The long-awaited Mookie Betts trade came to pass Tuesday evening, with the 2018 American League MVP heading to Chavez Ravine in a three-way trade that folded the Minnesota Twins into the mix. A free agent at the end of the 2020 season, Betts adds even more heft to a Dodgers team that won 106 games in 2019.
Also heading to the Dodgers is David Price, who went 7-5 with a 4.28 ERA and a 3.62 FIP in 22 starts for the Red Sox in 2019, accumulating 2.3 WAR in 107.1 innings. It’s a bit unusual to see a player of Price’s reputation essentially become a salary dump in a larger trade, but his recent injury history made the $96 million owed to him over the next three years a daunting prospect for Boston to pick up. While the Dodgers no doubt expect to see real contributions from Price, they likely see the money owed to him as a significant chunk of what they’re “trading” for Betts.
The Dodgers were determined to not give up any of their elite prospects in a Betts trade and that’s exactly what they managed to do. Alex Verdugo took a giant step forward in 2019 and hit .294/.342/.475, good for 2.2 WAR for Los Angeles. With Betts and Cody Bellinger in the outfield, A.J. Pollock under contract, and the team still retaining Chris Taylor and Kiké Hernandez (Joc Pederson is leaving in a separate trade), a very good argument can be made that Verdugo was simply more expendable than Gavin Lux or Dustin May.
Since three teams in a trade is more fun than two, the Twins also got involved, picking up Kenta Maeda from the Dodgers and sending pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol to Boston. Graterol’s a good prospect, but was likely to end up in releif for the Twins, and with the team in win-now mode, a dependable-if-unexciting starting pitcher who can be trusted to throw a few innings out of pen has greater short-term utility. Minnesota needed another starting pitcher and they got one.
Depending on how much of Price’s contract the Red Sox cover, subtracting Maeda and Pederson may allow the Dodgers to stay under the luxury tax threshold for 2020, even with Betts’ and Price’s salaries included; it seems unlikely that the team would have dealt Pederson only to end up slightly above the first CBT threshold, though it’s possible they sought relief from the second. This is an important consideration in 2020 baseball because whether we (or the MLBPA) like it or not, teams are treating the luxury tax system as a soft salary cap. With the effort to get under this threshold, one can understand why this trade needed to percolate for a week; the auxiliary Pederson-to-Angels trade, along with including the Twins, gave this trade a lot of moving parts.
The Red Sox will also make it under the luxury tax threshold for 2020, resetting their penalties. This was one of their primary goals this offseason. The loss on the field is real, however. As valuable as the years of Verdugo and Graterol are, Boston likely loses about four wins in their right field downgrade and even though Price was iffy, the team’s starting pitching has very little in the way of depth. Boston looks like an 86-89 win team on paper right now and while those types of teams make the playoffs all the time, they do need some luck.
All the below projections reflect the new teams. As Graterol’s role in Boston is unknown, I asked ZiPS to project him as a reliever in 2020 and then a starting pitcher from 2021 on.
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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.
(2nd MVP candidate)