The inevitable trade of Mookie Betts was finally completed as the Boston Red Sox sent him and David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers for outfielder Alex Verdugo. The Minnesota Twins sent their top pitching prospect, Brudstar Graterol to Boston. Kenta Maeda went from Los Angeles to Minnesota.
This deal has elicited over-the-top reactions with some fans and media entities going so far as to compare it to the sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees a century ago.
That catastrophic deal aside, let’s take an objective look at this trade.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are punting the 2020 season.
Is this news?
They’ve been telegraphing their decision to do so since they fired Dave Dombrowski, made clear they were not spending big to fill glaring holes, were intent on reallocating funds and getting their payroll under control.
Aesthetically, trading Betts might not be preferable, but it was necessary when accounting for the various moving parts. What good does he do them in 2020 when they have done nothing to improve from their disappointing 2019 campaign; have a new head of baseball operations in Chaim Bloom whose sensibilities trend more to spreading money out and holding onto prospects, draft picks and international spending money; needed to fire their manager because of his role in the Houston Astros and Red Sox sign-stealing; and had a bloated payroll with a declining farm system?
When a club is trading a star the magnitude of Betts, it’s next-to-impossible to get a return the fans and media will be happy with. When that star is set to be a free agent at the end of the season and will cost as much as $400 million to re-sign, getting even an acceptable return is difficult.
If he was not going to sign an extension and the Red Sox – trapped in the American League East with the loaded Yankees and talented Tampa Bay Rays – knew that a championship run was unrealistic, why bother? Betts starting the season with a compromised Red Sox team was a risky distraction. Sure, they could trade him at midseason, but would probably get less than the offer on the table. The attachment of Price’s contract was a financial windfall for an aging pitcher with a lot of wear on his tires who was not well-liked in Boston. They could have held onto Betts and hoped he would return after testing free agency, but that could leave them with nothing.
Rather than hold out for a package of prospects listed among the best in the arbitrary minor-league rankings, the Red Sox chose to get two well-regarded young players, clear Price’s salary, and get this over and done with so they can deal with the next issue on their list: hiring a manager to replace Alex Cora.
If Betts is dead set on trying free agency, the Red Sox can sign him after 2020 for the same amount of money it would have cost them to get an extension and they’ll also have Verdugo and Graterol.
As for the fan reaction to the trade, the club cannot worry about that. It wasn’t that long ago that the most hardened, jaded and worn down denizens of Fenway Park would have traded anything and anyone to get that elusive World Series win. They won it in 2004; won another one three years later; and suddenly, anything short of a preseason projection for a championship was not good enough. Most non-Yankee fans would be thrilled with one championship in their lifetime. The Red Sox have won four in 15 years. Is it too much for the organization to say they’re retooling and want to get the payroll under control after allowing Dombrowski to spend whatever was needed in money and prospect capital to win another title in 2018?
Betts is one of the top five players in baseball, but he was essentially useless to the Red Sox given the club’s construction and realistic expectations. It was better to settle this now, take the beating and move on. All in all, they did well in getting Verdugo, Graterol and clearing half of Price’s money off their ledger. To insinuate that John Henry and Tom Werner are being “cheap” is preposterous. They’ll spend to get better when the time is right. That time is not now.
Los Angeles Dodgers
After consecutive World Series losses in 2017 and 2018 and then getting bounced by the Washington Nationals in the 2019 National League Division Series, there was an argument for the Dodgers to drop a bomb in the clubhouse and make a dramatic change to shuffle the deck. Instead, they sat by quietly and made no major acquisitions…until trading for one of the best players in baseball and a starting pitcher who should thrive in the Dodgers’ sheltered, laid-back, stat-centric, defense-first environment. Boston always seemed slightly too intense for him. In Los Angeles, he won’t live every day hearing about how he wilts every time he faces the Yankees…at least until October.
As talented as Verdugo is, that he and Maeda were the only pieces the Dodgers surrendered to get Betts is amazing and shows the value of not panicking to quell fan anger. Verdugo was an extra piece on a team loaded with outfielders. In context, it’s a small price to pay. Maeda was versatile and productive for the Dodgers, but they squeezed out about as much as anyone could have reasonably expected from an unheralded signing from Japan. He’s not making a lot of money ($3 million per year through 2023) and he’s replaceable.
Had the Dodgers surrendered a massive prospect haul for Betts and not taken Price, the deal could have been scrutinized further. Did they need Betts? Not desperately. They have sufficient depth and versatility that they would score enough runs to stay in contention through the trade deadline when they can address specific needs with their deep farm system. This, however, was a preseason strike to get the player who would have been on every contender’s list at the deadline. He improves an already superlative defense; he adds power, speed and has postseason experience. Singing for his free agent supper puts the pieces in place for another Most Valuable Player-caliber year. The Dodgers have the money to retain him, but if it doesn’t make sense, they will let him walk without having surrendered the entire farm system to acquire him.
Trading prospects – even the “top” prospect in an organization – is rarely done without reason. The Twins, under president of baseball operations Derek Falvey, do not make moves haphazardly. Rest assured, there is a reason they traded Graterol for a middling arm like Maeda. It’s just hard to see what that reason is.
There is an assessment floating around that Graterol is better suited to the bullpen. He throws in the triple-digits, averaging 99-mph on his fastball and sinker. Still, it’s not out of line to ask why the Twins would trade him for Maeda. They certainly had a need for another arm, but the best pitching prospect in the organization is an uneven return for someone like Maeda. It’s not crazy to compare this move to one the Twins made at the 2010 trade deadline trading top catching prospect Wilson Ramos to the Washington Nationals for reliever Matt Capps. This failed deal was a main reason then-GM Bill Smith got fired. The explanation that they already had a star catcher in Joe Mauer did not justify trading their best prospect at a difficult-to-fill position for a mediocre relief pitcher.
Even well-regarded prospects have concerns. It’s important to remember that the prospect assessments are not from the clubs themselves, but from outside entities who are not privy to all the information that a club has on its own talent.
The decision to trade such a key young player for Maeda is the most puzzling part of a deal that is understandable from the perspectives of the main cogs: the Red Sox and Dodgers.