Ten months ago, Red Sox ace Chris Sale took a seat before a team-branded backdrop and explained why he had agreed to spend five more seasons in Boston.
“We win,” he said. “Especially in this day and age, when half the league isn’t trying to win anything, and we have a team that’s trying to win every year, that says a lot.”
Sorry, Chris. On Tuesday, the Red Sox said something else: Maybe next year.
In a dereliction of his duty as steward of one of the sport’s most storied franchises, team owner John Henry signed off on a deal sending right fielder Mookie Betts, Boston’s best young player since Ted Williams, to the Dodgers. Accompanying him will be No. 3 starter David Price. In exchange the Red Sox will reportedly receive L.A. outfielder Alex Verdugo and Twins pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol. Harry Frazee would call this return light.
We couldn’t have re-signed Betts, the Red Sox will insist. They needed to get something for him before he hit free agency. Don’t believe it for a second.
This was the final pull of an untangling that began a year ago, when the team reportedly offered Betts a 10-year, $300 million extension. Betts had just completed an MVP season. Bryce Harper, a lesser player by every measure, had nine months earlier agreed to $330 million over 13 years—as a free agent. Mike Trout—the only player in baseball who is clearly superior to Betts—had taken a 12-year, $426.5 million extension.
Betts reportedly asked for $420 million over 12 years.
Henry’s Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Red Sox, Liverpool FC and Roush Fenway Racing, among other properties, was recently valued at $6.6 billion. Forbes ranked it No. 3 in the world—$500 million ahead of Yankee Global Enterprises. The Dodgers didn’t even make the top 10.
Henry said no.
This is a mistake on every level. It’s hard to play baseball well. It’s harder to do it in the piranha tank of Boston. Betts has proven he can do both. He is a leader in the clubhouse—one whose presence would surely be helpful as the Red Sox navigate a season marred by an MLB investigation into whether they used the replay room to steal signs illegally in 2018. And now Henry has thrust new lieutenant Chaim Bloom into an impossible situation, welcoming him to Boston by ensuring that the fan base hates him.
It was almost poetic: This trade helped clean up the mess the Red Sox made the last time they undervalued their own star. Jon Lester, the team’s second-round pick in 2002, excelled in Boston, recovering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma in ’07 in time to help lead the team to a title. He weathered a case of the yips and the pressure that accompanies any brilliant young athlete in Boston. He flirted annually with 200 innings, made three All-Star teams and won another World Series in ’13. He had a career postseason ERA of 2.11. He expressed interest in taking a hometown discount when he reached free agency before the ’15 season, at age 30. The Red Sox offered him $70 million over four years.
“Virtually all of the underpaid players are under 30, and virtually all of the overpaid players are over 30,” Henry gloated in April 2014. “Yet teams continue to extravagantly overpay for players above the age of 30.”
The Cubs eventually got Lester for six years and $155 million. Two years later, the Red Sox, needing a starter, signed a 30-year-old Price to a seven-year, $217 million deal. Price spent the subsequent four seasons feuding with writers, feuding with broadcasters and answering questions about whether he would ever win a postseason start. Finally, after his team lost each of his first 10 tries, as he compiled a 6.03 ERA, Price picked up three victories in the 2018 playoffs, as the Red Sox won the World Series.
That’s right: Lest we forget, the Red Sox won the World Series two years ago, with largely the same team that was scheduled to report to Fort Myers, Fla., next week. That’s what makes this move so dismal. It’s bad enough when a club that just lost 100 games tries to start over. This is a championship-level collection of players that is being dismantled because its absurdly wealthy owner doesn’t feel like paying it.
When the Red Sox traded Betts, they said two things to their fans: Maybe next year. And: Screw you.