John Henry Said What?

The Red Sox have received a fair amount of criticism for trading Mookie Betts. Owner John Henry tried to clear the air a bit, clarify some misconceptions that are out there, and justify trading Mookie Betts. If his explanation felt lacking, it’s probably because the real explanation isn’t pretty. The Red Sox traded Betts to save money at the expense of a potentially winning team in 2020. That they received some talent in return can’t obscure the primary goal of the trade. Financial flexibility might remain a popular catchphrase, but there’s little reason to think the Boston Red Sox couldn’t just keep payrolls at similar levels over the foreseeable future and continue to add talent considering nearly $100 million in salaries comes off the books over the next three offseasons.

A few specific passages in Henry’s statement stuck out to me:

“It is not the system’s fault that the Red Sox ended up in this position. We were faced with a difficult choice.”

Henry called this an “extraordinary challenge,” a “difficult choice,” and characterized “tough decisions” for the organization. To frame trading Betts as a difficult choice, one must first frame the options and the results. It’s not just get prospects versus a draft pick. It’s contending in 2020 versus not. It’s attaching a bad contract to the trade versus getting the best possible future value. It’s decreasing spending by $60 million versus maintaining an already profitable level.

Henry appears to be accepting responsibility for big contracts for David Price, Chris Sale, and J.D. Martinez that put the Red Sox in a bind where keeping Betts wouldn’t be possible, except it is Henry that decides what it is possible and what is not. It is Henry who has decided he wants to cash more checks and write fewer ones. We’ve heard about a rumored $300 million offer, but that was another offseason ago before Betts accumulated $47 million in arbitration awards. An offer of just $250 million in free agent money when Mike Trout was accepting $100 million more (on a bargain deal) with Betts a full year younger and coming off his 2018 MVP season isn’t exactly much of an effort at all.

The Red Sox are only in a bind to the extent that they want to decrease payroll this season and beyond. Their payroll was already slightly down even before dealing Betts and after considering the increased tax penalties. At the end of the year, Betts likely wouldn’t have cost more than his current salary plus Jackie Bradley Jr.‘s. Dustin Pedroia’s roughly $13 million salary comes off the books after 2021 with Martinez, Price, and Nathan Eovaldi leaving after 2022 and taking another $70 million off the books. Fitting in another $8-10 million a year above Betts’ current salary to keep him would hardly have been an issue if the Red Sox were willing to maintain prior levels of spending, which still resulted in huge profits.

“Before Tom, Sam or I ever dreamed of owning a major league baseball club, we were baseball fans, like you. I grew up a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. My favorite player was Stan Musial. My heart would have broken if Stan the Man had ever been traded – for any reason. Your parents or your grandparents surely felt the same way about Ted Williams and Yaz.”

Imagine realizing this concept as an adult, feeling kinship with young fans, and being the one person in position to make sure that thousands of similar kids get to experience their fandom in the same special way you did growing up. Now imagine you take it all away anyway. Not because the player was getting older and less productive. Not because the team received an offer of blue-chip prospects with a decent likelihood of becoming stars. Not because you offered the player market value for his services and he refused. Not even because the player reached free agency and some other team made an offer that could not be refused. Imagine putting yourself in the shoes of the kids who idolize Mookie Betts and then choosing to add millions to your billion-dollar company.

“In today’s game there is a cost to losing a great player to free agency – one that cannot nearly be made up by the draft pick given. We’ve seen examples of this recently.”

I think we can agree that a draft pick isn’t worth the production of Mookie Betts. The problem is that Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs, and Connor Wong don’t make up for Betts, either. One season of Mookie Betts is currently worth one good-but-not-great prospect in Downs, a formerly-good-but-not-great prospect currently injured with off-field issues in Verdugo, a lesser prospect in Wong, the $27 million salary owed to Betts and roughly $20 million to make up for the Price contract deficit. One free season of Betts was valued at close to $50 million and a trio of young players. That’s a lot. We can’t say that the Red Sox didn’t get good value out of trading Betts, but we can say that one season of Betts is worth a lot because he is essentially irreplaceable and losing him tanks Boston’s chances of making the playoffs this season.

