Columnists, Sports

7th Inning Stretch: Breaking down a momentous trade that should have never happened

It finally happened. After months of rumors and a hectic week of conflicting reports, the Boston Red Sox have traded star outfielder Mookie Betts and former Cy Young award winner David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Though the prospect of the Sox dealing Betts has seemed inevitable for some time now, it is still remarkable.

The trade, made official on Monday, sends Betts, Price and $48 million to L.A. for 23-year-old outfielder Alex Verdugo, shortstop Jeter Downs (MLB’s 44th-ranked prospect) and catching prospect Connor Wong. The deal successfully brings Boston well below the luxury tax threshold of $208 million.

In announcing the trade on Monday, Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom praised Betts and Price for their contributions to the 2018 championship team, but placed the emphasis on the future. The trade, Bloom says, puts the Sox in a better position to compete long-term.

“Our mission, our charge as a department, is to compete consistently, year in and year out, and to put ourselves in a position to win as many championships as we can,” Bloom said in a press conference Monday. “That’s behind everything we do. We can only accomplish that goal with a talent base at all levels of the organization that is deep, broad, and sustainable.”

After such a watershed trade, there is a mountain of reactions, criticisms and successes to sort through. In recognition of the six days of chaos between the initial trade reports last Tuesday night and the official completion of the deal on Monday, here are six major takeaways from this historic transaction.

 

This whole thing is bonkers

No matter what one thinks of the process or outcome of the blockbuster trade between the 2018 American League and National League champions, no analysis of the trade can proceed without establishing at the outset that the whole situation is, simply put, stunning. 

In just six seasons, Betts boasts an eye-popping resume: four All-Star selections, four consecutive Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, four consecutive top-10 MVP finishes —  including a landslide victory in 2018 — a career .301 batting average and a 162-game average of 28 homers, 96 runs batted in, 197 hits and 125 runs. 

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Betts is on track for a Hall of Fame career. As Bloom said Monday, Betts was already one of the best players to ever wear a Red Sox uniform.

Given such elite talent, it is just about unprecedented that Betts was traded. With one year and $27 million remaining, he was still of good value to the team, and at only 27 years old, he’s still (somehow) only getting better. Betts is a once-in-a-generation five-tool player who is the consensus second-best player in the game. And now he’s a Dodger.

 

The blame is not Bloom’s

When the Sox hired Bloom, they did so with a clear goal in mind: shed payroll. After years of doling out lucrative contracts to questionably worthy players like Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi –– and even tracing further back to Rusney Castillo, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval –– Boston found itself in a holding pattern of overpaying players and suffering because of it. 

Ownership recognized that it was time to break that habit and they brought in an analytically-minded Yale University graduate with a track record of squeezing wins out of a low-budget team. Bloom did what he was hired to do. He substantially lowered the payroll, partially re-tooled the farm system and brought in some major-league-ready talent (Verdugo) to help the 2020 team. 

The blame for this trade falls squarely on the ownership. Fenway Sports Group, the Sox ownership group led by John Henry and Tom Werner, is worth $6.6 billion. Sure, a $13 million tax hurts, but to suggest that the Sox could not afford to pay Betts the money he will earn in free agency –– likely north of $400 million — is ludicrous. 

Betts has been clear about his desire to test the market. But by continuing to lowball homegrown talent (a la Jon Lester in 2014) while overpaying others, ownership has put itself in this position –– where a deal like this can be spun as necessary. 

 

Chaos aside, Boston benefitted from restructuring the deal

We’ll never know if social media blowback played a role in the restructuring of the trade. When the initial deal was reported on Feb. 4, it was a three-team transaction that also included the Minnesota Twins. The Sox were set to receive Verdugo and Twins prospect Brusdar Graterol, a flame-throwing 21-year-old pitcher from Venezuela. 

During the process of reviewing medical information, the Sox were unhappy with Graterol’s injury history and after much back and forth, the Twins pulled out of the deal. The Sox renegotiated with only L.A. and now have more prospects than previously agreed upon.

Bloom claims that the reaction of fans and media played no role in the process. He’s probably right, but regardless, the Sox came out with a much better haul the second time around. Once they learned that Graterol projects more as a late-innings reliever than a starter, their interest faded. Instead, they got two offensively prodigious and defensively flexible prospects with more long-term upside. 

It was a hectic week to say the least, but the Sox did much better on their second try.

 

The Sox will pay the price for losing Price

Offloading David Price was a smart move for the Sox. At 34 years old and with three years and $96 million remaining on his megadeal, Price was the perfect trade chip. Finances aside, however, his absence will hurt the team on the field.

In 98 starts for the Sox from 2016 to 2019, Price posted a 46-24 record with a 3.84 earned-run average and 609 strikeouts. He had his share of injuries and off-field controversy, but Price was a reliable pitcher and ultimately a postseason hero in 2018. 

The Sox now have a gaping hole in the rotation, and the decision to let Rick Porcello walk in free agency looks foolish. Price may have been a pain to the media and fans, but he was a proven pitcher who, when healthy, remained a solid starter. His teammates loved him, and though he spent too much time on Twitter, many fans did too.

 

There’s no right answer regarding the reporting controversy

As the trade(s) were being reported, many fans, media and players interjected to suggest that nothing should be announced until the deals are official. There were conflicting reports on Twitter about multiple overlapping trades, and the general state of confusion lasted for a week. 

As the players’ union pointed out, it’s unfair to the players themselves to place them at the center of such debacles. Sure, refreshing Twitter for the latest updates from ESPN can be entertaining, but when the tweets concern the livelihood of human beings and their families, the fun is drained. Betts, Price, Verdugo and Graterol spent an entire week not knowing which city they and their families would be calling home for the next year or longer.

On the other hand, the argument that news should not be reported until the deals are official is also counterproductive. It is the job of journalists to report information as it happens –– as accurately as possible. It would be improper to ask Ken Rosenthal to hold off on sharing information he gathers from his sources while Bloom reviews medical files. As we saw this time around, the process of officializing can take days. 

All reporters can do is our best to ensure that the facts we collect and disseminate are correct, and that they are shared in an ethical manner. In that regard, I saw no journalistic norms being violated this past week –– just some impatient fans.

 

At the end of the day, baseball is a business

Finally, it must be addressed that while trades like these are highly emotional, baseball is still a business. The Red Sox are a for-profit organization whose financial success depends on its on-field success. The baseball operations and ownership departments felt confident that this transaction puts both in better position. 

No, that doesn’t make this easier. The Sox still put themselves in a position where they believed that trading their best player was their best option. That remains absurd, and at least for now, an organizational failure. 

But given the self-inflicted circumstances, Bloom made the most of it: he shipped off a 34-year old pitcher and $75 million total in payroll obligations. In return, he received a promising everyday outfielder and two high-quality prospects.

All it cost him was the best player to don a Red Sox uniform in recent memory.

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