After missing out on the big-ticket free agents this off-season, the Dodgers finally found a way to throw around their financial might, securing a three-team trade with the Red Sox and Twins for outfielder Mookie Betts and starting pitcher David Price. In return, the Dodgers will sending back Alex Verdugo to the Red Sox and Kenta Maeda to the Twins, while the Twins will send prospect Brusdar Graterol to the Red Sox.
Prior to the deal, the Competitive Balance Tax number of the Dodgers was estimated to be ~$175 million against a threshold of $208 million, so they had ~$33 million to play with. Betts will count $27 million against the tax and Price checks in at $31 million. However, the Red Sox are picking up a significant portion of Price’s contract.
We don’t know exactly how much money the Red Sox are sending back to the Dodgers yet, but it seems to be, let’s say, ~$51 million and that only makes the trade even better because Price is a quality get at that cost. That would put him at ~$15 million against the tax and has the Dodgers just ~$9 million over for 2020.
In Betts, the Dodgers get one of the best players in baseball. The 2018 AL MVP has a .319/.413/.578/.991 slash over the last two seasons with a 158 OPS+, and he’s projected to post around a .930-.940 OPS in 2020, which would put him second on the team behind only reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger. But like Bellinger, part of the appeal of Betts is that he excels in all facets of the game. He passes the eye test in right field, and he also has averaged ~17 DRS and ~15 UZR over the past two seasons — including 18 OAA, which is around a top-10 defensive outfielder in all of baseball. While he doesn’t have gaudy stolen base totals (46 from 2018-19), he has been worth ~12 runs on the bases over the last two campaigns as well. All told, Betts has been worth around 17 WAR the last two seasons and projects for 2020 to have a realistic shot at being NL MVP.
With Price, the Dodgers get a former ace who is looking to rebound a bit. Cody previously wrote about what he could potentially bring to the table, and all I would add is that despite his contract (which is now reasonable thanks to the Red Sox paying for over half of it) and the current perception of him, he projects no worse than many of the other rotation options the Dodgers have behind Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw. Price struggled with wrist issues in 2019, but he also set a career high in strikeout rate and posted his lowest FIP (~3.6) since 2015, so it’s possible a move to the NL could lead to a bit of a resurgence for him if he can stay healthy (the real question at this point). Worth noting that if nothing else Price also seems like a quality candidate to convert to relief in October.
The Dodgers will be sending a real mixture of present and future talent the other way for the aforementioned two players. The cost starts with outfielder Verdugo, a highly-touted prospect who acquitted himself well in the majors last year with a .294/.342/.475/.817 line in 377 plate appearances. Just as important was his defensive value in the outfield, as he carried a 13 DRS, 3 UZR, and 2 OAA while playing at all three spots, making him close to a four-win player if he had a full healthy season. Of course, the reason he didn’t do that is because of back issues, but the Dodgers didn’t seem concerned it would be a long-term problem.
Maeda, meanwhile, has wanted his role as a starter defined for a while now and he probably gets that with the Twins. They get at least an above-average starter, and one with four years of team control for around $12 million guaranteed with a contract that heavily depends on bonuses. Since the Dodgers are awash in average to above-average starters, trading from that depth is not really the issue here, but the fact that he was nails in relief for a bullpen who still have question marks could end up being the bigger loss come October.
Betts obviously provides the most present value out of the players exchanged, but a legitimate concern is that they’re getting one year of expensive control for him and three years of an aging, injury-riddled Price. That’s true, and in an “add up the WARs” scenario, the Dodgers are probably not going to come out ahead in this, but for a team in their situation that has a ton of depth and payroll flexibility yet the same amount of roster spots as the rest of the league, cashing in those reserves for an elite talent while keeping their prospect pipeline entirely intact is definitely something worth doing.
Just as important as the 2020 season is that doing this now gives Betts a year in Los Angeles and provides the Dodgers a year to evaluate Betts up both. Both factors may have played a role in their lack of marquee free agent additions to this point, and this trade gives Betts time to at least get comfortable with the city/team and for the front office to be convinced he’d be worth breaking the bank for.
In the end, it’s a deal that the Dodgers basically had to do, as it’s rare that a team can get this kind of price on a truly elite player (paired with a solid veteran starter) while only surrendering one quality regular with limited upside from the same position (and obvious off-the-field issues that wouldn’t lead me to shed any tears no matter how good he becomes) and dipping just a tad into the extensive starter depth.
As has been pointed out over and over, the Dodgers would’ve been just fine in 2020 with or without major improvements. They would be clear division favorites, and with the state of many other teams tanking, getting close to 100 wins was a decent possibility anyway.
That said, this makes the Dodgers arguably the best team in baseball. While there’s no guarantees in the playoffs, I’m believer in optimizing your chances in October as long as it doesn’t come at the cost of the long-term outlook, and that seems to be exactly what the Dodgers achieved here.