Friday, May 1, 2020

The Red Sox Weren’t Going to Compete in 2020 Anyway

Red Sox

The Red Sox have tried to explain themselves both before and after trading Mookie Betts, a 27-year-old super-duper-star, and the Red Sox have failed. After some delays and tweaks due to uncertain medical info, the momentous trade was finalized earlier this week: Betts, pitcher David Price (a fine player in his own right), and half of Price’s salary to the Dodgers in exchange for young outfielder Alex Verdugo and two prospects.

But that imbalance hasn’t prevented a week of attempted justification for Boston’s decision, or even outright praise. “Boston did really well,” one executive told ESPN’s Buster Olney. “The Red Sox will reset fast,” said another, adding, “they’ll have money to spend in the next offseason.”

Many of these optimistic interpretations of Boston’s side of the trade are centered more in myth than reality. So as spring training begins and Betts prepares for the first non–Red Sox camp of his career, let’s tackle some of those myths and expose the rotten underbelly of Boston’s trade.

Sometimes it makes sense to trade star players before they reach free agency. Staring down a lengthy rebuilding process, the Orioles sent Manny Machado to Los Angeles at the 2018 trade deadline in a sensible transaction for both sides. The Dodgers added an impending free agent for their title push; the Orioles added prospects to a system in need of replenishment.

But Boston was far from the position those Orioles occupied. Despite a disappointing 2019 season, which culminated in an 84-78 record and the firing of president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox were still poised to make a real run at a 2020 playoff spot.

First, they weren’t as mediocre as their record suggested last year. Their BaseRuns record, which looks at a team’s underlying performance to estimate its record, was 89-73; only the Reds and Tigers underperformed their actual granular level of play by more games. Meanwhile, the Yankees overperformed by nine wins, the most in the league. The Red Sox actually finished 19 games behind the Yankees in the AL East, but they could have easily been just five games back—or even ahead, if the two teams’ luck flipped.

Second, in the season immediately prior to last year’s disappointment, Boston had won 108 games and the World Series with this same core. And if the Red Sox had retained Betts and Price, they’d still have nine of their top 10 players, by FanGraphs WAR, from that 2018 title team. The only missing player would be Rick Porcello, whose luster has already faded, and that count doesn’t include Rafael Devers, who ascended to stardom last season, or Christian Vázquez, a top-five catcher in the majors in 2019.

Put all those pieces together and Boston was in an enviable, if not ironclad, position. The trade took them out of it. According to data provided by Baseball Prospectus, whose PECOTA projections were released this week, trading Price and Betts—the majors’ second-best position player in 2020 by PECOTA’s accounting—cost Boston about three projected wins, moving them out of second place in the AL East and a wild-card spot.

PECOTA now pegs Boston for 84.5 wins in 2020 and a 28.5 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. So even after the trade, they’re not out of the race before it begins—though they’ll have plenty of competition, with the Rays, Angels, Indians, Athletics, and White Sox all in the mid-80s range, and they lost Betts and Price at a place on the win curve in which every fractional advantage counts. As new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said at a press conference announcing the trade, “It’s reasonable to expect we’re going to be worse without” Betts and Price. Indeed!

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox
Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images
Myth No. 2: Trading Betts Will Save the Red Sox Money for Years to Come
Most analyses in Boston’s favor concern the financial aspect of the deal more than the on-field effect. These are misguided as well. Baseball’s Byzantine accounting system facilitates this sort of justification because this area is such a challenge for fans and media members to understand.

So let’s examine Boston’s actual savings from the Betts trade. Most of the focus concerns the competitive balance tax, or CBT, a surcharge on top of a team’s payroll commitments if they rise above a set of escalating thresholds. (The luxury tax applies only to the overages, though—none of the hundreds of millions of dollars under the lowest CBT threshold are subject to extra taxation.) Crucially, if a team remains above the thresholds for more than one season, the taxes grow more onerous. Here’s what they look like for the 2020 season.