Now, the Red Sox could do something with the money they are saving by not having Betts, but we already know the Red Sox don’t plan to use that money at all this season, and in next year’s free agent class, the only player likely worth Betts’ current salary is Betts. Team president Sam Kennedy said the trade wasn’t “exclusively” about getting under the competitive balance tax amount. Of course, it was mostly about getting under the tax amount. Even in clarifying his remarks from September about getting under the tax amount, Henry still called it a goal and fired the previous GM who likely had no interest in achieving that goal. Whether it was a mandate or a goal made no difference, and clarifying the language does little to dissuade when looking at the trade the Red Sox just made.

If the Red Sox had offered Betts up without attaching half of Price’s salary, the future return would have been larger. If the Red Sox had agreed to pay down half of Betts’ salary, it would have opened up the entire league as suitors and increased the future value Betts returned. The Betts trade wasn’t exclusively about the CBT since they did get some players in return. It was just mostly about the CBT and decreasing payroll.

As for Henry’s examples of seeing this recently, there aren’t any. If we go back four years, the top two free agents were Yoenis Céspedes and Justin Turner, who both went back to their old teams. In 2018, a weak free agent class was led by Yu Darvish and Martinez, who were both traded midseason ahead of free agency because they were on non-contending teams. In 2018, Manny Machado was dealt at midseason by a bad Orioles team. Bryce Harper, who the Nationals held on to in his walk season, left, though the club immediately used Harper’s money to sign Patrick Corbin. They held on to Anthony Rendon in the same situation and won the World Series. They also brought back Stephen Strasburg. The Yankees signed Gerrit Cole away from the Astros, but the Astros got within a few innings of winning a World Series. They also earmarked Cole’s money for Zack Greinke before Cole even left. There are literally no recent examples of contending teams losing a player in free agency without immediately replacing that player’s production, or in Washington’s example, winning a World Series because they held on to that pending free agent. The Red Sox are just decreasing spending by $60 million.

“I understand there is probably little I can say today that will change how you feel about this, but it is my responsibility to try. The baseball organizations we compete against have become much more strategic and thoughtful about how and where they spend their resources in their quest for titles. We cannot shy away from tough decisions required to aggressively compete for World Series. That is what led to this trade.”

The team the Red Sox are most known for competing against, the Yankees, will spend about $90 million more than the Red Sox this season in an attempt to win a World Series and just spent more than $300 million on Cole. It’s true that the Yankees went under the tax threshold in 2018, but they did so with a younger, cheaper team on the upswing that won 100 games much like the Red Sox did in 2017. Because the Red Sox got under the tax threshold in 2017, they saved approximately $20 million in penalties over the last two seasons. The Dodgers also reset when the Yankees did with a a younger, cheaper, very good team. The decisions made by the Dodgers and Yankees weren’t as tough because getting under the tax amount didn’t mean actively getting worse or significantly lowering the chances of making the playoffs.

In any event, the Yankees signing Cole and the Dodgers trading for Betts means those teams are apparently looking at Boston’s “tough” decisions and reaching a different conclusion. Certainly the Red Sox farm system could stand to be better, but nothing is preventing the team from growing a better farm in the future, whereas the farm previously produced three of the top 12 players in the game last season in Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers (plus a trade for Sale). To claim that trading Betts was an “aggressive” move toward competing for a World Series is insulting.

John Henry talks about his words not changing the way people feel about this trade. The problem is not feelings, no matter how hurt many Boston fans might be about dealing away Betts. The problem is facts. It’s a fact that they traded away the franchise’s generational star because of money. John Henry’s words can only serve to rationalize that fact. He cannot change it.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

This interview pretty much confirms that John Henry personally felt the roster construction was normatively stupid (firing Dombrowski, now this), and that trading Betts was one of the penalties of being so stupid for so long. Like, it’s a philosophical aversion to being over the luxury tax because being over the tax is something stupid money does, not smart money.

