By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The red hot Red Sox open a two-game interleague set with the Phillies Tuesday night at Fenway Park. It’s one of just 15 home dates remaining in the 2019 season.
Sure, the Sox have won five in a row, with 60 percent of those wins coming at the expense of the flightless Orioles, but even if they “win eight in a row and get right back in the race,” it’s going to take more than a blip of a winning streak to make a postseason run a reality. That would require consistent, even dominant play over the next six weeks, something the Sox haven’t been able to produce all season long. And with Chris Sale shut down for the season, what makes you think they’re capable of such a feat?
Boston temperatures may scream “summer,” but autumn days are nigh. Before we know it, baseball will be hunkering down for its winter hibernation. Which means we might as well catch Mookie Betts, one of four Red Sox players to win the MVP award in the last 40 years, before he’s gone.
That his departure is even on the table is unbelievable. When is the last time a contending team traded an MVP in his prime? This isn’t the floundering Marlins gifting Giancarlo Stanton to Derek Jeter’s old team for pennies on the dollar, nor is it a moribund Tigers organization giving Justin Verlander a new lease on life (and a trip to the World Series) in Houston. It’s not the Blue Jays bubble wrapping a banged-up, 30-something Josh Donaldson, taping him up in a Priority Mail flat rate box and shipping him to Cleveland.
This isn’t the Rangers backing off their long-term investment in Alex Rodriguez all those years ago. Remember when we all thought A-Rod was coming to Boston?
This is the 26-year old star of the Red Sox, defending World Series champions and the most successful Major League franchise of the 21st century, with the highest payroll in the game. And we’re getting ready to say goodbye.
The white flag waved in Peter Gammons’ column last week, with an anonymous team official indicating the right fielder had thus far spurned the organization’s advances and left them in the dark on his future plans.
Sometimes the player is hellbent on leaving. Sometimes teams get outbid. Losing an MVP to free agency is one of the greatest indignities an organization can endure. Albert Pujols had just won a World Series in 2011 and will almost certainly have a St. Louis cap on his Hall of Fame plaque, but he left the Cardinals. Like Pujols, Josh Hamilton also chased the big money lure of the Angels. Bryce Harper left D.C. just a few months ago. Boston even has a its own example in Mo Vaughn, the ’95 MVP who departed after the 1998 campaign.
But a trade? Throwing in the towel with a year left on the contract? That’s rich.
There are times when re-signing an MVP doesn’t look too good at the end. See the recent examples of Joe Mauer, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Howard, or old friend Dustin Pedroia.
Every situation is different, but the trend is that former MVPs usually stay put, unless the team falls out of contention or the money is too big. The Red Sox have neither excuse.
A contender trading an MVP in his prime is almost without precedent. I combed Baseball Reference, certain an example would turn up. Before long, I was in the 90’s, with Rickey Henderson heading to the Blue Jays. But he was 33 and the A’s were out of it. How about the 80’s and Dave Parker to the Reds? Yeah, the Cobra had a bit of a problem. So did Keith Hernandez. I had to go back to 1976, when Charlie O. Finley, steward of perhaps the most infamous firesale in baseball history, shipped Reggie Jackson to Baltimore.
So are the Red Sox paying tribute to Charlie O., the man who once nearly put Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi in polyester Boston uniforms? Or is this a baseball decision, bucking a 40-year trend because they once again think they’re smarter than everyone else?
The Sox have a painful familiarity with big contracts for top-of-the-order stud outfielders. They gave one to Carl Crawford, while Jacoby Ellsbury received one from the Yankees. Both players possessed similar skill sets to Betts, and both flamed out early into those long-term deals. But there are differences, beginning with the fact that Crawford and Ellsbury were both several years older than Betts is now when they signed.
If the Red Sox have a chance to pencil an MVP-caliber talent into right field until he’s 35, they have to do it. Put aside whatever enlightened view they may think they have of the situation. This is the club that let Jon Lester walk and passed on Max Scherzer, only to lavish $217 million on David Price the following offseason. I think we’d all love to run the Red Sox like our fantasy teams, sign the optimal players at optimal rates, have up-and-comers fill in for expensive departures, and occasionally hit on a diamond-in-the-rough. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to pay the market rate for some guys.
They did that with Price. They did it with Chris Sale. Both of those contracts are part of the fact that they have the highest payroll in baseball.
So if the Red Sox deem a long term investment in Betts to be foolish, that’s a little tough to hear following the news of Sale’s shutdown with his stats frozen on 11 losses and a 4.40 ERA. It smarts that David Price, who had a 10.59 ERA in four starts before he hit the shelf, is here for three more years at $96 million. It’s maddening that the team committed four years and $67.5 million to Nathan Eovaldi, a pitcher with a history of arm trouble who this year has pitched all of 36.1 innings and posted a 6.69 ERA.
Maybe all of these case studies are part of a commitment to pitching. If that’s the case, why did the bullpen twist in the wind all summer? Why was Andrew Cashner the prize at the deadline? Why is the stock way down on that portfolio?
It’s about asset management. Luckily, the Sox can start crawling out from under some less-than stellar deals Ben Cherington made this winter. With Rick Porcello, Pablo Sandoval, et al no longer eating up space under the luxury tax, there’s no reason they can’t pay an MVP-caliber player in his prime. Unless their idea of asset management is trading Betts to load up on young pitching to make up for the fact that the veterans they’ve signed into their 30’s can’t get onto a mound.
Betts hasn’t exactly cloaked himself in glory this season. The reigning batting champion is hitting .285 and his 21 home runs don’t exactly jump off the page in a rabbit ball year. It makes you wonder if the situation is getting to him. Sure, Andrew Benintendi took half a season to wake up, but historic years from Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts, plus a pretty solid submission from J.D. Martinez, make Bett’s ho-hum line a little puzzling. And yet, he’s still getting on base nearly 40 percent of the time with a slew of extra-base hits and tidy defense.
This is the spot where I once again mention he’s 26.
The Rays have dealt with injuries and down years from key players, too, and they’re still six games up on the Sox for the Wild Card. Boston has spent like Bash Howard from GLOW and hasn’t seen the same return.
The Xander Bogaerts extension was actually pretty great. Why stop there?
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.