Note: This post was written under the assumption that Mookie Betts was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Last night, Jon Heyman reported that the Boston Red Sox are trying to reconfigure the trade. Because I don’t like the idea of letting 2,000+ words go to complete waste, this post is going to assume the trade is going to be finalized. Even if it is not, much of the basic principles identified in the post will remain true.
Mookie Betts is the second-best player in Major League Baseball. As noted by The Ringer‘s Ben Lindbergh, Betts trails only Mike Trout in Wins Above Replacement for the last two, three, four, five, and six seasons in Major League Baseball–in a relatively down 2019, Betts “only” placed seventh among the sport’s position players. And while it is inherently difficult to look at a player like Betts and conclude that the best is yet to come, he’s just twenty-seven years old, so it isn’t quite far-fetched.
A few months ago, I advocated for Mookie Betts as a potential trade target for the St. Louis Cardinals, not only because he is a great player, but because he, a superb defensive right fielder who is widely believed to be capable of handling center field, would be a perfect fit on the Cardinals’ current roster. In contrast to Francisco Lindor, who would be replacing 2019 All-Star Paul DeJong (or Matt Carpenter, while forcing Paul DeJong to play a position at which he would be far less valuable), or Nolan Arenado, who would be replacing Carpenter (a top-ten MVP vote recipient just two seasons ago), Betts would be replacing one of Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, or Dexter Fowler, depending on how one would want to shuffle the outfield alignment around. While Betts only had one year remaining under the control of the Boston Red Sox before he was scheduled to reach free agency, and by all accounts was interested in at least testing the free agency waters following the 2020 season, he would provide such value to a team in 2020 that his was the name that made my ears ring when fancifully speculating trades.
On Tuesday, the Boston Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers, essentially ending my dreams of Mookie Betts: St. Louis Cardinal. And reaction to the trade has been overwhelmingly negative towards the Red Sox, and for good reason. The primary reaction was, and should be, indignation that a playoff-contending team like the Red Sox, a team that missed the postseason in 2019 but won 108 games and the World Series the year before, was so quick to go into sell mode as a means of offloading salary in order to stay under the league’s competitive balance tax. The Red Sox had spent liberally in the 2018 campaign and won the World Series in part because of it, but this off-season, they made their team objectively worse for 2020 in order to cut costs–not only did the team trade Betts, well-compensated at $27 million for the 2020 season though a bargain by any reasonable estimation, but they were seemingly willing to take a lesser package in return so that they could also jettison the (less team-friendly) contract of starting pitcher David Price.
So much attention has been paid to the Red Sox end of this trade, and for good reason, but seeing as the Cardinals were never going to be in the market to sell Mookie Betts but rather would have been in the market to acquire him, it’s worth looking at the trade from the perspective of the team that actually did acquire him–the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As part of the three-team trade that sent Betts and Price to the west coast, the Dodgers were forced to part with two players–outfielder Alex Verdugo (who is widely assumed to be the man who will take Betts’s spot in right field in Boston) and pitcher Kenta Maeda, who was sent to the Minnesota Twins, who in turn flipped prospect Brusdar Graterol to the Red Sox. And while finding players of roughly equal value in a vacuum to Verdugo and Maeda might be the intuitive move in determining whether you would want to make the trade if the Cardinals were the ones acquiring Betts and Price, it’s also disingenuous to the realities of constructing a blockbuster trade. Maybe for the Red Sox and Twins, a young outfielder and a capable MLB pitcher were non-negotiable parts of the package.
Verdugo, because he is clearly not as good as Mookie Betts, has been mocked fairly regularly over the last few days. As Verdugo, 23, won’t become a free agent until after the 2024 season, comparing him to Betts as though the Red Sox would have been guaranteed the remainder of his career and as though his previous accomplishments are now transferred over to the Dodgers is absurd. The Cardinals obviously do not have a Mookie Betts on their roster, but they also don’t have a clean parallel for Alex Verdugo. Verdugo, despite missing the final two months of the 2019 season and playing for a team with so much lineup depth that he didn’t have to play every day (thus hurting his compiled statistics), was above-average at the plate (114 wRC+, somewhere between Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna offensively last season) and was an above-average defensive outfielder, primarily in center field. At 2.2 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, the only 2019 Cardinals outfielder who eclipsed him was Marcell Ozuna, who 1. Was far less valuable on a rate basis, and 2. Is now on the Atlanta Braves. At a projected 3.2 WAR for 2020, per Steamer, Verdugo would project to be the third-best position player on the Cardinals, behind Pauls DeJong and Goldschmidt.
Prior to the 2019 season, Alex Verdugo ranked as the top prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, and MLB.com had him at #35 overall. There isn’t a clean analogue for Verdugo on the Cardinals’ roster, but the closest one in the organization as a whole is probably Dylan Carlson. Carlson, the team’s top prospect, is a somewhat higher ranked outfield prospect than Verdugo was, and he comes with that extra year of team control, but Verdugo also has proven over 488 plate appearances that he won’t be completely overwhelmed by MLB pitching. Perhaps Carlson is more valuable than Verdugo, but there isn’t another outfielder in the organization, objectively, who could eclipse Verdugo’s value. And the Cardinals wouldn’t just need to equal the Dodgers’ offer for Mookie Betts–they would have to eclipse it, even if marginally.
