FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In keeping with a tradition that started 18 years ago when they first took over the team, Red Sox principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner held court with the media just after the first full-squad workout of Spring Training got underway on Monday. And as he has for the last several years, team president/CEO Sam Kennedy also took part.
In previous years, the session has hit on a variety of topics in what essentially represented a state of the union address. But this year was different, and ownership knew it would be. Therefore, they set the tone from the beginning.
This would mostly be about Mookie Betts, and the franchise’s reasoning for trading the man who had become the team’s signature player in a post-David Ortiz world.
At no time during the Henry-Werner ownership has one transaction upset the fanbase this much.
So to begin the press conference, Henry read a prepared statement for nearly seven minutes directed toward those fans who are heartbroken by the trade.
Hours after Betts tweeted a thank-you video to the city of Boston, ownership spoke for more than a half-hour about the decision to trade him. In his statement, Henry tried to be empathetic but also informative.
“We feel responsible to face whatever challenges arise in a way so as to protect the organization and move forward for the long term whether it’s on the field or off,” Henry said. “Before Tom, Sam or I ever dreamed of owning a Major League Baseball club, we were baseball fans, like you. I grew up a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. My favorite player was Stan Musial. My heart would have broken if Stan the Man had ever been traded -- for any reason. Your parents or your grandparents surely felt the same way about Ted Williams and Yaz.”
However, baseball owners can’t use sentimentality as a driving factor.
Betts was entering the final year of team control. And after several years of being unable to find common ground on an extension, the Red Sox had no interest in watching their superstar outfielder leave for nothing but a Draft pick as a free agent in November.
“I think we made legitimate offers over three offseasons,” Henry said. “We made it clear to Mookie, and I made it personally clear one-on-one, that we wanted to see him in a Red Sox uniform for the rest of his life, if possible.”
The Red Sox finally reached a point where they sensed it wouldn’t be possible.
“We cannot shy away from tough decisions required to aggressively compete for World Series. That is what led to this trade,” Henry said. “Free agency plays into many decisions clubs like ours have to make. Today’s players spend years in the Minor and Major Leagues earning the right to be paid in a free market, earning the right to make choices. They make significant sacrifices to get there and they deserve what they receive. Clubs also have choices to make as well in this economic system.”
Henry was referring to a financial environment where a club that goes over the luxury tax for a third straight season faces severe penalties. Re-setting the tax, on the other hand, brings about a competitive advantage.
So by trading Betts and David Price in that deal with the Dodgers, the Red Sox will get under the Competitive Balance Tax. That doesn’t mean it was easy. Henry said that, at least when it came to Betts, the decision was made more to get something for him before he left as a free agent than CBT considerations.
“We at the Red Sox will remember this as one of the toughest, one of the most difficult, decisions we have ever had to make,” Henry said. “We too love the young man, the great, great smile, the huge heart and the seemingly boundless talent he displayed here.
“We felt we could not sit on our hands and lose him 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.”
It was Werner who noted that in Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong, the Red Sox have added players who come with a combined 17 years of contractual control.
“I think we have to wait and see whether the evaluations of [chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom] and our baseball people are accurate,” Werner said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people outside this organization who are very enthusiastic about the talent that we’ve received.”
“We were faced with a difficult choice. You can talk about dollars. You can talk about metrics and value,” Henry said. “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.”
Henry later scoffed at the notion that the Red Sox -- who will still spend close to $200 million on a 2020 roster that has plenty of talent -- are embarking on a “bridge year.”
“This would be a record payroll for a team in a bridge year,” Henry said.
Though the Red Sox admittedly thought more about the future than this season while making this trade, the goal is still to win. It’s just that the degree of difficulty got a little harder.
“I also believe this team can compete for a championship with the pieces we have,” said Werner. “You’re all smart, so you also know the Washington Nationals won a championship without Bryce Harper. I understand what Chaim said, that in some ways we're not as strong without Mookie, and of course that makes sense, but we haven't seen how this season plays out yet. So I'm optimistic that we'll be very competitive.”
This post-Mookie world is going to take time to get used to, though, and the Red Sox owners didn’t hide from that.
“We also understand, as John said, that in the short run, this is going to be painful,” Werner said. “It’s painful for us. But it does give us flexibility.”
And ultimately, the executives have confidence that flexibility will lead to a fifth World Series championship in the Henry-Werner era.
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.