For the Red Sox, the Mookie Betts deal is not about baseball so much as it is about money, and theoretical flexibility, and the values of the franchise. For the Dodgers, it’s much more straightforward: One of baseball’s best teams has decided that it’s worth it to get even better.
The Dodgers’ position at the start of the offseason was both deeply enviable and anything but. On one hand, they were fresh off their seventh consecutive division title; on the other, the seventh consecutive division title tends to carry a lot of pressure when none of those seven has resulted in a championship. The winter moved forward with an appropriate sense of urgency. There was early talk that they could be a potential contender for any of the top three free agents. Eventually, there was a serious offer to Gerrit Cole. But January turned to February, the market cleared out, and the Dodgers were set to enter the next season much as they’d left the last one.
Enter the Red Sox, and their desire to shed some salary.
If the deal is made official as it’s been reported, L.A. will get Betts and David Price in exchange for Alex Verdugo (to Boston) and Kenta Maeda (to Minnesota). The Dodgers should receive one year of a stellar generational talent, plus three years of a solid pitcher while preserving all the crown jewels of their loaded farm system. Red Sox fans have plenty of reason to be frustrated. Dodgers fans? Rejoice.
The Dodgers were one of baseball’s best teams before this deal. Their quiet winter may have come across as frustrating, but it certainly wasn’t damning, and the club looked prepared to stretch those seven consecutive division titles into eight (and beyond). Andrew Friedman & Co. have built a baseball perpetual motion machine, seemingly able to win indefinitely, thanks to a deep bench and stocked farm. It’s arguably the strongest foundation in baseball. So the 2020 Dodgers, as they were last week, could have easily matched the 106-win 2019 Dodgers—the winningest team in franchise history.
But, of course, those 106-win 2019 Dodgers lost in the NLDS. That’s not an indictment of the team so much as it is a reminder of the unavoidable chaos of the postseason. There are no sure bets in October. (The Dodgers’ recent existence has been just one long wretched testament to this fact.) But some bets are surer than others, and if the 2020 Dodgers wanted to be just a little more secure than they were in 2019, they needed something else.
Mookie Betts is something else.
The 26-year-old’s talent is hard to overstate. He has already achieved the value of a full baseball life: 42 WAR, equal to the entire career of José Canseco, or Darryl Strawberry, or Red Schoendienst. (At 26!) He became one of MLB’s best players almost as soon as he became part of MLB. His 2018 season was among the statistically strongest in history. (Since 1950, only six players have had a better year: Mantle, Mays, Yastrzemski, Morgan, Ripken, Bonds.) He has never played a full season without a vote for MVP. Betts’ presence will take the Dodgers' lineup from simply the best in the National League to a potentially historic nightmare for pitchers:
Betts settled with the Red Sox on a record $27 million deal to avoid arbitration in early January, and he’ll pursue free agency after this season, with a serious deal sure to come. Boston wanted to move him because of those costs. The Dodgers should be happy to have him because of the talent that merits them.
Then there’s Price, whose role in the deal is primarily tied to his hefty salary. The Dodgers’ willingness to absorb that cost likely helped drive down the asking price for Betts—but the pitcher is hardly dead weight. Price is among the sharpest starters of his generation, and at 34, he’s still plenty capable. Even as he’s struggled to carry the workload that he once did in recent years, he’s remained solidly above average, and he represents a quality option for a pitching staff that’s already full of them.
All of this did come at a cost: Verdugo has the potential to be among the game’s best young talents, though it’s not yet clear exactly how that will manifest at the big-league level. (The 23-year-old outfielder’s first full season would have been last year had he not been stopped short by an oblique injury in August.) Maeda’s a fine pitcher on a markedly club-friendly deal. But, all considered, it’s a startlingly low price to pay for a return that just may shape the contours of the next postseason. If Boston tried to position this as a move in the name of potential future flexibility, L.A. seized it as an opportunity to actually stretch.
The Dodgers want to win. There’s no guarantee that they will. But it’s now that much harder to bet against them.