As has been the case for too many October contests since Kirk Gibson homered off Dennis Eckersley, the Dodgers couldn’t seem to win the big ones this winter. They reportedly offered Gerrit Cole $300 million (with deferrals), but were outbid by the Yankees. They expressed interest in Anthony Rendon, but never offered him a contract, and were unwilling to go to a fourth year for Josh Donaldson. Hell, they were even outspent by the Blue Jays — who had spent less than all but four other teams in free agency over the past 14 years — for the services of Hyun-Jin Ryu. They were said to be focused on trades, with a Francisco Lindor/Mike Clevinger package offering one tantalizing possibility. On Tuesday, they finally broke through with a blockbuster, acquiring Mookie Betts and David Price from the Red Sox as part of a three-team, five-player deal that also included the Twins.
- RF Mookie Betts (from Red Sox)
- LHP David Price (from Red Sox)
- Cash Considerations (from Red Sox)
Red Sox Receive:
- RHP Kenta Maeda (from Dodgers)
Separately, the Dodgers cleared even more space in their outfield by trading Joc Pederson to the Angels for infielder Luis Rengifo, with other players possibly involved. Dan Szymborski will break down that deal on Wednesday.
Though he’ll quite possibly only be around for one year before testing free agency, the 27-year-old Betts fortifies an already robust lineup that led the NL in scoring (5.47 runs per game) and wRC+ (111) in 2019 while powering the Dodgers to a franchise-record 106 wins. The 2018 AL MVP will play alongside reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger in a lineup that now boasts three of the majors’ 25 most valuable players by WAR from the past year (Max Muncy being the third); all three of those players rank among the top 11 hitters by wRC+ over the past two seasons. The Dodgers’ path to an eighth consecutive NL West title just became even easier, but this is about increasing their odds of getting back to the World Series, which they did in both 2017 and ’18, and finally winning one for the first time since 1988.
With Verdugo and Pederson gone, the likely alignment for the outfield will be A.J. Pollock in left field, Bellinger in center, and Betts in right, with versatile reserves Chris Taylor, Enrique Hernández, and Matt Beaty also able to play the outfield. Per our RosterResource page, the lineup could look like this:
For any team to pry Betts away from the Red Sox would have seemed unthinkable just a year ago, when he was coming off a 10.4-WAR MVP season and his team was basking in the afterglow of its fourth championship in a 15-season span — a championship won at the expense of the Dodgers, whom they beat soundly in a five-game World Series. Yet the Sox backed themselves into a corner, payroll-wise, extending Xander Bogaerts and Chris Sale but skimping on bullpen help. The result was a flimsy roster that limped to 84 wins in 2019. Along the way, owner John Henry fired president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski less than a year after the team’s World Series win and suddenly developed a distaste for paying the Competitive Balance Tax, something the Red Sox have done in four of the past five seasons (all but 2017). With Betts pulling down $27 million in salary for 2020 (a record for an arbitration-eligible player) and determined to test free agency after this season, Henry chose to prioritize cutting payroll — the Red Sox were about $20 million over the CBT threshold according to Cot’s Contracts, and $30 million over according to RosterResource, with projected salaries for arbitration-eligible players accounting for most of the discrepancies — over strengthening the current roster.
Less than two weeks after new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom was hired away from the Rays, slugger J.D. Martinez chose not to opt out of the three years and $62 million remaining on his five-year deal. With that, the possibility of the team parting with Betts, a generational player whose value has been eclipsed only by Mike Trout since he arrived in the majors in 2014, to achieve that end increased significantly. While the team could have concocted less drastic alternatives, their fear of getting nothing for Betts besides a draft pick ultimately led them to choose this path. The Sox reportedly offered Betts a 10-year, $300 million extension following the 2018 season, but Betts’ side countered with 12 years and $420 million, a deal not far off the extension Trout signed last March.
As the Betts drama has played out, the rest of the Red Sox’s business this winter has been underwhelming, to say the least. They’ve re-signed Mitch Moreland to be their starting first baseman and added Josh Osich, Jose Peraza, Martín Pérez and Kevin Plawecki, all on one-year deals, at a total cost of $14.1 million. Aside from Pérez, who was worth 1.9 WAR in a rollercoaster season in Minnesota, the other four combined for 0.3 WAR. From among their four previous trades, only reliever Austin Brice projects to even graze the 25-man roster.
