would argue they’re building for the future and just letting up on the gas a bit this year, a season when no one at all was picking them to usurp the first-place Yankees in the division. To the fans though, they’re giving up their heart and soul and throwing in the towel only one season removed from winning it all. Indeed, the Washington Post ran a headline after the trade that read “Red Sox seemingly concede AL East to rival Yankees.” That’s gotta “ouch” if you’re one of the Fenway Faithful.
Let’s look at the details. This was largely a money-driven trade. Seems there’s rarely a different type these days, unfortunately. Betts got an arbitration-awarded $27M for this year and will be a free agent next winter. Price has $96M left over the next three years on his contract. Verdugo on the other hand, isn’t even arbitration-eligible and will earn less than $1M this season, and little more next; Maeda was under contract for about $3M. The trade boosts the Dodgers payroll (per Sportrac) to $215.8M, second only to the Yankees this year. The Sox, on the other hand, drop below the tax threshold to about $179M, fifth highest. (For you wondering, Toronto is ranked as 20th with a $96M bill.)
For L.A., it’s clear. They want to win, they want to win now. Betts was the AL MVP in 2018, the runner-up in 2016, and they hope the even-year trend will carry on and cross league lines. And with good reason. Even last year, a supposedly “down” year for Mookie, he hit .295 with 29 HR, 80 RBI and a .391 OBP. He lead the league scoring 135 runs and won his fourth-straight Gold Glove. His mammoth 2018 season, an injury-marred one no less, he hit .346 and was worth a WAR of 10.9. Betts averages 94 RBI and 44 doubles a year over the past four years. He is as good a bat as they could wish for to add some real “oomph” to the lineup that boasts Justin Turner and NL MVP Cody Bellinger already.
Price may not be a Cy Young candidate anymore – he last won votes for that in 2015 – but with Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw already in town, he won’t need to be. He just has to be a decent #3 starter, which he likely will be. If he’s better than Maeda, it’s a bonus for the blue-and-white. Chances are he will be that too. Even though two of his past three years have seen him suffer injuries, he’s averaged 21 starts, 119 innings and better-than-average ERA through them. In 2018, the Sox World Series year, he was 16-7, with an ERA of 3.58 through 30 starts and a 4.4 WAR. He may not be the 6.6 WAR guy from 2012, or the one who pitched upwards of 186 innings every year from ’10-15, but he’s still a more than capable lefty who should excel in the pitcher-friendly NL West. Maeda on the other hand, while only four years into his MLB career, is 32 in April to Price’s 34, and has been on a slow downward-trajectory since his rookie season in 2016. That year he was 16-11, had a 3.48 ERA that was 58% better than league average and he hurled 176 innings. All those ’16 numbers have been his career best so far; last year he was consigned to the bullpen for a part of the year and had his ERA rise to over 4. Bottom line- L.A. is a better team, and one that has a greater chance of getting to the World Series than they were before the deal. It’s a financially costly one for them, but they are a rich franchise who will make the money back through increased attendance next year and merch sales if they finally bring a championship to SoCal.
Red Sox fans aren’t so sure they are better off though, and it’s easy to see why. Verdugo is a fine young outfielder. He hit .294 in his first full season last year (he had brief call-ups in both 2017 and ’18) and so far in his career, through a total 158 games (about one season in full) he’s .282 with 14 homers and a .784 OPS. Last year he got a WAR of 3.1 including a smart 1.2 with his defense. Athlon Sports last season ranked him as L.A.’s second-best prospect. He’s got decent speed, a good glove and will probably develop a bit of power as he matures. What he isn’t is Mookie Betts, or a likely MVP anytime soon. And the pitcher they get to replace Price is a youngster from Minnesota, Brusdar Graterol. He’s a flamethrower, according to scouting reports, with a 102 MPH fastball, and a very good slider. He’s a rightie and 21. Athlon ranks him as the 38th best prospect in the game. However, there are a few red flags. He’s listed as 6’1” and 265 pounds, which is a little offputting for a young pitcher. We remember how roly-poly Bartolo Colon was, but not everyone’s the Bartman. In addition, through four levels of ball last year (A-AA-AAA-Majors) he logged only 70 innings. Sure he was better than a K per inning in the minors where he had a 1.95 ERA, but he only started in AA. Apparently the Red Sox are having second thoughts about his health and see him as a bullpen arm rather than a starter to add to an “iffy” rotation alongside Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez and Eduardo Rodriguez. Sale had a career-worst year and looked “off” last year, Eovaldi disappointed, Perez has never been more than an innings-eater and bottom of rotation guy which leaves Rodriguez as the closest thing to a sure thing in their rote now. He had 19 wins, 203 innings and the softest-contact rate off him of any AL starting pitcher last year. If Sale rebounds to his old self and Eovaldi improves, they might be OK. If those two see the downward spiral continue, the pitching could be a horror show. Either way, Graterol is unlikely to add much depth to the starting rotation, although he looks like he might be a good set-up guy. They will feel the loss of David Price either way. It’s easy to see why their fans are up in arms.
The Red Sox owners counter though that Betts is a free agent after this year. Sure he might have a monster MVP year, but he’s likely to walk away for 2021 anyway in search of a $400M contract. And even if they pony up that money to keep him, the result is likely going to be an albatross of a contract that no one in Boston would like four or five years into a nine or ten years. Ask Anaheim and their fans about that, vis a vis Albert Pujols. They get an outfielder who could develop into something special and will be around for five years anyway. In shedding Price, they unload an aging star who’s already overpaid in context of the league norms and might be terribly so by 2022. They’ve been prudent, they say, and if it costs them a few wins in 2020, let’s face it, it will only narrow the gap between Toronto and them since they weren’t going to be up there with Tampa, let alone New York. Fans should thank them.
It’s a tough call to make. Baseball is in many ways like poker and as Kenny says, “you’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold ’em.” Who is right, who is wrong? L.A. seem to come out clearly ahead, even if Mookie walks away after this season and even if they end up paying an extra $10M or so to the league in “tax” for bumping their payroll. The Red Sox hand was much more difficult to play. On the one hand, they in all likelihood were heading to an about 85 win, third place season out of the post-season, and paying tax on their bloated payroll. After this trade, they now will probably be no better than a .500 team and have every chance of falling behind the Jays into fourth place. But their payroll is trimmed and, if Betts ends up in New York pinstripes next year and if Price continues to show signs of aging; they still have two up-and-coming stars on their roster they wouldn’t have otherwise. Perhaps prudent but still a stinging rebuke to their large, loyal fanbase. One could hardly blame them for forgoing a trip or two to the park this season when it seems clear their team’s bosses have thrown in the towel.
Hold ’em? Fold ’em? It’s more and more a question for a majority of teams and it begs the question is it sensible to go all out to win as much as possible when no one thinks you’re going to be a champion? Owners usually say “no.” Fans usually say “yes!” One might think the 1990 Reds and 2015 Royals would agree.