The 84-78 Boston Red Sox did not provide their fans with a very satisfying season of baseball, but a team experiencing a down year right after winning a championship isn’t unheard of, and this campaign could and probably should have passed without anyone who follows the team slipping into a panic. Unfortunately, the guys in charge spent the last weekend of the season pounding away at the big red button.
There was an inkling that management was preparing a dramatic change in direction when team president Dave Dombrowski was unexpectedly fired at the beginning of September. Most guys in that position don’t lose their jobs less than a year after winning the World Series, and for all the rumors of extenuating circumstances, comments from ownership after Dombrowski’s departure also hinted at some serious philosophical differences motivating the firing. Thanks to a revealing media session held by team owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner over the weekend, we have a pretty clear idea what the nature of those differences were: management wants to cut payroll, by a lot.
From the Boston Globe:
“What changed quickly was right after the World Series, we had preliminary talks about our way forward and it was clear to me we weren’t on the same page at that point,” said Henry. “There was a difference, I think, in how we thought we should move forward.”
While the owners did not directly outline that difference, they did offer clues in their view of the team’s future direction. Most notably, Henry said that in 2020, the Red Sox “need to be under the [luxury-tax threshold of $208 million] and that was something we’ve known for more than a year now.” Werner later clarified that it was a strong preference rather than an absolute.
It’s one thing for an owner to say he wants to get under the luxury tax, but actually getting a team like the Red Sox below the $208 million threshold would require some serious bloodletting. The team’s 2019 payroll was almost $230 million, and big contracts belonging to David Price, Dustin Pedroia, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, and Nathan Eovaldi aren’t coming off the books anytime soon.
If the Red Sox are truly committed to cutting payroll by about $30 million next year, they really only have two viable options: Trade J.D. Martinez, who is set to make $23 million in 2020 if he exercises his player option, or trade Mookie Betts, who will probably be awarded around $30 million in arbitration this offseason.
Before you scoff and close this tab because the Boston Red Sox trading away a 26-year-old homegrown talent, the most electrifying and skilled baseball player on the planet not named Mike Trout, is an obviously insane thing that will never happen, you should know that his own teammates are already considering what life without Mookie might look like. Talking to NBC Sports Boston after the season’s final game on Sunday, Martinez made it plain that Betts’s teammates have been talking about the fact that their star teammate may be on the way out:
“I think everyone knows we don’t think they’re going to be able to afford Mookie,” DH and potential free agent J.D. Martinez told NBC Sports Boston. “It’s one of those things. It’s kind of hard to have three guys making $30 million on your team. He deserves it. He’s earned it.”
If the Red Sox actually go through with trading Betts this offseason, that will tell us a lot more about just how miserly baseball has gotten than any downturn in free-agent spending has. The Red Sox aren’t some mid-market team that routinely has to make hard decisions about which players it can keep and which it can’t. This is a money-printing franchise worth multiple billions of dollars, and one that should be in World Series contention every season. The Red Sox are the type of franchise that are supposed to raid other teams for guys like Mookie Betts, not the one that should be thinking about pushing him out the door for the sake of saving a few million dollars.
When baseball is working properly and owners are doing everything they can to assemble winning teams in good faith, a team like the Red Sox choosing to jettison a player like Betts is a virtual impossibility. That his departure is even being discussed is more evidence that something in the game is rotten.