Twenty-one months ago, Mookie Betts shot through the outfield at Dodger Stadium, grin as wide as Chavez Ravine. He had just won the World Series. He launched himself into the arms of his Red Sox teammates. Across the field, the Dodgers trudged into their clubhouse to mourn a second straight title loss.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles signed Mookie Betts to a 12-year, $365 million deal, making him the highest-paid player on a World Series contender. In February the Red Sox traded Betts, who is at worst the second-best player in the game, to the Dodgers. Then they tried to convince Boston fans to tune in for a season in which they likely will finish, at best, third in the AL East.
The story of what happened between the 2018 World Series and now is that of one franchise that got it right and another that got it wrong.
In the interim the teams faced similar challenges: Five key members of the Dodgers’ World Series roster could become free agents, as could six key Red Sox players. Each team also controlled a handful of young players it wished to extend. And each team believed it had the core in place to vie for a championship for years to come."
L.A. let all its potential free agents walk, saving itself the 10 years and $300 million infielder Manny Machado got from the Padres, the four years and $80 million lefty Hyun-jin Ryu got from the Blue Jays and the four years and $73 million catcher Yasmani Grandal got from the White Sox. It extended lefty Clayton Kershaw, for three years and $93 million, and signed outfielder A.J. Pollock, for four years and $55 million, and reliever Joe Kelly, for three years and $25 million.
Boston re-signed righthander Nathan Eovaldi for four years and $68 million. It also extended lefty Chris Sale, for five years and $145 million, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts, for six years and $120 million.
Kershaw finished eighth in NL Cy Young voting last year. Pollock and Kelly were busts, but they were busts who combined to cost the Dodgers $17 million. Los Angeles supplemented its talented crop of young players—NL MVP outfielder Cody Bellinger, All-Star first baseman Max Muncy, shortstop Corey Seager, All-Star righty Walker Buehler—by hitting on the move that mattered, and it contained the losses on the ones that didn’t.
Three thousand miles away, Eovaldi compiled a 6.00 ERA through four starts before undergoing surgery to remove loose bodies in his elbow. He returned as a reliever. Sale opened the season with an 8.50 ERA and called his performance “flat-out embarrassing.” In August, he hit the injured list with elbow inflammation but insisted he did not need Tommy John surgery. This March, he had Tommy John surgery. Bogaerts finished fifth in AL MVP voting. Boston possessed among the best young lineups in the game, with right fielder Betts, Bogaerts, third baseman Rafael Devers, left fielder Andrew Benintendi and DH J.D. Martinez. Instead of keeping that group in tact, the team elected to invest in a pair of pitchers with injury histories.
The Dodgers made the playoffs. The Red Sox won 84 games and fired their GM, Dave Dombrowski. Ownership declined to hold a press conference to discuss the decision. Four months later, they fired their manager, Alex Cora, after an MLB investigation concluded that he had masterminded the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing operation in 2017.
All these factors contributed to the reversal of fortunes. But the most important one was not payroll obligations or organizational tumult. It was desire.
The spring after that World Series, the Red Sox reportedly offered Betts—the reigning AL MVP—a 10-year, $300 million extension. Machado, a lesser player in every way, had just signed for that same figure. Betts reportedly asked for 12 years, $420 million. Forbes estimates that Fenway Sports Group, the company through which John Henry owns the Red Sox, is worth $6.6 billion, No. 3 globally among sports properties. The Dodgers did not make the top 10.
The Red Sox said no.
A year later, instead of trying to win the World Series again, they sent Betts to L.A., along with lefty David Price, and let the Dodgers try. Betts had one more season before he was eligible for free agency. Los Angeles used that exclusive negotiating window to lock him up. You can't blame the Red Sox for not predicting that a pandemic would collapse the free-agent market and allow Betts's team to sign him for less than the amount he initially requested. But you can blame them for giving someone else the chance to be that team.
Some day soon, it seems likely that Betts again will be hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy at Dodger Stadium. This time, the Dodgers will be celebrating. And the Red Sox probably won’t even be on the field.