Unpacking the Mookie Betts Trade and What it Means for the 2020 Boston Red Sox

February 4, 2020 will go down as one of the most significant days in the history of the Boston Red Sox: it was the night that they dealt both Mookie Betts and David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a three-team trade.

That tweet felt like a dagger going straight through the heart of Red Sox Nation. The 2018 American League Most Valuable Player recipient, who was also one of Boston’s most popular athletes over the last several years, was being traded away after the team and Betts couldn’t agree on a contract extension.

Prior to the trade, there were reports that the Red Sox and Betts were extremely far apart in their negotiations on a contract extension. According to the reports, the team approached Betts with a 10 year, $300 million deal, which Betts subsequently countered with a 12-year, $420 million deal. That cavernous gap caused the contract negotiations to fall through and, ultimately, led to Betts being traded to Los Angeles on Tuesday night.

The machinations of the trade became more complicated when a third team, the Minnesota Twins, joined the fold. However, that third team would prove beneficial to Boston and their new general manager, Chaim Bloom. He was able to leverage Minnesota’s need for starting pitching to involve them in the deal with the Dodgers. ESPN‘s Jeff Passan was the first to report the two key pieces going to Boston as part of the three-team deal.

The Red Sox received exactly what they have been desperately seeking for several years: young, cost-controlled players to help rebuild their roster. Alex Verdugo, 23, is under team control through 2024 while Brusdar Graterol, 21, is under team control through 2025.

What exactly the Red Sox will get out of those two players remains to be seen, however. Verdugo will likely slide right into Boston’s starting lineup and take over in right field for Betts. In 2019 Verdugo hit .294 with 12 home runs in 106 games with the Dodgers. He has been long touted as one of the Dodgers’ best prospects, but injuries combined with a crowded major-league roster slowed his progress over the last few years.

The 21-year-old Graterol is even more of a mystery than Verdugo. Graterol was the Twins’ highest-rated pitching prospect before the trade and touts a lively arm and a sinkerball that can reach triple digits in velocity. Fans may remember Graterol from when he made history last September, becoming the hardest-throwing Twins pitcher since the tracking era (2008) after hurling a 101.9 MPH sinkerball.

However, Graterol’s build has some evaluators concerned about his conditioning and dieting habits. He stands at 6-foot-1, and his weight is currently trending upwards of 220 pounds. Having extra weight, particularly for a velocity-favored pitcher, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s not monitored carefully it can be a detriment to a player’s career. The Red Sox know all-too-well the problems that can arise from a player not being in shape given everything they went through with Pablo Sandoval, who will likely receive a nice $5 million buyout from those same Red Sox this season.

Yes, the Red Sox are still, in some fashion, paying for Sandoval in 2020.

The outlook for the 2020 Red Sox has now drastically changed. The team just shed two of its most prominent players, and the fallout from that will not go unnoticed. Verdugo can, conceivably, slide right into the starting right-field position, but is he truly ready to be an everyday major-league player?

Graterol has tremendous makeup and could eventually be a key piece to their pitching staff, but, as of right now, he’s just 21 with stamina and conditioning questions that need to be addressed first and foremost.

Price was a colossal nuisance to Boston management and fans alike with his poor attitude and numerous off-field distractions. That said, he was still a pillar of the team’s starting rotation during his time in Boston, and his absence creates a big hole in that rotation.

Here is what Boston’s starting rotation currently looks like:

1.) Chris Sale (if healthy)

2.) Eduardo Rodriguez

3.) Nathan Eovaldi (if healthy)

4.) Martin Perez

5.) ???

The “if healthy” designation next to Sale and Eovaldi may come off as a bit discourteous, but it’s a valid concern with both pitchers. A depleted starting rotation, along with a highly questionable bullpen shouldn’t fill many Boston fans with a lot of hope, as they attempt to compete with the New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, and Tampa Bay Rays, as well as the fortified Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins in the American League.

The Red Sox have, without question, dropped significantly in the AL power rankings, and they will have a hard time competing with the more complete rosters of their competitors.

Now that the dust has settled on the trade, fans find themselves wondering who deserves what share of the proverbial “blame pie” between ownership and Mookie Betts himself.

On one hand, Betts showed little-to-no desire to sign an extension and proclaim that he wanted to finish his career in Boston. In fairness, he might have been more willing to stay with the Red Sox had they attempted to pony up and pay him what he felt he was worth. While $420 million sounds egregious for any one player the fact remains that Betts is simply following what the market is dictating.

The majority of the blame falls on ownership and management, and it’s not because of the trade itself. It was inevitable that Betts was going to be traded, and the team managed to at least receive young talent, which is something they have desperately needed for a long time. However, the trade was only necessary because of the position that John Henry and top team brass put themselves in to begin with.

Now, former general manager Dave Dombrowski handed out lucrative and excessive contracts to Eovaldi and Sale following their 2018 World Series victory. In the years prior, Dombrowski also signed Price and J.D. Martinez to big-money contracts. From the 2015 season through the 2018 season, the Red Sox spent boatloads of money on free agents and players they acquired via trades. While many fans would like to lay all of the blame on Dombrowski, it’s important to remember that the team’s principal owner, John Henry, agreed to sign off on all of that spending. This is the same John Henry who has now changed his tune and decreed that the team shed salary to fall under the luxury tax threshold.

Henry and Dombrowski put the Red Sox in this position. They played fast and loose with the team’s payroll to win in the short term. The only positive is that they did indeed win in the short term. The 2018 World Series victory was a product of the roster that Dombrowski assembled.

That championship window is now closed, Dombrowski is no longer with the Red Sox, and Bloom is now tasked with rebuilding for the future. Trading Betts was never going to be a popular move, but it’s the first step towards helping the Red Sox reset for the foreseeable future. The team can now get back under the luxury tax threshold, resting the penalties which can be extremely significant as it pertains to draft picks and international bonus pool money.

The team now has flexibility moving forward with more money to spend and fewer penalties. The cost of what it took to get them back on track, however, will forever remain as a black cloud over Boston’s ownership group.

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