Apparently not content to let Jim Crane draw all the headlines for ownership comments worthy of skepticism, Red Sox principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and president/CEO Sam Kennedy on Monday all denied that the trade of Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers was driven by a desire to dip south of the luxury tax barrier.
In a lengthy prepared statement released on Twitter, Henry appealed directly to Red Sox fans, speaking of the “extraordinary challenges” with which the team was faced this winter and praising the work of chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, general manager Brian O’Halloran and the rest of the team’s baseball operations department.
Henry attempted to connect to the fan base by reminding that everyone in the ownership group was first a fan, thus making them empathetic toward the pain and frustration fans have voiced in the days since the trade. “I grew up a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals,” said Henry. “My favorite player was Stan Musial. My heart would have been broken if Stan the Man had ever been traded — for any reason.”
Sticking with the Musial thread, Henry went on to lament the unfair system that prevented Musial and other players from generations past from being paid at their market rate and present the decision to part with Betts as the type of choice all clubs are forced to make “in this economic system.” To quote Henry at greater length:
“We were faced with a difficult choice. You can talk about dollars. You can talk about metrics and value. But in the end, even though we are consistently among the highest-spending clubs in baseball — with this year being no exception — we have to make hard judgments about competing for the future as well as the present. … 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 other examples of this recently. … We felt we could not sit on our hands and lose [Betts] next offseason without getting value in return to help us on our path forward. We carefully considered the alternative over the last year and made a decision when this opportunity presented itself to acquire substantial, young talent for the years ahead.”
Werner suggested that the team had other ways to shed salary if that had been the main goal, noting that they could “hypothetically” have traded Price without moving Betts as well (Twitter link via WEEI’s John Tomase). Kennedy at least appeared to acknowledge that the financial element of the trade played a role, noting that the trade wasn’t “exclusively” about resetting the team’s penalty level (Twitter link, with video, via NBC Sports Boston):
“There are clearly certain advantages by resetting and getting under [the luxury tax], but we’ve tried to be clear that this was not exclusively about the CBT and getting under that CBT threshold. There would’ve been other ways to have done that. You don’t trade Mookie Betts to get under the CBT. We traded Mookie Betts and David Price and got back significant value in return.”
Of course, all of this comes fewer than five months after Henry said unequivocally that the Red Sox “need to be under” the $208MM luxury tax threshold for the upcoming 2020 season (link via the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier). “We’ve known for some time now we needed to reset [the penalties by staying under the threshold], as other clubs have done,” Henry said as recently Sept. 27.
Months later, Henry tried to walk that statement back, emphasizing that the team was more focused on “competitiveness” than resetting its luxury penalty in 2020. Red Sox brass will surely argue that the team is indeed better-poised to compete over the next half decade with Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong now in the organization, but there’s no doubt that the Boston club is a demonstrably worse team in 2020 without Betts in right field and without Price in the rotation. Perhaps the Red Sox could chase a Wild Card spot if things break right, but they look to be squarely behind the Yankees and Rays, at the very least, and the competition for the Wild Card spots in the AL will be steeper after active offseasons from the White Sox, Blue Jays, Rangers and Angels.
It seems particularly important to point out that Red Sox brass has sought to paint this as an either-or scenario: either trade Betts (and, ahem, $48MM of the $96MM owed to Price) now or risk losing Betts as a free agent this winter. That seems to ignore the possibility of taking aim at a rebound effort in 2020 with Betts and Price in the mix, then trading Betts at the deadline if the division looks out of hand. The return, of course, would be diminished, but the Sox would surely have been able to extract some long-term pieces while endeavoring for a competitive 2020 season.
It would be inaccurate to call the Betts/Price trade a pure salary dump. Henry, Werner, Kennedy and other Red Sox officials have a legitimate point when highlighting the long-term value they received in dealing away that pair of highly paid stars. But it also feels disingenuous not to acknowledge that dropping below the CBT threshold was a key — perhaps even the key — in making this deal. After all, Boston has previously let key players walk as free agents for minimal or no compensation — Craig Kimbrel and Jacoby Ellsbury come to mind — and they traded Jon Lester midseason in 2014 after spring extension talks didn’t come to fruition.
As for where they stand in the 2020 season, Henry didn’t want to concede that the Sox might be taking a step back, instead rhetorically asking reporters (Twitter link via the Boston Herald’s Jason Mastrodonato: “Don’t you think this would be a record payroll for a bridge year?” That’s not exactly a declaration that the team is all-in on winning in 2020, but it’s also less than an acknowledgment that this diminished version of the Red Sox is clearly something less than a division contender.