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The Mookie Betts trade makes me sad for baseball

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The blockbuster deal between the Dodgers and Red Sox shows us that baseball is broken.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Mookie Betts was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday. Out of context, this is not a surprise; stars are traded often in baseball, and this isn’t the first time the Dodgers and Boston Red Sox have linked up for a blockbuster deal — and may not be the last, given that both Andrew Friedman and Chaim Bloom worked together for a number of years in Tampa.

But while the subtleties of a deal can make most stars-for-prospects trades look a little more palatable, the consequences of this three-team swap go deeper than just one club getting the better of another.

First, a summary.

  • The Dodgers received Mookie Betts, David Price, and roughly half of Price’s remaining salary ($96 million) over the next three years.
  • The Red Sox received outfielder Alex Verdugo and righthander Brusdar Graterol, who previously pitched for the Minnesota Twins.
  • The Twins, a surprise third team in the deal, received righthander Kenta Maeda from Los Angeles.

In trading Price and Betts, the Red Sox cut $59 million from their payroll for the 2020 season, in addition to another $64 million owed to Price in 2021 and 2022. They will pay some of that to Los Angeles — we have not yet heard the final details of exactly how much cash will change hands — but every dime of it comes off of their luxury tax calculations, the real motivation behind this trade. The Sox paid $13.4 million in luxury tax last season, a record for the current system. Even without adding payroll, their bill would have been higher this year, as those over the threshold for a third consecutive season are hit with a 50 percent tax.

Sadly, that overage was enough for Red Sox ownership to green light a salary dump involving one of the best young players in franchise history.

It certainly takes something for me to empathize with Boston fans. Their city has enjoyed more championships in the past decade than most sports fans see in an entire lifetime, and, championship drought be damned, the Red Sox are one of the most successful and storied franchises in MLB history. The 2013 ALCS alone makes them Public Enemy No. 1 to many people around here, and one could argue that this trade has some ripple effects that are good for the Tigers. Minnesota is out a talented prospect in favor of a pitcher entering his age-32 season. The Los Angeles Angels, who received outfielder Joc Pederson in a separate trade, might be more willing to part with outfield prospect Brandon Marsh, a long-rumored target in a potential Matthew Boyd deal.

But when the Red Sox — the Red Sox — “cannot afford” to keep Mookie Betts? That speaks to a systemic problem affecting all of baseball. Boston wasn’t even able to acquire one of Gavin Lux or Dustin May, the Dodgers’ top two prospects, in exchange for Betts, a player well on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

Put simply, the game has changed, and not for the better.

And there lies the disconnect, emblematic of this era of austerity baseball. The fan experience has taken a back seat because that stream of revenue (tickets, concessions, et. al.) no longer holds as much importance for many MLB teams. Teams used to be motivated to build perennial contenders to attract fans to the ballpark. Instead, with TV deals, revenue sharing, and ancillary business ventures, front offices are free to do the bare minimum to maximize profits.

It’s tough to create an example that will resonate with Tigers fans. The Curtis Granderson trade had an on-field purpose, and did not involve a once-in-a-generation talent. The same goes for the Doug Fister trade (the second one), which, while panned at the time, was clearly meant to help extend the Tigers’ window of contention. We can try to imagine deals involving Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, or Miguel Cabrera in the early 2010s, but it is difficult to properly create examples as soulless as what the Red Sox pulled off on Tuesday. The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh called it “unprecedented,” while others dug up equally depressing examples.

The Betts deal wasn’t the Red Sox “pulling the plug” on something that wasn’t working, a la the Tigers’ recent teardown, or other rebuilds we have seen over the years. It wasn’t one of baseball’s lower budget clubs — themselves also capable of paying a star plenty of money, but that’s another conversation — crying poor. It was one of the giants of the game telling their fans, and everyone else around baseball, that their budget is more important than the product on the field.

And that is sad.