Kenta Maeda is on one of the strangest contracts in Major League Baseball, a hyper-team friendly deal that will pay the better-than-average pitcher just $3.125 million for each of the next four seasons. Not only is there not a clean parallel for Maeda on the Cardinals, there isn’t really one in all of Major League Baseball. The closest parallel might be a Carlos Martinez whose health and starter status could be assured–peak Carlos Martinez was better than Kenta Maeda, but Carlos Martinez is also on a less team-friendly contract: $11.7 million for each of the next two seasons plus team options for 2022 and 2023. But consider that Maeda was just acquired, straight up, by the Minnesota Twins for Brusdar Graterol, who is the #83 prospect on MLB’s current prospects list. This places Graterol somewhere between #1 and #2 on the Cardinals pitching prospects list–#2 is Zack Thompson, while #1 is Matthew Liberatore.
A package of Dylan Carlson and Matthew Liberatore would almost certainly be more appealing than Alex Verdugo and Brusdar Graterol, with the big disparity being the pitchers involved. Perhaps the Red Sox could be talked into taking a slightly lesser prospect–a package of Nolan Gorman and Liberatore (this would also preserve their already-legendary prep friendship) or a package of Carlson and Zack Thompson. Maybe they could even be talked into Gorman and Thompson.
Would you make this trade? This is not a rhetorical question–I’m not sure of the answer. If the return was Mookie Betts, I would lean yes on Gorman and Thompson but be more hesitant on the other three combinations. Maybe this is a reflection on my general conservatism when it comes to exchanging prospects for rentals (even when the rental is a superstar like Betts), and if your stance was that any of these packages would be acceptable, I can’t really argue passionately against that. After all, none of these four prospects have spent a single day in Major League Baseball. Even if you only get one season of Mookie Betts, you are getting one season of the safest non-Trout bet in baseball on a team that would immediately be vaulted to sole status of the title of National League Central favorites.
But at the same time, I can’t be outraged if the Cardinals front office didn’t want to take this risk. Trading twelve combined years of what most expect should be excellent (perhaps merely good, in the case of Thompson) play for one year of Betts, even if the latter is the safer, is hardly ideal. I would understand it far more than the rumored Nolan Arenado trades, because all of those prospects could have been preserved by simply signing Anthony Rendon, while Mookie Betts is a unique talent who is several standard deviations better than anybody who was a free agent this off-season in the outfield. But it’s a tough decision I wouldn’t want to have to make, regardless of which path I chose.
But in a move that could only be called a corresponding transaction, the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed in principle later on Tuesday night to trade two veterans, outfielder Joc Pederson and starting pitcher Ross Stripling, and 19 year-old outfield prospect Andy Pages, to their crosstown rival Los Angeles Angels in exchange for infielder Luis Rengifo and yet-unconfirmed prospects. Rengifo is a utility-ish prospect who was a below-average hitter in his first MLB season in 2019. Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling made actual money for a team that was taking on much larger salary obligations with the additions of Mookie Betts and David Price.
The losses of Pederson and Stripling, not unlike the losses of Verdugo and Maeda, are drops in the bucket for the Dodgers, a freakishly deep organization. Unlike the Cardinals, who would be forced to decimate the higher ends of their prospect base in order to acquire Mookie Betts, the Dodgers had the luxury of trading from positions of strength in order to acquire him. They lose some depth, but they get literally Mookie Betts.
But this doesn’t diminish how good of players Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling are. Pederson, a 27 year-old outfielder, has mashed right-handed pitching throughout his career, and in his first five full-time MLB seasons, he has a wRC+ of 120. Last season, Pederson hit 36 home runs and had a 127 wRC+ (for reference, Nolan Arenado had a wRC+ of 128). Stripling has alternated between the starting rotation and the bullpen for the Dodgers, but has been effective overall–his lack of defined role is more a reflection on the depth of the organization than on any perceived lack of quality. Last season, Stripling’s ERA and FIP were each a shade below 3.50; for his career, each mark is a shade above it.
Joc Pederson isn’t a superstar, particularly compared to Mookie Betts, but he is a good player, particularly when facing righties. Ross Stripling projects, by Steamer, to have a lower ERA than every Cardinals starting pitcher other than Jack Flaherty. The Angels appear to have acquired the duo for what appears to be peanuts.
Joc Pederson will be a free agent after the 2020 season, and while his third-year arbitration salary is still yet to be determined, his $5 million salary in 2019 suggests he won’t be a major financial burden in 2020. For a team such as the Cardinals, with intriguing but inconsistent options (particularly with O’Neill and Bader being righties who have struggled against right-handed pitching at times), Pederson would be a stabilizing force. Stripling, who is scheduled to make $2.1 million in 2020 and won’t be a free agent until after the 2022 season, has been an All-Star already and could thrive if given a full-time starting rotation role. They were redundant pieces on the Dodgers, but they wouldn’t have been on the Cardinals. Each makes a ton of sense for the Angels, but the Cardinals should have been willing to easily top Luis Rengifo. Even Tommy Edman, a player I’d trade for Pederson and Stripling without blinking, would be an upgrade over Rengifo based on his demonstrable MLB offensive superiority and defensive versatility.
Cardinals fans should be willing to stomach the team’s conservative approach regarding Mookie Betts, even if they respectfully disagree with it–the Dodgers had the luxury of depth and thus for them, the Mookie Betts acquisition was a no-brainer in ways it would not have been for the Cardinals. But acquiring Pederson and Stripling (or, frankly, just one of the two) would have been exactly the kind of move an organization that fancies itself as resourceful should be making. Either would be an extreme situational buy-low and either player would have been a material improvement for the Cardinals at very little cost.