Given that the club has won three of the last 16 World Championships, younger baseball fans might not even be aware that Red Sox devotees were considered “long-suffering” not all that long ago.
Well, it seems like eons ago that the Sox won it all in 2018. GM Dave Dombrowski was let go as the club missed the playoffs this season. Their arch-enemies, the Yankees, made it despite a list of injuries that might have even made Sox fans sympathetic. Even worse, the small market Rays beat them out for a wild card berth, and it wasn’t close.
Rays’ GM Chaim Bloom is now in place heading up Boston’s baseball operation, and one of his first orders of business is a big one - what to do with the one of the symbols of the club’s 2018-19 decline, Mookie Betts.
When they won it all in 2018, he was the MVP. When they didn’t in 2019, he was merely.....very good, in the eyes of most onlookers, as well as the publicly available advanced metrics. He went from an outlandish 10.4 WAR in 2018 to 6.6 in 2019. That’s from first in baseball to 5th in the AL, and only second on his club to Xander Bogaerts this past season.
He got off to a pretty slow start in 2019, so slow that I wrote about him here. My conclusion at that time? It was in fact too early to worry about him. He was way better than his early season numbers, and I pegged him for a .290-.400-.500 slash line by season’s end. Not too bad, as he wound up at .295-.391-.524.
Thing is, he was actually quite a bit better than that. Based on the exit speed and launch angle combination of every ball he hit, Betts underachieved significantly on both fly balls and line drives last season.
Though he hit his fly balls at an average if 92.7 MPH, over a half standard deviation above league average, he batted only .335 AVG-.918 SLG (88 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score) in the air. He “should have” hit .352 AVG-1.033 SLG (106).
He under-performed by an even greater margin on liners, actually hitting .591 AVG-.795 SLG (83 Adjusted Line Drive Contact Score) instead of the .658 AVG-.878 SLG (103) supported by his league average range 94.7 MPH.
On all balls in play, he hit .349 AVG-.620 SLG (110 Adjusted Contact Score), but “should have” hit .362 AVG-.672 SLG (124).
(There was one negative in his profile. He was an extreme grounder puller - one of the most extreme in the game - and carries some batting average risk due to the regular infield over-shifts he sees.)
Add back the Ks and BBs - and he has one of the premier K/BB profiles in the game - and Betts should have hit .302-.398-.560 in 2019. That’s worth a little over an extra full win above replacement; let’s say that Betts was a 7.8 WAR player in 2019.
Per my numbers, Betts was the second best hitter, and second best player in the AL this season, behind only Mike Trout. You can see how Trout performed relative to some other AL luminaries, including supposed MVP co-favorite Alex Bregman, here.
So here we are, with one of the very best players in the game, in his prime and available for trade. This doesn’t happen very often.
The dominoes have begun to fall. Bloom, who put together a contender on a budget in Tampa, is in charge. Sox ownership was not happy paying big bucks for a team that didn’t play a game in October last season. One of their highest paid players, J.D. Martinez, decided not to opt out of his contract and hit the free agent market. There are only so many ways the club can save the dollars needed to stay under the luxury tax line, which appears to be very important to club brass.
Contrary to popular belief, Betts is not quite as precious a trade asset as it might seem.
- He has only one year of team control remaining, and
- He will likely be compensated in the $30M range in his remaining year of arbitration eligibility.
Let’s say he’s a 7.0 WAR player in 2020, a reasonable assumption. That makes him worth $55-60M based on the current estimated going rate for a win above replacement. That’s $25-30M of excess value.
Fangraphs’ annual list of the Top 50 Players (in terms of trade value) didn’t include Betts this summer. You needed to have over twice as much excess value to crack the list. You probably aren’t getting any single player on that list (Reds’ RHP Luis Castillo is #50) in return for Betts unless a club gets overly aggressive.
What you might get is prospect quantity, along with one or two current big leaguers that have injury or performance questions attached to them. You aren’t getting a mega-prospect at the level of Tampa’s Wander Franco (#23 on the Fangraphs list).
When you get down to it, how many clubs are in a position financially to trade for a single $30M year of Mookie Betts? They are only a handful of clubs that are even in the discussion, say the Phillies, Angels and maybe a sleeper or two like the Reds or Mets. Betts will not be a Yankee in 2020, I guarantee you. Perhaps in 2021.
How many can handle the dollars and the prospect demands? Even fewer. The Angels, with RF vacant thanks to Kole Calhoun’s free agency, and with outfield stud Jo Adell close to MLB-ready, seem the best fit. That would be one heck of a challenge trade. Betts is a sure thing for one year, Adell is a moderate-risk (for an advanced minor leaguer), extreme high-reward replacement, and on paper, perhaps an overpay for Betts. But even then, pitching is a much larger need for the Halos.
Betts is still elite, and seems to be available. The resolution of his status will clearly be one of the game’s most riveting stories in the coming weeks.