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MLB Notes: Revisiting the Mookie Betts trade, and all its ramifications

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How much different would things be today if the Red Sox had never traded Mookie Betts?

So much has changed that it’s impossible to know for sure, but for better or worse the decision forever altered the trajectories of two franchises and left a sour taste in the mouths of Red Sox fans that lingers to this day.

Even after three and a half years there is still disagreement over the deal’s ultimate legacy. Was it a disaster for Boston or a difficult decision that was ultimately worth making? Was it a blunder of Ruthian proportions or a gamble that could eventually lay the foundation for the next great Red Sox contender?

It’s a complicated question with no simple answer, but those who look at it through the lens of “Betts vs. No Betts” aren’t seeing the full picture.

Let’s break it down.

First, the background. The Red Sox traded Mookie Betts and right-hander David Price to the Dodgers in exchange for outfielder Alex Verdugo and prospects Jeter Downs and Connor Wong on Feb. 10, 2020. The Dodgers also agreed to pay half of the remaining $96 million owed to Price over the last three years of his contract.

The reason Betts was available in the first place is because the 2018 American League MVP was one year away from hitting free agency, and at the time the two sides were far apart in contract negotiations. Rather than risk losing Betts in free agency for only a compensatory draft pick, and believing the Red Sox were not set up to contend during the early years of Betts’ imminent mega-deal, newly hired Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom decided to execute the blockbuster trade.

The Red Sox would not have been good in 2020 whether Betts was still in Boston or not. Chris Sale would have still missed the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Eduardo Rodriguez would have still been sidelined with COVID-19 induced myocarditis and Price likely would have still opted out of the season, as he did in Los Angeles. Verdugo was actually Boston’s most productive position player, but even if Betts was better, he wouldn’t have been enough to carry the Red Sox and their shambolic pitching staff to the playoffs.

He might have at least been good enough to help the Red Sox win a couple more games though, which means the club likely wouldn’t have been able to draft top prospect Marcelo Mayer at No. 4 overall the following summer. They also might not have been able to land Garrett Whitlock in the ensuing Rule 5 Draft.

It’s impossible to know how Betts’ free agency might have played out had he spent 2020 in Boston. It’s possible he may have been moved midseason, or he could have signed in Los Angeles or someplace else that winter, which would have been an obvious worst-case scenario. For simplicity sake, let’s assume Betts might have re-signed in Boston for the same 12-year, $365 million deal he eventually got in Los Angeles, because it’s more fun to imagine the possibilities had he stuck around.

So if Betts (and Price) were still here in 2021, how might that season have been different? Bloom believes the club likely wouldn’t have made the playoffs, much less come within two games of reaching the World Series.

“Had we not made that deal, I don’t think we get to the ALCS in 2021,” Bloom told The Boston Herald on Friday. “We obviously didn’t take that all the way, and that’s the goal, but there’s a lot of good things that have happened in that time that may not have happened had we not made that move.”

Why? That season Betts would have been due $22.5 million according to Spotrac.com. Factoring in the additional $16 million the Red Sox would’ve owed Price, that’s $38.5 million tied up that could have been used on other free agents.

For reference, in 2021 the Red Sox spent a total of $24.85 million for the upcoming season on five free agents, among them Kiké Hernández and Hunter Renfroe, two of that season’s most productive players. The Red Sox finished with a $207.6 million payroll, ranking No. 6 in MLB and falling just short of that season’s $210 million luxury tax threshold.

Unless they’d pulled off some other massive salary dump, the Red Sox almost certainly would have gone over the luxury tax. That would have cost owner John Henry a little extra money, but the bigger consequence would have been the compensatory pick Boston got for losing Eduardo Rodriguez would have been after the fourth round instead of the second, meaning the club probably wouldn’t have been able to draft outfielder Roman Anthony (now Baseball America’s No. 19 overall prospect) that summer.

Betts’ presence would have altered Boston’s decision-making on everything from there. Would the Red Sox have approached 2022 the same way, and might they have been better than a 78-84 club? Would the Red Sox have still signed Rafael Devers to his 10-year, $313.5 million extension, and who else might have come and gone? Even if Betts would have been a more productive outfielder than Verdugo, it does look like the Red Sox have something in Wong, who could be Boston’s starting catcher for the next four years.

Like I said, it’s all very complicated.

It could be years before a verdict on the Betts trade can eventually be reached. Bloom bet his career and legacy on the idea that trading Betts could allow the Red Sox to lay the foundation for long-term success, and even if it hasn’t all come to fruition yet, the core he’s worked so hard to build is beginning to take shape.

