Red Sox show money matters most with shameful Betts trade
John Henry couldn't find any buyers for his Boca Raton mansion at $25 million last year, so the Boston Red Sox owner eventually lowered his asking price for the 41,000-square foot, seven-bedroom, 19-bathroom palace - complete with a professional quality recording studio, Italian trattoria, and motor court (whatever the hell that is) - to $15 million.
Assuming he finds a buyer, the money from that sale can cover the entirety of his baseball team's 2019 luxury-tax penalties - just over $13 million, according to The Associated Press - with enough left over to buy this perfectly exquisite four-bedroom, five-bath waterfront estate not far from his old place.
Alternatively, Henry can also take less than 2.15% of Liverpool FC's $613 million in revenue in 2019 to pay off his luxury-tax debts. He owns that franchise, too. He also owns The Boston Globe. Forbes recently pegged his net worth at $2.7 billion, which is almost $1 billion more than the gross domestic product of Belize.
Still, Henry simply can't abide those darn luxury taxes, even though they amount to pocket change for him, and despite the fact that doing so would allow his baseball team - which won a World Series title in 2018 thanks, in part, to a league-leading payroll - to vie for a championship again in 2020. He made that clear in September, not long after firing Dave Dombrowski, the architect of that championship-winning roster.
"This year we need to be under the CBT (competitive balance tax) and that was something we've known for more than a year now," Henry said, according to John Tomase of NBC Sports Boston. "If you don't reset, there are penalties, so we've known for some time now we needed to reset as other clubs have done."
Indeed, if the Red Sox were to field a team with a $228 million payroll in 2020, which they were on the hook for as of Monday morning, the club - after exceeding the luxury-tax threshold for a third straight year - would pay about $10 million in taxes. That was, it bears repeating, untenable to a man who owns two of the world's most valuable professional sports franchises.
So, Chaim Bloom, the longtime Tampa Bay Rays executive pegged in October as Dombrowski's replacement, dutifully slashed the team's payroll by about $59 million in one appalling fell swoop, putting the Red Sox well below the $208-million threshold and exposing the cynicism permeating their revamped baseball operations department.
After months of speculation, the Red Sox finally traded superstar right fielder Mookie Betts on Tuesday night, sending the four-time All-Star and 2018 American League MVP to the Dodgers along with veteran left-hander David Price in a three-team blockbuster. Boston landed 23-year-old outfielder Alex Verdugo from Los Angeles and pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol from the Minnesota Twins in the deal, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan, while effectively torpedoing their 2020 chances less than two months away from Opening Day in a shameless cost-cutting gambit that would be unbecoming for a mid-market team, let alone the Boston Red Sox.
Yes, it's true there's only one year remaining on Betts' contract. It's also true that Boston's farm system is weak after being mortgaged in recent years to bolster the major-league roster. Bloom will rattle off all those points while explaining his decision to strip a potential World Series contender of its best player, and his reasons aren't entirely without merit. Still, they weren't the impetus for this deal.
Rather, the Red Sox traded away a franchise icon in his prime because the move made the most financial "sense," which is to say that baseball's current economic landscape gives teams little incentive to field the best possible roster.
You know the deal by now: Highly lucrative television contracts are watering down the importance of gate receipts, allowing front-office executives to service their owners' financial interests without fear of consequences. The Red Sox, in short, made themselves significantly worse to get significantly less expensive because they're going to generate roughly the same amount of revenue anyway.
Can the Red Sox win the World Series in 2020 with Verdugo in right field every day, and with Graterol filling out the fifth spot in their rotation? Sure, it's possible. But there was a much greater chance of making that happen with Mookie Betts in right field and David Price starting every fifth day, and the ostensible advantage of being the Red Sox is that you needn't even entertain such a trade-off, not for financial reasons and not for the sake of securing the future. Prospects are nice and all - Verdugo even put up 2.2 WAR over 106 games in 2019 - but the Red Sox have the money to ensure a championship is never a fantastical notion irrespective of the state of their farm system.
Besides, if the Red Sox really wanted to secure their future, they would've offered Betts a contract extension that approximated fair market value, something in the realm of $375 million given the contracts fellow superstars Mike Trout and Bryce Harper signed last winter. Again, prospects are easy to dream on, but locking up a 27-year-old star - and the game's most valuable player over the last six seasons other than Trout - for the remainder of his prime is a more reliable path to sustained greatness than hoping on Verdugo, who was never a consensus top-25 prospect, and Graterol, who looks alarmingly reliever-ish.
Boston wasn't prepared to offer Betts something fair, though, not with Chris Sale and Xander Bogaerts and Nathan Eovaldi already locked up long term, even though the Red Sox - at the risk of belaboring just how damn rich they've become - are valued at $3.2 billion, according to Forbes. Instead, the club reportedly offered Betts a $300-million extension, almost certainly knowing he'd turn it down, in what smells like a ploy to placate fans. Now the team can insist it tried to keep Betts in Boston for life when it actually had no intention of retaining him even through 2020.
It's not like the Red Sox couldn't have waited, after all. They could've held onto Betts for a few months, sussed out their chances of winning a pennant ahead of the trade deadline, and still gotten something for him regardless. At worst, even if Betts got hurt and was untradeable at the end of July, the Red Sox would've received a compensation pick in the 2021 draft when he signed elsewhere next winter. If winning a World Series was their top priority in 2020, that's what they would've done.
In deciding to move him now, though, the Red Sox - who would've still paid luxury-tax penalties had they kept Betts until the trade deadline - showed what's most important to them: maximizing short-term profits and long-term cost-effectiveness. By swapping out Betts for Verdugo and unloading Price, who's owed $96 million over the next three seasons, the Red Sox trim their total 2020 outlay by about $69 million and slash their long-term commitments considerably. Verdugo and Graterol, meanwhile, represent two potential sources of surplus value moving forward. Just because the trade can be rationalized doesn't mean it's not disheartening and lame.
In the not-too-distant past, the Red Sox would've seen no rationale for trading a player like Mookie Betts, his contract status and their long-term financial outlook be damned, with a World Series in reach. Their commitment to contending, year in and year out, was unassailable. Four championships in a 15-year span evinced that fidelity. Other teams trade away their stars. Other teams care about luxury-tax penalties. The Red Sox only care about winning. Always.
At least, they did.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.
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