Five days ago, the Boston Red Sox almost traded 2018 MVP Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-team deal. As we now know, that trade fell apart. Today, it was replaced by a new deal. This time, the Red Sox and Dodgers took matters into their own hands while Los Angeles satisfied their other agreements in a separate deal with the Twins (while yet another portion of the deal was scrapped altogether).
The earth-shattering move here is Boston dealing a former MVP in his prime. Though the Dodgers are only acquiring one season at $27MM, their books are relatively clean, and if nothing else, they are the prohibitive favorite to sign him long-term sometime next winter. But whether the Red Sox were wise to deal their young star – a player with 42 bWAR already on his resume – is not up for debate in this space. There’s clearly lots to sort out in cataloguing the pieces brought in by Dodgers’ President of Baseball Ops Andrew Friedman. But this isn’t the venue for that discussion either.
The financial aspect of this deal is difficult to process for many reasons. It’s no small feat to rid $75MM from the ledger in one fell swoop as the Red Sox did today. And yet, that the Boston Red Sox would be financially motivated to move one of the best players in the sport is beyond comprehension. Still, the financial numbers stayed relatively the same from version one to version two of this deal, so that can be tabled as well for now.
This space is all about parsing the Red Sox’ return. Let’s quickly review the specifics.
In version one, the Red Sox were to receive two players: Alex Verdugo from the Dodgers and Brusdar Graterol from the Twins. This time around, prospects Jeter Downs and Connor Wong are heading to Boston with Verdugo. Without seeing the medical reports that gave the Red Sox pause over Graterol, the two frameworks provide a fun what-if for the rest of us to ponder. The question here is obvious: should the Red Sox have stuck with Graterol? Or did they improve their return by swapping in Downs and Wong?
Graterol surged through the Twins’ system last season, reaching the majors less than a week after his 21st birthday. The hard-throwing righty earned his keep in a small sample, striking out 10 batters in 9 2/3 innings and finishing with a 4.66 ERA/3.42 FIP. MLB.com put him at #83 on their top 100 prospects list, while Baseball America came in a little more bullish with a #60 overall ranking. His talent isn’t in doubt – not with a sinker and four-seamer both clocked at 99 mph – but questions about his long-term health drove the the Red Sox to check behind door number two. If Graterol’s ceiling is that of a bullpen fireman, that’s a valuable asset – especially come playoff time. But even a move to the bullpen doesn’t guarantee the long-term viability of his right arm. Still, pitchers with Graterol’s stuff are rare birds and valuable commodities – even with one arm surgery already on the books.
Then there’s door number two. Downs had a big season at High-A last year after the Dodgers acquired him as the tax for taking on Homer Bailey in the Alex Wood/Yasiel Puig trade with the Reds. The 21-year-old Downs hit .269/.354/.507 in High-A before earning a promotion to Double-A in 2019. He showed well there, too, though only in a 12-game sample. He is likely to begin the year at Double-A for the Red Sox, but he’s climbing prospect boards. MLB.com put him at #44 overall, while Baseball America has him at #86. Most outlets peg him as the second baseman of the future, though he’s played more shortstop than second to this point.
Wong, 23, started the year at High-A last season as well. He finished exceptionally strong, however, putting up an impressive .349/.393/.604 line through 40 games in Double-A. Despite those gaudy numbers, he’s not as highly ranked. His power is legit, but he does strike out nearly 30% of the time, and he’s not yet walking at an average rate. Fangraphs’ had him as the Dodger’s #13 ranked prospect last season with a future value score of 40+, talent level appropriate for a bench role. For contract, Fangraphs has both Downs and Grateral with a 50 FV score. Were those ratings to come to fruition, Downs would project as an average regular, while Graterol could project as a back-end starter or potential late-inning reliever.
The debate largely centers on how much one wants to gamble on a high-end pitcher. But even the aerial view minimizes how much this deal really hinges upon the specific players involved.
To add one final wrinkle to this question, let me add this tweet from The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. He says, “A number of baseball people saying #RedSox did well. Verdugo, Downs, project as regulars; Wong has good arm, power. Also moved half Price’s money. Deal at least comparable to what #DBacks got for Goldy, who cost less than Betts in walk year and had no other contracts attached.”
Whether you agree with Rosenthal’s people or not, the Paul Goldschmidt deal is certainly an interesting touchstone. Just a year ago, the Diamondbacks received Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, Andy Young and a competitive balance round B draft selection in exchange for one season of Goldy. For simplified context, Betts is a 27-year-old stellar defensive right fielder coming off a 6.8 bWAR season, while Goldschmidt was a 31-year-old first baseman coming off a 5.4 bWAR season.
Of course, the dollar savings factor into a comparison to the Goldschmidt trade, as Goldy made just $14.5MM last season. The Diamondbacks trade was motivated more about returning value for a player they weren’t likely to extend. The Red Sox motivations are similar, though they’re also getting out from under David Price’s contract. Not for nothing, but Price remains a viable major league starter.
Also muddying the waters here is how one views Verdugo’s future. He’s long been a player projected for stardom, though a deep player pool and injuries slowed his ascent in Los Angeles. And there remain questions about his overall makeup as well. Still, he’ll turn just 24-years-old in May, and it wasn’t long ago that he was the top prospect in a Dodgers’ system that has continued to churn out big league players.
Last season was his first with regular playing time, and he made good with a .294/.342/.475 line with 12 home runs in 106 games before an oblique strain cost him most of the rest of the year. He’s got great bat-to-ball skills, and his defense is solid enough that he can man centerfield for a time if that’s a need. He’s a promising young player, but he’ll have big shoes to fill in Boston.
I’m giving you the chance to overrule Boston’s Chief Baseball Office Chaim Bloom. Which return would you prefer?
(Poll link for app users)
(Poll link for app users)