While Betts did not fully live up to his big 2018 season last year, his 6.6 WAR nonetheless placed him among the AL’s top five and the majors’ top 10. He matched his career wRC+ of 135, hitting .295/.391/.524 with 29 homers overall, but to get there had to overcome a first-half slump. During June, he hit just .217/.357/.415, and through the end of that month owned a .261/.381/.453 line and a 117 wRC+. After working to position his hands higher, and shore up other parts of his swing, he hit .335/.403/.607 (156 wRC+) from July 1 onwards, but he played just six games after September 12 due to inflammation in his left foot.
Despite the shortened season, Betts has by far the highest one-, two- and three-year WAR totals of any recent player of note who was traded with just one full season to go before free agency. Updating a table I put together in September:
|Player||From||To||Date||Age||Prev WAR 1||Prev WAR 2||Prev WAR 3||Tot|
As I noted at the time, the returns on these deals generally produced more quantity than quality — often three or four players, many of whom didn’t amount to much, though there were definitely some gems in the mix. The A’s got Marcus Semien in the Samardzija trade, the Pirates obtained Bryan Reynolds in the McCutchen deal, the Braves received Max Fried in the Upton swap, and the Angels netted Andrew Heaney in the Kendrick move, which was the second leg of a three-team blockbuster that also included the Marlins.
Last week, Craig Edwards illustrated how difficult it would be for the Red Sox to get full value for Betts in such a trade, and by including Price in the deal and paying some as-yet-undisclosed fraction of the $96 million he has remaining on his record-setting seven-year, $217 million deal, they sacrificed some quality. Nonetheless, in Verdugo they acquired a former top-50 prospect who has five years of club control remaining after making a strong showing in an injury-abbreviated rookie season, while in Graterol, they have a heat-throwing top 100 prospect who still has a shot at starting but could be an elite reliever in the making.
Verdugo, who turns 24 on May 15, is a former second-round 2014 pick who had cups of coffee with the Dodgers in both ’17 and ’18 before sticking last year. He ranked 48th on our 2018 Top 100 Prospects list but dropped to 117th in ’19 due to concerns about both his power and his makeup; by comparison, he ranked among the top 40 in both years on the lists of both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline, while Baseball Prospectus had him as high as number 19 entering 2019. With the Dodgers last year, he hit .294/.342/.475 (114 wRC+) with 12 homers in 377 PA and made starts at all three outfield spots: 52 in center field, 14 in left, and 16 in right. He was a combined 3.4 runs above average via UZR en route to 2.2 WAR; he was 13 runs above average via DRS, yielding 3.1 bWAR. He did not play after August 4 due to a right oblique strain and then a bout of back tightness suffered while rehabbing in early September.
For all of Verdugo’s talent, concerns about his makeup have followed him since before he was drafted, with Keith Law (then of ESPN) noting questions about his level of motivation circa 2014, and the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2018 writing, “Verdugo’s skills are undeniable, but criticism of his effort level and maturity have plagued him since his amateur days and were again prevalent in 2017,” referring, at the very least, to a dressing-down the rookie received from Rich Hill upon showing up to the ballpark late after oversleeping. In their 2019 edition, BA wrote, “Verdugo stays dialed in at the plate, but an indifferent attitude affects the rest of his game,” and noted lapses in his focus afield as well as a “slow motor” that “shows up on the bases, frustrating teammates and coaches alike,” while in their write up of the Dodgers system last year, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel noted that “part of the reason teams have been asking for other Dodgers prospects in trades is due to some past off-field stuff.”
Graterol is a 21-year-old righty whom the Twins signed out of Venezuela in August 2014, when he was just 170 pounds. He made just four starts in the Dominican Summer League the following year before tearing his UCL and undergoing Tommy John surgery, then bulked up and returned throwing in the high 90s. He has continued to thicken, and is now listed at 6-foot-1, 265 pounds. Per our prospect team, his fastball sits 96-99 mph and can touch 102; he has four-and two-seam variants. His slider is a plus with good glove-side command, and his changeup a potential plus. The combination gives him a shot at starting, though concerns about the consistency of his release point, and recent injuries (three trips to the IL in the last year and a half) have led some to view him as a reliever.
He was steered in that direction last year, at least temporarily. Ranked 64th on our Top 100 Prospects list last spring, Graterol began the year at Double-A Pensacola and pitched well through nine starts before being sidelined for nearly two months by a shoulder impingement. He worked out of the bullpen upon returning, making two rehab appearances in the Gulf Coast League, three in the Southern League, and four in the Triple-A International League before being called up by the Twins last September. In 10 appearances totaling 9.2 innings, he struck out 10 and walked two.
Graterol will again appear somewhere in the middle of our Top 100 list, which will be published next week. He instantly becomes the Red Sox’s top prospect, though their plans for his role remain to be seen.
