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Why the Mookie Betts trade may (or may not) give Aaron Judge pause

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Boston’s willingness to shed the face of their franchise could be a source of concern for the towering Yankees righty.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

With the finalization of the league-altering trade sending Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers, the MLB is entering a new era of player-team relations. Boston traded Betts and Price to the Dodgers, in addition to picking up half the remaining money left on Price’s contract, in exchange for Alex Verdugo and prospects Jeter Downs and Connor Wong. This deal comes after the redacted negotiation that would have netted the Red Sox Brusdar Graterol in place of Downs and Wong.

Betts, arguably the second-best player in all of baseball, epitomizes the complete outfielder. Since 2016 in particular, he has blended a rare combination of plate discipline (11.0 BB%, 12.8 K%), hitting for average (.305) and power (29 home runs/year), fielding (four straight Golden Glove Awards), and speed (25 stolen bases/year). Beyond the on-field numbers, Betts was the consensus fan favorite, the best selling Boston jersey, a generational talent who makes Red Sox games must-watch events in the stadium and on television. So why would the Red Sox dump the former MVP?

A complex interplay of factors motivated this decision, but two stand out as particularly significant. For one: money. Pre-trade, Boston’s 2020 payroll stood in excess of $230 million, so trading Betts and half of Price’s contract allows the Red Sox to dip below the $208 million competitive balance threshold. This move enables the Red Sox to reset their luxury tax rate and avoid the third-time offender surtax of 42.5%.

The other incentive for this deal was to recoup value in anticipation of Betts reaching free agency. According to WEEI’s Lou Merloni, the two sides were not close on extension proposals, with the Red Sox offering $300 million for ten years while Betts asked for $420 million over twelve years. Assuming the Red Sox had no intention of extending him for those figures, Boston saw a chance to net themselves a return for their player rather than letting him walk for free following this season.

How does this all pertain to Aaron Judge? Many Yankees fans would consider it unthinkable that New York would trade the franchise’s leading score, but I’m certain the majority of Red Sox fans felt the same about Mookie Betts. Judge is making $8.5 million in his first year of arbitration, and like Mookie, that figure looks to rise significantly in each successive arbitration window. Also similar to Betts, Judge’s performance on the field and his off-field reach will help him command top dollar should he reach free agency. However, this is where the similarities between Boston and New York’s situations entering the 2020 season end.

The Yankees have vastly different priorities than the Red Sox. They are not looking to ship off large contracts due to aging stars. They do not have the complacency of an owner resting on the laurels of a recent World Series victory. And they do not have an MLB investigation looming over their franchise, and have no need for a preemptive deal to counter the impending sanctions (loss of draft picks/international bonus pool money) for cheating. Therefore, Aaron Judge’s situation is a non-issue. There is no mandate to dip back under the luxury tax to reset the team’s penalties, and thus no impediment to ensuring Judge remains a Yankee.

New Red Sox general manager Chaim Bloom was tasked with alleviating the burden of a payroll that ownership deemed burdensome. As recently as a few years ago, this was also the case for the Yankees. In 2018, the Yankees raked in the highest revenue of any MLB team, yet spent the lowest percentage of revenue on payroll. This was the same year that Hal Steinbrenner proclaimed that “you don’t have to [spend $200 million] to have a championship-caliber team.” Fear creeped in among fans that profits were prioritized over performance. Steinbrenner struck down those notions with a single decisive blow this offseason.

With the signing of Gerrit Cole to his mammoth contract, Yankees ownership has signaled their intentions of capitalizing on the team’s current championship window. Aaron Judge is the offensive fulcrum around which those efforts will or will not be successful. It is for this exact reason that the Betts trade will ultimately bear no trouble for Judge and the Yankees. The Yankees recognize how instrumental their right fielder is in attaining their goals, and will do what is necessary for Judge continue to be the driving force behind these ambitions.