February 17, 2020

John Henry: In A "Particularly Challenging" Offseason, Trading Mookie Betts Was "One Of The Toughest, Most Difficult Decisions We Have Had To Make"

John Henry, February 17, 2020, press conference:
This morning, before answering your questions I would like to begin by addressing Red Sox fans directly about this offseason. We are used to challenging offseasons, but this one has been particularly challenging.

So let me begin by saying that while they've been presented with extraordinary challenges this off-season, those of us sitting here today know that our baseball operations department under [Chief Baseball Officer] Chaim [Bloom] and [General Manager] Brian [O'Halloran]'s leadership has handled these challenges extremely well. We are confident and optimistic while at the same time cognizant of how all of these challenges affect you, Red Sox fans. 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.

Before [Chairman] Tom [Werner], [President and CEO] Sam [Kennedy] 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.

So, on one level, when I say I understand how many of you feel about this trade with the Dodgers, I know many of you – particularly our youngest fans – are disbelieving or angry or sad about it. I know it's difficult and disappointing.

Some of you no doubt felt the same way in 2004 when we traded Nomar, who like Mookie was a hugely popular, homegrown player. All of us in the organization hoped we could avoid ever having to go through something like that again. But most clubs face similar dilemmas from time to time. I understand there is probably little I can say today that will change how you feel about this, but it is my responsibility to try. The baseball organizations we compete against have become much more strategic and thoughtful about how and where they spend their resources in their quest for titles. We cannot shy away from tough decisions required to aggressively compete for World Series. That is what led to this trade.

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.

It's a system that has a few imbalances as all economic systems do, but it is a system overall that has led to labor peace and an amazing market for our best players. It is not the system's fault that the Red Sox ended up in this position. 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.

Over the last two decades in winning four titles, along the way we lost not only Nomar, but Pedro and Jacoby and Jon and Manny among others. We no longer live in the Musial or Williams era. Players have rights they should have had when Stan and Ted played. Those two great players were victims of an unfair system – one that gave them no choice but to stay put. At one point, Stan thought about going to Mexico in order to be paid his value. He was offered $175,000 over five years in the Mexican League when he was making $13,500 a year. The Cardinal owner went to Mexico to stop it.

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 examples of this recently.

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. 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.
John Henry brings up some important points about the end of the reserve clause and the sacrifices players make and the rights they earn and deserve after accruing time in in the major leagues. All of that is very important to remember. Mentioning Musial's offer from the Mexican League was impressive.

I believe Henry when he says he loved watching Mookie play and he obviously understands the fans' attachment to Betts. But he has other things to worry about regarding the Red Sox than the things with which you and I concern ourselves. A balance has to be reached. Where Henry has placed that balance on any given day – because it fluctuates – certainly can be – and is – hotly debated.

Sean McAdam of the Boston Sports Journal was not impressed with Henry's words. The headline on his column states: "In explaining trade of Mookie Betts, Red Sox ownership trips up badly".
The Red Sox tried, without much success Monday, to ... insist[] – time and time again – that the reason Mookie Betts is now sporting Dodger Blue and not Red Sox red had little to do with money and more to do with positioning themselves for the future. ...

More than anything, they wanted it known that it wasn't about getting the payroll under the competitive balance tax (CBT) threshold of $208 million.

Technically, this might be true. ...

But they were unsure of their ability – or perhaps willingness? – to afford him past 2020. Henry, chairman Tom Werner and team president Sam Kennedy all noted that the team had made repeated attempts to get an extension done with Betts after the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Some careful listening, however, would have alerted you to the fact that there was nothing mentioned about negotiations from this past winter, with one year of control remaining. Perhaps that was because, as has been reported, Betts had asked for a contract commensurate with the one given to Mike Trout, or, more than $400 million.

Henry noted baseball's current economic system is not without its flaws, before noting: "It's not the system's fault that the Red Sox ended up in this position."

That much is true, of course. It's their own fault. ...

[D]espite knowing that some financial reckoning was coming, the Red Sox gave then-president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski the green light to hand out $213 million worth of contracts to two pitchers – Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi – with durability issues, knowing they would soon have to address free agency for Betts. ...

[Werner said]: "We've pleased with the value we got back from the Dodgers."

