Red Sox star Mookie Betts unfairly labeled a villain as exit from Boston looms

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 23: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after striking out during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 23, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 23: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after striking out during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 23, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

A vocal portion of the Red Sox fan base has started to vilify Mookie Betts for turning down extension offers, potentially leading to his exit from Boston.

To paraphrase Christopher Nolan’s epic film The Dark Knight, you either re-sign as a hero or you hold out long enough to see yourself become the villain. That’s the unenviable spot that Mookie Betts finds himself in the wake of reports that he turned down a lucrative contract extension from the Boston Red Sox.

The backlash against Betts began when WEEI’s Lou Merloni revealed that the Red Sox offered their superstar a 10-year, $300 million deal prior to last season. The exact timing of the offer is unclear but it was on the table during an offseason when Manny Machado and Bryce Harper signed similar deals. Betts is clearly the best player of the trio but he lacked the leverage of free agency.

It was a fair offer under those circumstances but Betts turned it down, countering with a staggering 12-year, $420 million demand. The canyon sized gap between the sides split fans into two camps – those who felt ownership should pay whatever it takes to retain their star and those who believe the player is being greedy.

Both sides are wrong but it’s the latter camp that has lashed out with the harshest criticism, painting Betts as the villain for favoring money over loyalty or team success. They assume that refusing the extension offer means that Betts doesn’t want to be here. These fans feel betrayed, as if they’ve been personally scorned by an athlete who isn’t fully committed to their favorite team. This assessment is wildly unfair and ignorant of the process.

The amount that Betts countered with was just shy of the record-breaking $426.6 million extension that Mike Trout signed with the Los Angeles Angels prior to last season. This is no coincidence. Betts is an outstanding talent but Trout is on another level, a historically great player viewed as the best of his generation.

Trout’s extension included the final two years of his previous deal. Boston’s 10-year offer to Betts likewise would have bought out his final two years of arbitration eligibility, over which time he will have earned a total of $47 million. That’s $13 million less than he would have made between 2019 and 2020 if he accepted Boston’s offer.

The Red Sox were willing to pay him more in the short term in order to lock him up long-term, creating cost certainty for the team and financial security for the player. It’s definitely not a low-ball offer but you can understand why Betts is willing to bet on himself to make more as a free agent.

Betts has high expectations for himself but he’s undoubtedly aware that he’s not going to get paid “Trout money.” His counter offer should not be viewed as a sign that it will take anywhere near that amount to reel him in on the open market next winter.

He has been adamant all along that he intends to test free agency in order to maximize his potential earnings. His stance was, “Look, I want to let the market dictate what I’m worth and I’m willing to wait to find out. If you want to change my mind, it’s going to cost a top of the market price.” Betts was essentially daring the Red Sox to do something foolish and they wouldn’t bite.

The perception that his staggering asking price means Betts is being greedy is misguided. He’s been mocked on social media by those sarcastically wondering how $300 million isn’t enough to feed his family. Most of us can’t fathom having that much money and honestly, an extra $100 million on top of what was offered isn’t going to drastically change his lifestyle. That’s not the point.

Betts understands that his decision was a trickle down effect that impacts other players. He has the ability to set the market for elite talent (non-Trout division). If he takes a team-friendly extension instead of maximizing his earnings as a free agent, teams will use that as a reason to underpay other stars. GM’s will tell agents, “why should your client get that much when Mookie Betts isn’t even making that?”

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Fans want Betts to be loyal to his franchise but he also has that obligation to his fellow players. The MLB Players’ Association would naturally be furious if one of the game’s best players took a hometown discount to stay with their current team – especially when that team resides in a large market that has carried MLB’s highest payroll over the last two years.

Why should Betts pay the price for his team suddenly crying poverty? It’s not his fault that the Red Sox have saddled themselves with bad contracts that have locked them away in luxury tax jail. He’s watched as Boston has handed out lucrative contracts to some of the top free agents in recent years, none of whom are as talented as he is. Now that he wants the same treatment for himself he’s being branded as a selfish player who doesn’t care about winning? That’s absurd!

Betts will hit free agency after the upcoming season and the threat of him potentially leaving has Boston strongly considering trade offers. Don’t be surprised if the Red Sox leaked the report of the failed contract negotiations to soften the blow of trading away their best player. Boston’s brass can claim they made every reasonable effort to sign him but his demands were unrealistic.

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That’s true, although it doesn’t make Betts the bad guy. He’s simply acting in his best interests, which he has every right to do. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.