This offseason has been defined by a revival of free-agent activity. Whereas even the best free agents wallowed on the open market through spring training last year, this winter, free agents of most stripes have signed notable deals. Though the splashy contracts have merely brought the league in line with where player salaries were a couple years ago, the pace and magnitude of activity has been a relief in light of last offseason.
The relatively robust free agent market, however, contrasts with the tenor of the trade market. While the influx of spending on free agents might paint a picture of a league in which teams are scrambling over each other in efforts to compete, the season’s trade rumors have told a completely different story.
Cleveland, a 93-win team that missed the playoffs in 2019, traded Corey Kluber, and continues to flirt with a Francisco Lindor trade. The Rockies, also-rans last season, appear intent on fleshing out the market for Nolan Arenado, one of the 10 best position players on the planet. And, most importantly from the Yankees’ perspective, the rival Red Sox have made attempts to dump David Price, and to trade superstar outfielder Mookie Betts.
This trend is both startling and concerning, as teams’ willingness (eagerness?) to rid themselves of the best players on the planet forces fans to consider whether their favorite clubs view winning as a goal or a burden. This reluctance to pursue winning at some costs also could make the Yankees’ job that much easier in 2020.
In terms of the team’s chances of winning the division and winning the World Series, Yankees fans should absolutely implore the Red Sox to shoot themselves in the foot and trade one or more of their top players. Don’t let Boston’s middling 2019 record fool you; the Red Sox retain a strong roster heading into 2020, one that could challenge the Yankees for the AL East.
That roster would take an enormous hit if the front office accomplishes their goal of dipping beneath the luxury tax threshold by trading Betts and/or Price. As it stands currently, the Red Sox still hold nearly the entire core of the team that ran roughshod on the American League two seasons ago, en route to 108 wins and the 2018 World Series title.
That team was built on the brilliance of Betts and a strong supporting cast of secondary stars. Betts won the AL MVP that season on the strength of a true 10-WAR campaign, and was supported by the excellent trio of J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi on the offensive side. Chris Sale, backed up by Price, anchored a pitching staff that did enough to make the lineup’s dominance stand up.
That core remains in place and in its primes. Betts, Sale, and Benintendi took steps back in 2019, but remain dangerous. Consider that even in a 2019 season in which most everything went wrong in Boston, the Red Sox finished eighth in baseball in total fWAR, ahead of playoff teams like the Brewers and Cardinals. They posted a .338 wOBA, fifth-best in the league, and allowed a .323 wOBA. That 15-point differential was among the nine best in the league, and topped that of the 97-win Braves.
In short, Boston’s 2019 went sideways, but they still had the profile of a playoff team. Given that, we should expect them to bounce back in 2020, and that’s just what public projections peg them to do. FanGraphs’ depth chart projections forecast the Red Sox for 48 WAR, fourth-most in MLB, which is roughly equivalent to a mid-90’s win projection.
Yankees fans should probably be elated if the Red Sox took an ax to that forecast with a trade. Price projects for the best ERA mark of any Red Sox starter not named Sale, and trading him would knock a few wins off Boston’s projection. A trade of Betts, while looking less likely at the moment, would obviously have greater ramifications. Betts might be the world’s best position player, non-Mike Trout division. His loss would shunt the Red Sox from trying to edge into the AL’s upper crust with the Yankees and Astros to scrapping with the Angels and White Sox and Twins for a Wild Card.
This is probably what the Yankees should hope happens. Boston’s 84-win record belies a roster that could push the Yankees right now. The Yankees are clearly better on paper, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of poor fortune to knock a 102-win team down below a 97-win one.
Of course, I’ve staked this argument so far in the context of the Yankees’ playoff hopes. A 90-win Boston team is a lesser threat to push the Yankees into a Wild Card Game, and from that view, we should surely hope the Red Sox choose to lightly self-destruct. In the context of baseball’s broader health, it’s harder to root for Betts to end up in a different uniform.
Every time a team willingly punts on a once-a-decade player in the name of profits, the illusion that any of this means something weakens. Every time a team, whether it’s the Yankees, or the Red Sox, or the Pirates, decides it actively doesn’t want a Betts, or a Robinson Cano, or an Andrew McCutchen, to finish out their career in their uniform because of money, it pushes the fan further from the notion that this game matters, and closer to a reality in which we’re all just rooting for our particular hedge fund.
I want the Yankees to win the World Series, and they’re more likely to do that if Betts or Price ends up elsewhere. I also want to believe that sports are fun, and a means of distraction from the market forces that dictate every other facet of our lives, not just another arena entirely beholden to those forces. The Yankees should definitely hope the Red Sox light their team on fire. I’m not so sure we on the outside should as well.