Most fans, by contrast, are not. While the Sox did get a total of 17 controllable seasons for the three players – Alex Verdugo, Jeter Downs and Connor Wong – what are the odds that any of them becomes close to the player Betts was while here? Already, Verdugo is dealing with a stress fracture in his back and is doubtful for his first Opening Day as a member of the organization. ...

After all the energy ownership spent Monday desperately trying to convince everyone that Betts wasn't traded because of the CBT or payroll, they failed to grasp the real issue. To wit: Red Sox fans don't care why Betts was traded; they're just furious that he was traded.

The Sox can spin this as they wish. They can explain, sympathize and hold counseling sessions for aggrieved fans and it won't change the fact Betts — the best player the franchise had developed in decades — is no longer here.
McAdam mentioned the team's three attempts to get Betts to sign an extension, all of which Betts turned down. There exists a very real possibility of not being able to sign Mookie as a free agent next winter and the very real question of, if they did sign him to a mega-deal, how much that deal would hamstring the franchise when it was paying a less-than-elite Betts $35 million per season as he aged through his mid-to-late-30s. Those issues have little to do, if anything at all, with the poorly-timed deals for both Sale and Eovaldi. Even if those deals had not been done, the question of committing between a quarter-billion and a half-billion dollars to Betts would be a daunting one. Betts told the Red Sox he wanted a 12-year contract. Even if negotiations brought down to 10 years, or even eight, it's still a very long time at a very big price.

McAdam balked at Henry using Nomar Garciaparra as a comparison to Betts.
Garciaparra was two years older than Betts and by then had become injury prone. ... [I]n 2004, he had played a mere 38 of the team's first 101 games, while conveying to management he was unsure how much he would be physically available in the second half of the season. Fairly or unfairly, Garciaparra had developed a reputation for being churlish, thin-skinned and, in terms of his skill-set, in decline. Worse, his unhappiness over a contract offer which was soon rescinded ... had turned him into a negative presence in the clubhouse ...
I agree that the only real similarity in this case is that both guys were home grown players, well-liked by the fan base, and ended up getting traded - but that's also the extent of Henry's comparison. He may be off in saying that fans were as upset about Nomar as they are about Mookie, but that's not McAdam's objection. Other writers are also criticizing Henry for this point, but I think they are pretending Henry said more than he did.

McAdam also points out that most fans do not care who the team got back from the Dodgers, "they're just furious that he was traded". ... Yeah? So?

When has it ever been a smart idea to run a baseball team (in this case, a team worth several billion dollars) according to the fickle whims of the fan base, which is ignorant of a lot of inside information and possesses about 50,000 different opinions? If some fans don't care about Boston's return for Betts, then they aren't serious fans.

It also does not matter if Alex Verdugo (or Jeter Downs or Connor Wong) never becomes Mookie 2.0. The Red Sox can attempt to replace Betts's production from more than one player. In 2020, Betts will earn 46.3 times Verdugo's salary ($27,000,000 versus $583,500) – and he is unlikely to be 46.3 times as productive.

And after saying the Red Sox have 17 years of control over those three players, it's a bit nonsensical for McAdam to harp on Verdugo being "doubtful" for Opening Day in 2021. It's an incredibly minor issue considering that the Red Sox have control over Verdugo through the 2025 season. A possible IL stint should cause us to rant and rave at the Boston front office? So if Betts, who may only be a Dodger for one season, turns an ankle next week and ends up missing LA's first two weeks, would that suddenly nullify any benefits the Dodgers might have received?


johngoldfine said...

"When has it ever been a smart idea to run a baseball team (in this case, a team worth several billion dollars) according to the fickle whims of the fan base, which is ignorant of a lot of inside information and possesses about 50,000 different opinions? If some fans don't care about Boston's return for Betts, then they aren't serious fans."

I don't think fan anger about the trade is based on a "fickle whim." I don't think Boston fans have 50,000 different opinions about Mookie Betts. We may be ignorant about a lot of insider things, but we are somewhat capable of judging what we've lost and completely capable of knowing our own feelings about what we've lost--and we go the ballpark not to admire the canny insider moves of John Henry in right field or at the plate.

The ownership has to consider fan reaction if it expects to fill seats.

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