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Mookie Betts Makes The Dodgers Even More Dominant

The biggest trade of the offseason finally went down Tuesday night, with the Boston Red Sox agreeing to send star outfielder Mookie Betts and starting pitcher David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a complicated three-team deal. With the trade, the two clubs that faced off in the 2018 World Series cemented the different paths they are on.

Boston will receive young Dodger outfielder Alex Verdugo and Minnesota Twins pitcher Brusdar Graterol in the deal, while the Twins will get Dodger pitcher Kenta Maeda. The Dodgers will also get cash from the Red Sox to offset the pricey contracts of Price and Betts.1

The Red Sox are now for certain a team in transition, willing to jettison an in-his-prime superstar in Betts to reduce payroll and to get under baseball’s luxury tax threshold while also adding younger talent. It’s also clear that the talented Dodgers, an elite team a year ago that won 106 games and lost in the National League Division Series, want the 2020 NL race to lack as much suspense as possible. The Dodgers have one goal in mind: to capture their first World Series since 1988.

Before Tuesday, the Dodgers were in the middle of a quiet offseason. They had signed just three free agents to deals totaling $15.25 million, focusing on reclamation projects like Jimmy Nelson and Alex Wood rather than stars. But that didn’t seem to hurt their outlook any: In a simulation run by Out Of The Park Developments for FiveThirtyEight prior to Tuesday’s trade, the Dodgers were forecast to win 112 games in 2020 — 10 games better than the next-best NL team, the defending champion Washington Nationals. Betts could make that margin even greater, giving the Dodgers another MVP candidate alongside Cody Bellinger, last year’s NL winner.

Squarely in his prime with a complete skill set, Betts is in the discussion for the best position player in baseball not named Mike Trout. Since his debut in 2014, Betts ranks second in all of the major leagues in FanGraphs wins above replacement, trailing Trout 52.5 to 37.2. Betts is coming off a 6.6-WAR season, according to FanGraphs, which projects him for 5.9 WAR this season.

Betts was already a very good player entering his MVP season of 2018, twice named an All-Star in his first four seasons. But then he rebuilt his swing. In 2018, he lifted more balls into the air and hit for more power, leading the AL in batting average (.346) and slugging (.640). Betts produced a career-best 10.4 WAR, according to FanGraphs. While his bat declined a bit in 2019, as his on-base plus slugging percentage fell from 1.078 to .915, he was still elite — 35 percent better than the league average offensive performer, according to the park- and run-environment adjusted OPS+. Moreover, Betts’ top two seasons by expected weighted on-base average, which accounts for his underlying quality of contact, came in 2018 and 2019. That suggests his bat has solidified at an elite level.

In the field, Betts has always been an excellent defender. Since 2015, Betts has the third-most defensive runs saved in the majors. He’s also an excellent baserunner, finishing 13th last season in FanGraphs’s overall baserunning.

The Red Sox and Betts hadn’t been able to reach a long-term agreement in recent years, though they had just settled in January on a one-year, $27 million deal, a record for an arbitration-eligible player in his final year before free-agency eligibility. The Dodgers are getting an excellent player for that price, even if it’s just for a year, and were able to add Betts without surrendering their top young players, including Gavin Lux and Dustin May.

While the Dodgers look like the best team in the NL, the Red Sox appeared to be in a transitional phase entering this winter. After hiring Chaim Bloom as their chief baseball officer to replace Dave Dombrowski, the club was also forced to go looking for a new manager last month after Alex Cora and the Red Sox agreed to part ways following Cora’s involvement in the sign-stealing scheme in Houston. (Cora was also the manager of the Red Sox team that beat the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series.)

While the Red Sox are not far removed from a World Series title and were projected to win 89 games by OOTP prior to Tuesday’s trade, owner John Henry has stated his desire to shed salary to get under the luxury tax after a disappointing 2019 season in which the Red Sox finished third in the AL East and missed the playoffs. Though the Red Sox are sending cash to the Dodgers, trading Betts and Price — who has three years left on his seven-year, $217 million deal — allows the club to shed salary and get under the $208 million tax threshold. The Red Sox were $25 million above the threshold entering Tuesday, which would have been the second straight year they exceeded the limit.2

The Red Sox had added incentive to build up a thin farm system, and by trading Betts in a package led by Verdugo, they likely added more talent than they would have through draft-pick compensation if Betts had walked after the 2020 season as a free agent. And given the expected quality of the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East in 2020, perhaps now is the right time to retool.

For the Dodgers, it was the right time to try to remove as much suspense as possible from the NL race and postseason.

Footnotes

  1. In a separate deal, the Dodgers sent outfielder Joc Pederson across town to the Angels for Luis Rengifo.

  2. Under the collective bargaining agreement, as a second-consecutive-year offender, they would have paid a 30 percent tax rate on the first $20 million beyond the tax threshold and an additional 12 percent rate for overages between $20 million and $40 million. If a club falls below the threshold for a year, its tax status resets.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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