Boston Mookie Betts drops to his knees after avoiding being hit by a pitch during a September 2019 game against the Blue Jays in Toronto. Betts, the 2018 AL MVP, has reportedly been traded to Los Angeles. Fred Thornhill/Associated Press, The Canadian Press

When the Oakland Athletics or Tampa Bay Rays or some other small-market team trades its best players in the year or so before they reach free agency, few outside of those markets rue the decision or question the logic.

Those franchises, with payrolls perhaps a quarter the size of their richest rivals, can never hope to retain their stars, so why not spin them off into multiple future assets, rather than lose them to free agency?

But when the Boston Red Sox, among the richest teams in baseball and just 15 months removed from a World Series championship, trade away Mookie Betts — the best position player the franchise has produced in decades — on the doorstep of spring training and about 10 months before he hits free agency, the calculus no longer makes sense.

And yet that’s exactly what the Red Sox did Tuesday, reportedly sending Betts, a four-time all-star right fielder and the 2018 American League MVP, along with left-hander David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The three-way trade reportedly would send Betts and Price from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, outfielder Alex Verdugo from the Dodgers to the Red Sox, right-hander Kenta Maeda from the Dodgers to the Minnesota Twins and hard-throwing right-hander Brusdar Graterol from the Twins to the Red Sox.

ESPN reported that the deal was pending a review of medical information and that the Minnesota Twins were also involved in the transaction.

There is also expected to be significant money changing hands, with the Red Sox sending Los Angeles a chunk of the $96 million owed to Price over the next three seasons.

While the talent-laden Dodgers just became a beast of a team and the clear favorite in the National League — with Betts potentially batting leadoff in an impossibly deep lineup — the Red Sox apparently have conceded the AL East to the New York Yankees.

Ostensibly, the Red Sox made the move because they believed they had no chance to retain Betts, 27, beyond this season, having tried but failed to reach agreement on a long-term extension. Radio station WEEI recently reported that the sides were more than $100 million apart in their most recent talks.

The Red Sox also see themselves, not necessarily by choice, as a team in transition, with Major League Baseball investigating them for an alleged sign-stealing scheme during the 2018 championship season — carrying the potential for major fines and/or the loss of future draft picks — and with their former manager Alex Cora already fired for his role in a similar scheme with the 2017 Houston Astros, for whom he served as bench coach.

But let’s be honest: This move was largely made because of money, with the Red Sox seeking to pare payroll to get below the $208 million luxury tax threshold in 2020 and thus reset their tax rate ahead of future seasons. Betts is slated to make $27 million in 2020, his final season before free agency, and the team’s payroll currently sits around $237 million for luxury-tax purposes.

It was a move that has seemed all but inevitable since Nov. 4, the day designated hitter J.D. Martinez decided not to opt out of his Red Sox contract, leaving him on the payroll for 2020 at a cost of $23 million. At that point, getting under the luxury tax threshold for the Red Sox was going to require at least one painful move.

And so, in the minds of the Boston brain trust, that left little option beyond trading Betts, who is simply the best position player developed by the franchise since — take your pick — Dustin Pedroia, Nomar Garciaparra or perhaps Fred Lynn. While Betts’s numbers fell off in 2019 compared with his MVP numbers of 2018, he was still an elite player, with a Gold Glove, an all-star berth and an eighth-place finish in MVP voting.

But let’s be clear: This was a choice the Red Sox made — not a necessity.

The truth is, the Red Sox could have afforded to keep Betts for 2020. The franchise, whose current owners bought it for $380 million in 2002, is worth an estimated $3.2 billion according to Forbes. The luxury tax? Being above the threshold cost the Red Sox about $13 million in 2019, a number that could rise in 2020.

True, it’s easy to tell someone to just suck it up and spend the money when it’s not your money in the first place. But something feels wrong when the Boston Red Sox, with their passionate fan base and perennial contention, are essentially giving up on a season before it begins, over what amounts to a small chunk of change for a financial behemoth of their size. They could have kept Betts and tried to take on the Yankees for supremacy in the AL East — then, if they were clearly going to fail, traded Betts ahead of the July 31 deadline.

The Red Sox will spin the move as prioritizing the long-term future over the outcome of a single season. But while that’s an argument that can stand up for Oakland or Tampa Bay, Boston fans are justified in questioning the message they’re being asked to swallow. A 2020 Red Sox team with the 2018 championship core still intact couldn’t get hot and make the playoffs? True, the rotation is aging and fragile, and organizational depth is sorely lacking, but most good teams have a couple of pressing questions entering every season.

Baseball people, from franchises big and small, spend their lifetimes driving to small towns, watching thousands of games and tossing countless baseballs into the paths of whooshing bats, all for the purpose of finding and developing a player as good as Mookie Betts.

The Red Sox did it. And now, without even finding out what he could have done for them in 2020, they have sent him packing.

It’s the kind of move the Oaklands and Tampa Bays of the world make. A team like the Red Sox is supposed to keep its stars and never give away a season.


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