No matter what Red Sox do with Mookie Betts, they can’t win

HOUSTON, TEXAS - MAY 25: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox singles in the third inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on May 25, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - MAY 25: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox singles in the third inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on May 25, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

There are a few ways the Red Sox can go with Mookie Betts in 2020 but in every case, they’ll come out on the wrong end of the deal.

The dominant story around the Boston Red Sox heading into the 2020 season has been the status of Mookie Betts. Entering the final year of his contract with the team and due to improve upon the $20 million he scored in 2019, speculation and rumors have been running rampant all offseason.

Will the Red Sox trade Mookie before the season? At the All-Star break? Will they be able to re-sign him long-term? Will he walk away for nothing at the end of the season? All of these options are very real and each carries both huge risks and benefits with them.

If the Red Sox trade Betts before the season starts, that will mean two things: 1) they’re willing to jettison any chance at competing for the foreseeable future in order to (hopefully) restock their farm system and avoiding taking on a huge long-term salary commitment and 2) they’re willing to trade away the best five-tool homegrown player they’ve had since Carl Yastrzemski to do so.

From a talent standpoint, this would set the team back a fair amount. Yes, they still have excellent homegrown stars like Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley (for the time being), but as we’ve seen over the last four seasons, Mookie is the engine at the top of the batting order that makes the offense go.

If the Red Sox wait until the July 31 trading deadline to assess where they are in the season and then decide to trade Mookie, that sends a message to the fans that they’re punting on the rest of the season (and judging by the offseason they’ve had so far, they’ll most likely be out of contention by that point anyway).  It will also send a clear signal that they don’t believe they have any shot at retaining him beyond the season.

If the Red Sox keep Mookie for the entirety of the 2020 season, they’ll maximize their usage of him, but then play a high-stakes game where they risk losing him for absolutely nothing if he walks. Depending on the season he has, Mookie could hurt his value (if he has down years like 2017 and 2019) or greatly increase it (if he can replicate his 2016 and 2018 seasons). Either way, he’s sure to command a lot of years and money whether he signs with Boston or elsewhere.

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Re-signing Mookie would seem to go completely counter to their payroll-slashing ethos which was announced in the summer of 2019 while letting him walk for nothing would be an unmitigated disaster from both a talent and public relations perspective (more on this later).

It should be mentioned that the Red Sox have, according to reports, made some offers to Betts over the last couple of years. The first couple of offers were described as being lowball and insulting while a recent offer seems to be a bit more commensurate with a player of Mookie’s stature.

However, as he’s repeatedly stated, Betts has every intention of getting to free agency and betting on himself to get the biggest contract he can possibly get. While that’s completely his right as a player, it doesn’t bode well for the Red Sox since A) typically, players of his standing who make it to free agency don’t re-sign, and B) Boston is still saying they want to cut payroll and so would probably still offer something less (in terms of yearly salary and number of years) than what Mookie is looking for.

Regardless of which of the above scenarios comes to be, the Red Sox will lose. The least likely scenario (Mookie playing out the year and the Sox re-signing him in the offseason) would add more payroll a year after John Henry and the front office started crying poor. What kind of message (not to mention the credibility hit) would that send to fans? If they trade him, whether at the beginning of the season or closer to the trade deadline, the Sox will be dealing from a position of weakness.

In either case, the team on the other end will have no guarantee that Mookie signs with them after the season and so would be less willing to give up anything of significant value for what will essentially be a one season (or less) rental. Any return the Red Sox get that doesn’t include either a couple of All-Star (or near All-Star) caliber players and/or top-flight prospects wouldn’t be enough and yet because of Mookie’s status after the season, quality returns like that seem unlikely.

Beyond the damage on the field losing Mookie will wreak, the damage off the field will be significant no matter which scenario plays out. While most of us understand that baseball is a business and sometimes great players, even generational players like Mookie, move on, there is a large segment of fans both old and young who won’t react well if/when he leaves.

Speaking from personal experience, I have four kids who are all huge Red Sox fans and two of them call Mookie their favorite player. They both attended his baseball clinic in August 2018 and met him (as I described in my book), one of them (my oldest daughter) has worn No. 50 for her travel softball and high school softball teams the last few years, and my son’s nickname on his two baseball teams is Mookie. They will be devastated if he leaves the Sox as will countless other kids (and this isn’t hyperbole…I’ve spoken with many other Red Sox fans with kids who say the same thing). It’s part of the business of baseball and most of us know that, but it’s undeniable there will be a major PR hit, fair or not, to the team for “letting Mookie get away.”

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As you can see, this is a tough, unwinnable situation for the Red Sox. No matter what happens with Mookie in 2020, the Red Sox can’t win.