As for Maeda, acquiring him at the expense of Graterol is a very win-now move that swaps future upside for a high floor; these aren’t the Terry Ryan Twins of yesteryear. Here’s what I wrote about him in the context of the Dodgers’ rotation on Tuesday:
A reliable No. 4 starter, the going-on-32-year-old Maeda has been somewhat cursed by his versatility and the structure of his contract. Guaranteed just $3 million annually, he’s had trouble maxing out a potential $10.15 million in annual bonuses because he’s ended each of the past three seasons in the bullpen, where he’s been more effective, posting a 3.19 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 42.1 regular season relief innings compared to a 3.92 ERA and 3.76 FIP in 564.2 innings as a starter. He’s been downright dominant in the postseason, posting a 1.64 ERA while allowing just 20 baserunners in 27 innings; his average four-seam fastball under those circumstances has been 1.5 mph faster than his regular season heater as a starter (93.2 mph vs. 91.7). He did make more starts (26), throw more innings (153.2), and post a higher WAR (2.5) last year than in any season since his 2016 stateside rookie campaign, capturing an extra $1.75 million for reaching the 25-start and 150-inning thresholds, but he’s made his dissatisfaction with his swingman role known to management, the response to which boiled down to “pitch better,” particularly against lefties. The possibilities of a restructured contract and a trade have been discussed; he remains a Dodger, but he’s a candidate to be included in a potential Price-related deal.
I probably sold Maeda short by calling him a number four starter. Reliably average or better — he has a 95 ERA- and 89 FIP- for his career — he’s a No. 3 in most rotations but was simply fourth in the Dodgers’ pecking order, at least until October arrived. With the trade, his concerns about the bullpen are probably moot. He’ll join a rotation that the Twins tried hard to augment this winter, but after falling short in their attempts to sign Zack Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner, they wound up going for less impactful moves, adding Hill and Homer Bailey (both ex-Dodgers, though only on paper for the latter) and making their big splash by signing slugger Josh Donaldson. Maeda slots in behind José Berríos, with Bailey and Jake Odorizzi the other certainties for the moment. With Michael Pineda still serving a PED suspension and Hill recovering from elbow surgery, the team has one spot to fill, with contact-oriented rookies Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer the likely candidates.
As for Price, as I noted on Tuesday, he brings more name recognition than certainty to a rotation that has several high-upside options behind Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, all of whom bear question marks due to injuries and/or workload limitations. It’s too harsh to call the 34-year-old former Cy Young winner a poison pill, but ultimately, the Dodgers probably couldn’t have obtained Betts without sacrificing either Lux or Dustin May, their top two prospects and two of the overall top 10 on our 2019 late-season version of THE BOARD. Via our projections, Price isn’t a significant upgrade on Maeda; the real gain is the upgrade that Betts offers, though there’s something to be said for the postseason experience Price brings, particularly after he exorcised some demons in 2018, shedding a reputation for postseason spottiness with six shutout innings in the ALCS clincher against the Astros and one run allowed in 13.2 innings over two starts and one relief appearance, including seven strong innings in the clincher in Los Angeles.
Indeed, Price has gone through quite a series of ups and downs since signing with the Red Sox. In four years, he’s pitched to a 3.94 ERA and 3.74 FIP while averaging 24 starts and 147 innings, but those last two numbers are distorted by his 230.2-inning 2016 season; he’s averaged just 119 frames over the past three years. Likewise, his 2.7 WAR average over those four seasons drops to 2.1 over the past three. In 2019, he pitched to a 4.28 ERA (his highest since 2009) and a 3.62 FIP in 22 starts covering just 107.1 innings — fewer than five per turn. He generally pitched very well through the first half (3.24 ERA, 2.85 FIP) but made just six starts totaling 24 innings in the second half, with a 7.88 ERA and a 6.30 FIP. In May, he missed 17 days due to a bout of tendinitis in his left elbow, but a triangular fibrocartilage complex cyst in his left wrist hampered him throughout the season. He finally underwent surgery to remove it in late September and is presumably good to go for spring training.
As trades go, this rates as the winter’s biggest blockbuster given the headliner. Though Henry is hardly a cash-strapped Harry Frazee, he and the deal may live in infamy throughout New England, and regardless of whether Betts sticks around past 2020, it may be hailed as a stroke of genius for the Dodgers. At the very least, they didn’t give up anything that they couldn’t replace from within, and they’ve now got a stacked lineup featuring two players with a shot at winning MVP while helping them towards that long-elusive championship.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.