To date, the 2019 season has been a big disappointment for the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox. They come into Friday with a 61-56 record, 16 games behind the first-place Yankees in the AL East and 5 1/2 games behind the second wild-card spot. The BoSox have won just two of their last 12 games.
Barring a late-season turnaround — which is very possible with this team, I should note — the Red Sox will have some tough decisions to make this winter. Chief among them: Mookie Betts‘ future. Betts will be a free agent after the 2020 season and he’s indicated a willingness to test free agency.
“I love it here in Boston… That doesn’t mean I want to sell myself short of my value,”.
During a Fox Sports interview Friday, MLB.com’s Jon Morosi said there is a growing “belief” within baseball that the Red Sox will listen to trade offers for Betts this coming offseason. Here’s a transcript of those comments:
“I was told by sources today that there is a belief in the industry — now this is not coming from the Red Sox — but they believe at this point in time that the Red Sox will at least listen — yes, listen — to trade offers for Mookie in the winter … Not saying there’s going to be a deal, but from what I’ve been told by sources today, there’s a pretty strong belief at least Mookie will be available.”
First and foremost, I should note this is not a hard rumor. It’s a secondhand report, if anything. Morosi is passing along what one of his sources believes will happen. That is hardly a definitive “the Red Sox will shop Betts” report. The star outfielder being a trade candidate does pass the sniff test, however.
Secondly, of course the Red Sox will listen to trade offers for Betts this winter. Every team listens to offers for every player at all times. General managers would not be doing their job if they didn’t at least listen. Some players are more available than others though, and Betts may become more available this winter.
However, there is almost no way the Red Sox could trade Betts this offseason and be a better team for it in 2020. Mookie is on the short list of the best players in baseball, and unless Boston gets a superstar in return or a collection of prospects who reach their ceiling right away, trading Betts makes the Red Sox worse in the short-term.
What about the long-term though? That would be the primary motivation for a trade, right? Betts will be a free agent following next season, and for the Red Sox to actually trade him, they would have to strongly believe they won’t be able to re-sign him. Trading Betts sounds crazy, but let’s talk this out, shall we?
What’s market value for Betts?
Free agency is pretty player unfriendly right now. That could change between now and the time Betts becomes a free agent, but with the current collective bargaining agreement in place until December 2021, I don’t expect any major market changes. The owners are going to milk this for all its worth.
Betts is, undoubtedly, a superstar player who’s already won an MVP award and shown he can be the centerpiece of a big market world championship team. He will hit free agency at age 28 — Betts has an October birthday and will play the entire first season of his free agent contract at age 28 — so he’s right smack in his prime. He is awfully desirable.
Manny Machado ($30 million annually) and Nolan Arenado ($33.4 million annually) showed elite players can still secure annual salaries north of $30 million in this climate. Bryce Harper came in a little below that ($25.4 million), but he received 13 years. Someone with Mookie’s ability and accomplishments is easily a $30-plus million per year player.
Earlier this year, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that Betts rejected an eight-year, $200 million extension offer from the Red Sox following the 2017 season. He’s made $30.5 million since then ($10.5 million in 2018 and $20 million in 2019) and I think he’s looking at eight years and $32 million per year in free agency, at a minimum.
Money may be tight in Boston
At least under the luxury tax threshold, that is. The Red Sox had the highest payroll in baseball last season ($239.5 million) and they had the highest payroll in baseball on Opening Day this season ($236.2 million). Chances are they will have one of the highest payrolls in baseball again next season. Here are their expiring contracts:
In terms of luxury tax dollars, the Red Sox have $38.53 million coming off the books this winter. Sounds like a lot! Except Chris Sale’s luxury tax number increases from $15 million to $25.6 million next year, and Xander Bogaerts‘ increases from $12 million to $20 million. So nearly half the money coming off the books will go to Sale’s and Bogaerts’ raises. But that’s not all.
Betts has a sizable arbitration raise coming his way — he’s making $20 million this year and is looking at $30 million or so next year — while Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi, and Eduardo Rodriguez are due smaller (but not insignificant) arbitration raises as well.
It’s worth noting J.D. Martinez could opt out of his contract following this season., but it is possible. Martinez opting out would free up $22 million in luxury tax payroll each of the next three years, which would help the Red Sox keep Betts. Boston would also be short a bat in the middle of the order and would have to replace him.
Aside from Betts, the Red Sox do not have any significant contracts coming off the books following next season. I suppose Martinez could opt out then — his contract allows him to opt out following 2019 or 2020 — or Dustin Pedroia could retire due to his knee trouble and leave money on the table, but it seems unlikely. Clearly, payroll will be tight in Boston for the foreseeable future.
The luxury tax threshold increases slightly from $206 million to $208 million next year. The third luxury tax tier will be set at $248 million and that tier comes with the harshest penalties. The Red Sox figure to be a repeat luxury tax offender in 2020, and their tax rate could jump as high as 95 percent. No owner wants to pay that.
The Red Sox have treated the third luxury tax tier as a hard salary cap this season — it’s one reason they didn’t re-sign Craig Kimbrel — and, if they operate the same way going forward, re-signing Betts to a long-term contract will take jumping through some serious financial hoops.
What teams could be interested?
Every single team wants Betts. He’s a great player and he’s marketable as hell. He is a franchise player, through and through.
Realistically though, only contending teams will be willing to trade for Betts this offseason. He’s entering his walk year and has expressed interest in testing free agency. No rebuilding club will give up a boatload of prospects to add Mookie for a season they don’t expect to contend in only to lose him to free agency, you know?
Assuming the AL East rival Yankees and Rays are off the table as trade partners — a safe assumption, that is — these five clubs stand out as possible trade partners for Betts this winter:
- Atlanta Braves: They have oodles of young pitching to offer and a great big opening in right field next year.
- Cleveland Indians: Betts would fit perfectly. Would the Indians part with Shane Bieber to make it happen?
- Houston Astros: They don’t need an outfielder, really, but Betts would make them an even more dangerous team.
- Los Angeles Dodgers: Imagine Betts and Cody Bellinger in the same outfield? They have the prospects to deal, too.
- Minnesota Twins: They don’t need an outfielder either, but again, Betts makes them more dangerous.
Other teams could of course jump in the race — I wouldn’t rule out Cubs head honcho Theo Epstein coming up with a way to add Betts despite an underwhelming farm system, and you can’t sleep on the Padres either — but those five clubs look like the most serious candidates to trade for Betts this winter. That’s assuming he actually hits the trade market.
On one hand, Betts is a star player who could legitimately swing the balance of power in a division race, a pennant race and a World Series. The Red Sox can — and surely would — demand a huge return. One the other hand, the acquiring team will only get one year of Betts, which limits his trade value. He’ll fetch a lot, but maybe not as much as you’d think.
The guess here — and I emphasize this is just a guess — is the Red Sox will keep Betts this offseason and try to win with him in 2020. They are all-in with their current roster. The core is still good enough to contend and keeping Mookie could help Boston secure another World Series title. Try to win with him while you can.
Much like the Jacob deGrom trade rumors last summer and Max Scherzer trade rumors earlier this year, I suspect we’re heading for a winter of Betts trade rumors. He’s an obvious trade candidate and teams will want him. Like deGrom and Scherzer, I don’t expect Betts to actually go anywhere. He’s too important to the Red Sox and they are in win-now mode. I expect a bunch of trade chatter but no actual trade.