The Mookie dilemma

The hoopla of the World Series is over and the long parade of baseball games has come to and end, leaving Red Sox Nation to hunker down for the long, cold winter thinking about the unthinkable: when the 2020 season begins, Mookie Betts could be wearing a uniform that doesn't say Red Sox on the front.

As distasteful as that thought might be, it is one which is being considered in the executive offices of the ballclub. That doesn't mean it's going to happen, but it's a real possibility. The Red Sox have serious financial issues. In 2019, they had the highest payroll in baseball history, and they wound up the season not even in the same zip code of the playoffs. They paid luxury taxes for exceeding the limit set by Major League Baseball, and if they don't get back under it, those taxes will become onerous next year.

The team's ownership has set a goal of lopping $40 million off the payroll for next year. John Henry and Tom Werner have been careful to say that a goal is not the same as a mandate. Still, when your bosses tell you they have a goal in mind, you'd best pay close attention.

When Dave Dombrowski was brought on board to head up baseball operations in 2015, he was explicitly given a mandate: win a championship. He took the job on one condition, that he be given total autonomy in making all baseball decisions. He fulfilled his mandate by winning the whole enchilada in 2018, but when the cheering died down and the last of the champagne had been gulped down, the bills came due. David Price (7 victories in 2019) was being paid $31 million a year as part of a seven year deal; Chris Sale (6 wins last year) is being paid $29 million a year beginning this year and for four more after that; Nathan Eovaldi (2 wins in 2019) had to settle for $17 million a year for four years. By my count, that's $77 million dollars a year for this year, next year, and the year after that. So much for full autonomy in making all baseball decisions. Mr. Dombrowski was invited to leave, and Chaim Bloom was hired to clean up the mess. One way to begin that process would be to get rid of Mookie's contract. Unfortunately, though, that would also entail getting rid of Mookie, something for which the team would risk a full-scale revolution by its fan base.

The fact is that Mookie Betts is not just a great player, he is a greatly-loved great player, and those are hard to come by. No one understands that better than president and CEO Sam Kennedy who grew up a Red Sox fanatic. He lived only about a mile from Fenway Park in a house where his parents still live. Sam, of course, has come up in the world since those days; he now lives only a half a mile from the park and walks to work every day. He is one of us, and that is comforting in these days of uncertainty.

Through arbitration Mookie made $20 million this year and is due to be paid about $28 million in 2020. But that's just walking-around money compared to what happens after next season when he becomes a free agent, which he is bound and determined to do.

These are some of the options with which the Red Sox must deal:

Option A -- The Red Sox could trade Mookie to another team this off-season. The thinking here is, why not trade him before next season when the Sox can still get some value for him before he becomes a free agent? The problem is that what Boston would get would be just pennies on the dollar in return. Betts is committed to testing the free agent waters after next year, no matter for whom he's playing, so a team trading for him would only in effect be getting a one year rental. No one is going to mortgage the farm for a deal like that.

Option B -- Wait until next season's trade deadline when some team, desperately locked in a fight for a playoff position, might be willing to pay more for him. But one of those teams in the playoff fight could well be, and hopefully will be, the Red Sox and they couldn't in good conscience trade away their best asset to the competition in the middle of a playoff race.

Option C -- Wait until next season ends and Mookie files for free agency, then see what other teams are willing to pay, and decide whether or not to match the best offer he gets.

The trouble with that scenario is that in all likelihood someone will be desperate enough, and enamored enough with Mookie, to overpay. What if some team offers him $40 million a year for ten years? Do the Sox match that? That would come to a total of $400 million dollars, and contracts in major league baseball are guaranteed. Mookie would be paid approximately a quarter of a million dollars per game for ten years -- that's every single game, whether he plays in it or not. That's crazy. But it's likely to become a reality.

How did baseball let itself get into such a position? Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado all inked contracts last year of ten years or more. It makes no sense.

Those kind of deals never work out well for the teams involved. Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols were two of the greatest hitters of their generation when they were given such deals. Today, they are just shadows of their former selves. But the money their teams agreed to pay them keeps rolling in. Or rolling out, depending on your perspective.

Mookie Betts, whether it's as a Red Sox or not, is due to hit the jackpot after next season.

The team has to decide whether it's willing be his money tree or not, all while staying below the luxury tax. Chaim Bloom, Sam Kennedy, Tom Werner, and John Henry all have to figure out how to pull that off. Or, they might decide to let some other team wrestle with the problem while they deal with an unhappy fan base.

Anyone remember the days when baseball talk used to be about the games?

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.