Could the Red Sox have taken a different path, kept Betts and rebuilt the farm system on the fly anyway? Or would the Red Sox have wound up like the Los Angeles Angels, who have already wasted Mike Trout’s entire prime and face some dark years even with the future Hall of Famer locked up long-term?

We’ll never know for sure, but there’s no denying the trade’s impact and its ripples will continue to be felt for years to come.

Ohtani’s crushing setback

Shohei Ohtani is a once in a lifetime talent. Every night it seems like he accomplishes another feat unprecedented in baseball history, and this offseason the two-way superstar was set to earn a record-shattering deal in free agency.

Until this week, when Ohtani got news that could legitimately cost him hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Los Angeles Angels announced Wednesday night that Ohtani has a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament and won’t pitch again this season. Ohtani hasn’t indicated if he will undergo surgery, but the 29-year-old already had Tommy John surgery once back in 2018, so its unclear when he’ll be able to pitch again, if at all.

That uncertainty could have massive ramifications for Ohtani’s future.

Ohtani’s status as an elite hitter and pitcher is what made him potentially the most valuable commodity in baseball history. If an elite hitter is worth more than $300 million and a top of the rotation starter around that much as well, then Ohtani could have reasonably commanded a deal in the ballpark of $500-600 million.

Even if he never pitches again Ohtani is still one of the best hitters in baseball and will be paid accordingly, but given that Aaron Judge got “only” $360 million in free agency after delivering one of the best offensive seasons in MLB history, he’s still looking at a big loss.

Maybe Ohtani will settle for a massive but not record-smashing deal, or maybe he’ll negotiate an opt-out or incentive structure that could still maximize his value in case he is able to get back to being a Cy Young contender once more.

One can hope, but either way, this week’s news was a massive bummer, both for Ohtani and the sport as a whole.

Tito nearing the finish

Terry Francona has put together a Hall of Fame resume. The former Red Sox manager led Boston to two World Series championships, including the curse-breaking cast of characters who finally broke through in 2004, and over the past decade has enjoyed an incredible second act in Cleveland.

Now it sounds as if he’s approaching the end.

Though he stopped short of officially announcing his retirement, Francona indicated this season will most likely be his last. Francona has battled numerous health issues in recent years and after the season plans to undergo shoulder replacement surgery and a pair of hernia operations.

“I need to go get healthy for my life, and this lifestyle is just too difficult,” Francona told reporters on Wednesday, per the Associated Press. “I also know how I feel about doing the job a certain way, and I don’t think I can necessarily do that anymore. And that bothers me.

“I don’t want to fib to people (about my future), but I also don’t want the last six weeks to be about me. The focus has to be on the players.”

If this is truly the end for Francona, then it’s been one heck of a ride.

The 64-year-old currently ranks 13th all-time in career managerial wins with 1,935 in 23 seasons, and stands behind only Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy among active managers. He’s also among only 25 managers all-time to win multiple World Series, and though he’s probably best known for his tenure in Boston, Francona also stands as Cleveland’s all-time winningest manager and came within a game of leading that club to a World Series championship in 2016.

White Sox clean house

You wouldn’t think it, but the Chicago White Sox have improbably been among the most stable organizations in terms of front office continuity this century. Until this past week they’d had more or less the same people running baseball operations for 22 years, but even Jerry Reinsdorf, the most loyal owner in American professional sports, finally ran out of patience amid this mess of a season.

This week the White Sox announced that executive vice president Kenny Williams and general manager Rick Hahn had been fired. Williams has been the White Sox top baseball decision-maker since 2001 and Hahn took over the general manager title in 2013. Under Williams’ leadership the White Sox won the 2005 World Series, but since then have only made the playoffs three times in 18 seasons and have now collapsed in the midst of what was supposed to be a contending window.

This season’s White Sox currently sit fourth in the moribund AL Central and entered Saturday with the fourth-worst record in MLB at 50-79. The organization has consistently failed to develop homegrown talent, and recently there have also been a handful of former players who have criticized the club for the way it conducts business.

Taking all of that into account this week’s moves were obviously long overdue, but it was still shocking to see Reinsdorf actually make a change. Still, the 87-year-old has a long track record of meddling with the baseball operations department, so the biggest question isn’t who will end up taking over the White Sox, but whether that person will be given the autonomy to actually turn things around.

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