The Red Sox missed the playoffs a year after lifting a World Series trophy. We know this. Enough digital ink has been spilled about how big of a letdown that is for a team that seemed poised to dominate for the next few years, including by yours truly. For Boston, it's now time to look forward to see what can be salvaged out of a lost year, and what changes must be made to return to a competitive level.
Now, I'll come clean with you, dear reader. I will never claim to be an expert in the realm of baseball. But even the most casual of sports fans understand this basic principle: keeping good players while they're at the height of their careers is conducive to winning, even if one individual can't carry a team in baseball like they can in other sports.
So all this talk about the Red Sox potentially off-loading Mookie Betts, the 2018 AL MVP and one of the game's best two-way players, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Even after hearing the rumors, the possibility still felt like a long shot, because... Well, who in their right mind trades an MVP-caliber player in his prime a year after winning a championship?
The possibility gained far more credibility on Monday, when team president and CEO Sam Kennedy told reporters the team would like to keep both J.D. Martinez and Betts, but it would be difficult because of their contracts.
Martinez is his own special case; he holds a player option that he can use to get out of his contract in each of the next two offseasons, and should he opt in for 2020, he'd be owed $23.75 million. The Red Sox don't hold complete control over his fate like they do Betts. Martinez seems likely to opt in, given how dry the free agent market was last year, and Boston may yet trade him. But Betts is the bigger decision, one they can't afford to get wrong, even in a baseball-obsessed city like Boston.
As everyone who doesn't have a direct stake in the team's bottom line will tell you, trading Betts would be the only way the Sox get this wrong. He didn't have an MVP-caliber year this year, but he was still one of the five best all-around players in baseball. He hit .295 with 29 home runs and 80 RBI. His WAR (6.8) was seventh among all position players. He remains one of baseball's very best right fielders and is still prone to offensive explosions outside of his normal consistency.
Betts is as ideal as it gets off the field as a member of the Boston community and a family man who has never been in the tabloids for anything outside of his baseball and charity work. In four full seasons in Boston, he's played at least 136 games every year. Consistency, durability, big-play ability, quality of character- Betts checks every box. Every team in the league (except the Marlins, I guess) would be interested in Betts were he to hit the trade market.
The factor that would drive a potential trade of Betts wouldn't be a desire for competitiveness or a reflection of how the team views their superstar. It would be economical, pure and simple. Boston fans have watched Betts grow in the farm system since he was drafted in 2011, since he made his first appearances in the big leagues in 2014. They've no doubt had numerous chances to trade him during his rise for "win-now talent", the same way Dave Dombrowski flipped half of the farm system for a championship run. They never did. Now that he's fully realized as an elite player, and one who seems poised to remain that way for a long time... they're going to trade him to save their money, of which they have quite a lot?
Martinez was a free-agent signing. So was David Price. Chris Sale was a trade acquisition. They all played major roles in bringing a championship to Boston, but it's a city that worships the homegrown heroes, guys like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaers and Rafael Devers and, of course, Betts. It would make sense for Boston to try and trade Martinez or Sale or Price-- they come with a massive financial investment that didn't pay off this year and every aspect of the season gave the impression that it wouldn't get that much better. But Betts is more than just a guy who helped win a ring. He's never worn another uniform, and everyone watched as he developed into the superstar a fifth-round pick was never supposed to be. He's not like the other guys.
Boston may believe they can't afford to pay Betts with all their other contracts, but if they trade Betts, the impact will reach far beyond their accounting books.