FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Red Sox had a week for it to sink in that they were going to trade superstar Mookie Betts to the Dodgers. This, thanks to the prolonged nature of the negotiations and the many hiccups along the way.
Yet, that didn’t make it any easier for chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and his front-office assistants once the move became official on Monday night.
In fact, it was a tough pill to swallow for the entire organization and fan base, but one that Bloom and his staff deemed was necessary to make the franchise the best version of itself over the next several years.
Betts and lefty starter David Price are off to Los Angeles in exchange for a 23-year-old starting outfielder on the rise in Alex Verdugo, a highly touted middle-infield prospect in Jeter Downs (ranked No. 44 on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects) and a power-hitting catching prospect with defensive versatility in Connor Wong.
A member of the Red Sox's organization since he was drafted out of high school in Theo Epstein’s last season as general manager in 2011, Betts saw his time with Boston come to an end on Monday. The sight of Betts wearing Dodgers blue is going to be tough for Boston fans.
“In his time in our uniform, Mookie has been one of the greatest to ever wear it,” said Bloom. “Off the field, he represented us with class, always. In the last few months, I've been able to see how special he is to so many people in this organization and how much he means to them. He is as great a person as he is a player. Mookie means as much to our fans as he does to our staff. We all know that. This trade is a very hard one to make.”
But the Red Sox didn’t hire Bloom in October to be sentimental. Betts has a contract that will expire at the end of the season. Previous negotiations between Betts and the Red Sox had always shown a wide gap.
Red Sox get: OF Alex Verdugo, SS Jeter Downs, C Connor Wong
Dodgers get: OF Mookie Betts, LHP David Price, cash
There was also the matter of getting the payroll below the $208 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold and avoiding the penalties that would have come with soaring above it for a third straight year. In the exchange, the Red Sox sent $48 million to the Dodgers to cover half of the remaining salary that Price is owed over the next three seasons.
“It's worth reiterating, the goal to get under the CBT is not an end in itself,” said Bloom. “It's part of a larger goal, our biggest goal, which is to put ourselves in a position to compete and win sustainably for as many years as we can and using our resources effectively is a means to that end, it's a part of that goal. So we wanted to get under the CBT and we weren't going to do it in a way that wasn't going to help us with that bigger goal. The CBT was not a major factor in us deciding to do this deal, as much as it was a goal with us this offseason.”
For a combination of reasons, it was simply time to move on from Mookie.
“In trading a great player, a beloved player, we recognize how incredibly difficult this is for fans who fully understand just how special Mookie is,” said Red Sox owner John Henry. “While the organization in its entirety very much wanted to see Mookie in a Red Sox uniform for the length of his career, we believe in this decision as we are responsible and accountable for both the present and the future of the Red Sox. We thank Mookie for his incredible contributions, both on and off the field.”
In his first major move for the Red Sox, Bloom did what he felt needed to be done to set his team up for sustained success.
“Our mission, our charge as a department, is to compete consistently, year in and year out, and to put ourselves in a position to win as many championships as we can,” said Bloom. “And that's behind everything we do. And we can only accomplish that goal with a talent base at all levels of the organization that is deep, broad and sustainable.”
As recently as Jan. 15, Bloom had said he envisioned Betts would still be with the Red Sox on Opening Day. In other words, he wasn’t going to trade Betts or Price for that matter just to do so.
But after the Padres made a strong run at Betts later in January, the Dodgers ultimately came through with the return that made the move worthwhile for Boston.
“Acquiring Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong represents a major step forward for our talent base and will help us win consistently for many years. We fully expect to compete in 2020,” said Bloom. “The front-line talent on our Major League roster can play with anybody. And we've worked all winter to improve our depth to weather the ups and downs of the season.”
Yes, Bloom thinks the Red Sox will be in the playoff hunt this season despite the ultra-talented position player and battle-tested pitcher he just dealt.
“I think it’s fair to say that you can’t expect in 2020 for what we’ve received, to make up for the contributions we would have expected out of the two guys who are leaving,” said Bloom. “I don’t think that’s any surprise, but I will say this: We believed strongly enough in the talent level in this team as a whole to believe that we can still compete, and you guys have seen it over the years, you’ve seen clubs that are built to win right now have really disappointing seasons and you’ve seen clubs that nobody gave a chance and you saw one of them in 2013 go and win the World Series.
“And you saw the same team two years running win 108 games and 84 games, so we know there’s a lot of variability of what can go on in a season and the important thing is we feel like the talent is there to compete. We’re obviously going to see how the season unfolds. We’re going to try to support the group as best as we can, but we feel really good about the talent level.”
Six days ago, the Red Sox had agreed with the Dodgers and Twins on a three-way deal. That one would have brought Verdugo from Los Angeles, and flame-throwing righty Brusdar Graterol from Minnesota.
But the Red Sox, according to sources, had concerns after reviewing Graterol’s medical files. Out of respect to the privacy of the player, Bloom didn’t much want to get into that at his press conference on Monday. Graterol wound up going to the Dodgers in a separate trade with the Twins that sent starter Kenta Maeda to Minnesota.
Once the first deal fell part, Bloom was able to make another one that brought Verdugo to Boston along with two prospects rather than one.
“Alex Verdugo is a really talented baseball player on both sides of the ball,” said Bloom. “He can really hit. He has power, but it’s not just power. He’s a really good hitter. And then, defensively, he can play all three positions and he’s a very talented outfielder. Tremendous arm.”
While Verdugo will slot into the starting lineup in place of Betts, Bloom said it’s too early to know how the club will replace Price in the rotation. The Red Sox officially start Spring Training on Wednesday.
The inclusion of Downs in the deal is one that could pay big dividends for the Sox in the coming years. Named after Derek Jeter -- one of Boston’s all-time rivals -- Downs could one day become a fan favorite at Fenway. The No. 32 overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft out of Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens, Fla., Downs was dealt from the Reds to the Dodgers on Dec. 21, 2018, as part of the deal that sent Yasiel Puig to Cincinnati.
The 21-year-old Downs hits for average and power. He split last season between Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Tulsa, slashing .276/.362/.526 with 24 homers and 86 RBIs.
“Jeter Downs, middle infielder who’s a good athlete, a really good baseball player who this year took a major step forward offensively,” Bloom said. “And digging into that performance as our group did, we were really excited by the strides he made and think he’s got a chance to be a complete player that can really impact us.”
While Boston will have plenty of time to see what they have in their three newcomers, it will take Red Sox Nation some time to process the loss of Betts, a dynamic all-around player who gave the Fenway faithful their share of thrills.
“I’ll just add that this is a real tough one for a lot of people in the organization to move on from Mookie,” said Red Sox general manager Brian O’Halloran. “We’ve all seen him grow up here from when he was drafted. As Chaim said, Mookie is not only one of the greatest baseball players that’s ever put on a uniform for the Red Sox, he’s one of the best people, a class act, as Chaim said, on and off the field. A lot of people here are going to miss him, so it’s a tough day from that standpoint.”
Though Price had some ups and downs and health issues over his four years in Boston, he was a huge factor in the team’s 2018 World Series championship.
“Both David and Mookie earned legendary status in Boston in 2018,” said Red Sox president/CEO Sam Kennedy. “Mookie, becoming the only American League player to win a World Series, MVP, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger in the same year, and David, with his memorable postseason run as the winning pitcher who clinched both the AL pennant and the club’s ninth World Series championship. Their time in Boston will always be remembered as historic.”