I don’t think it’s about the money, it’s about the philosophy of what he wants a baseball team to be and how other people think of him and the team. Which probably has a lot to do with what the Red Sox would like to think of themselves as- not the George Steinbrenner Yankees. They’d rather run a loser they’re proud of than a winner they feel is unsustainable. Especially since their biggest rival is running a team that, on paper, people think is more intelligently built. I really think these guys can’t stand the thought of not being the smartest people in the room.

As a meta comment, it’s hard to be critical of the Red Sox. This move will very likely work out for them in the long run. Next year, well, probably not, but it has as much to do with the Yankees maxing out in an intelligent way and the Rays being very very well put together. It’s hard to be critical when these mega contracts almost never pay out.

4 years ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

I think you were correct until you started talking about them wanting to be proud of the team. Your statement that they don’t want to be the Steinbrenner Yankees is absolutely correct, but the conclusion is not.

They would rather lose and make money rather than win and lose it (or make just a little).

Almost every owner now sees the team as an investment vehicle, which is a big problem with the sport right now. Making money when they sell the team is no longer enough. They want 10-20% profits every year on top of that.

4 years ago
Reply to  dl80

eh cashflow isn’t THAT good and never would be. He wanted to get that, he’d still be making currency bets.

Green Mountain Boy
4 years ago
Reply to  dl80

You’re correct to a point, owners do see owning any pro sports franchise as an investment vehicle. The razor’s edge though is this: Does spending money add to the value of your investment or detract from it? I would propose, spending money wisely, as in any business, does add to the franchise value. Spending it poorly, or cutting costs unnecessarily or in the wrong places, detracts from franchise value. So where is the fine line?

The argument is moot though. No matter how badly or well you run a franchise, the real big money is made when you sell. The Red Sox, for example, were purchased for $700m in 2001. That’s $1.02 billion in today’s dollars. They are worth $6.6 billon today, a tidy profit of $5.58 billion over 19 years. So what were the 4 World Series titles worth that were won in the meantime? No clue… $250m each for a total of $1b? Still, that yields a profit of $4.58b over 19 years with zero World Series titles.

The old saying is true. You do have to be an honest to god buffoon to lose money on a pro sports franchise. And I can’t resist… Daniel Snyder may be the exception that proves the rule.

4 years ago

Is that the total valuation for Fenway Sports Group including Liverpool? I can’t imagine that’s the valuation for only the Red Sox.

Green Mountain Boy
4 years ago
Reply to  Thrasius

That’s just the numbers for the Red Sox.

4 years ago

Umm no you are very confused and google will clear this up fast.

$6.6 billion
The top group with a baseball team is the Fenway Sports Group — owners of the Boston Red Sox, Liverpool FC, and other ventures — which is worth a total of $6.6 billion. That’s third behind the Kroenke Sports, worth $8.4 billion, and Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones’s empire, set at $6.9 billion

4 years ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

I don’t think FSG has ever wanted to spend like crazy. They’ve done a hard reset a couple of times now; first the Nick Punto trade, now the Connor Wong trade. They’ve always wanted to be a Moneyball team, but with more resources. If you remember the A-Rod saga, the Red Sox saw themselves as the plucky underdogs to the Yankees.

But they keep on doing this thing where they get impatient, start spending huge sums of money in free agency, and then starting over. And that’s on the ownership group…that’s a leadership problem. You can kind of understand the David Price deal, but if this was the team they wanted to be, they probably shouldn’t have given those deals to Sale and Eovaldi. You can talk all day about how you know what you’re getting into when you hire Dombrowski but that was also a leadership decision.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Tearing the band aid off is hard, and this feels like tearing the band aid off. Agreed that their leadership got them into this position, but this feels like a bit of self-flagellation in addition to getting out of the position.

Hank G.member
4 years ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

Henry should fire the guy who hired Dombrowski. It wasn’t like he wasn’t a known quantity.

4 years ago
Reply to  Hank G.

Dombrowski did what he was good at and what he was hired to do. Push in the chips to go get a ring, which the Red Sox now have 4 of over the last 16 seasons.