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MLB Notebook: Even with no extension likely, trading Mookie Betts a poor option for Red Sox

(Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images,

As soon as the words came out of the mouth of Mookie Betts, the (over)reactions soon followed.

Earlier this week, Betts publicly confirmed what many had already suspected: he wasn't interested in signing a contract extension before reaching free agency.

The clues had been there for some time: the lack of engagement from his side when the Sox attempted twice (at minimum) to get him extended; his habit of quickly redirecting or changing the topic when asked about his contractual status.

Wednesday's remarks, however, made it official, seemingly closing the door on any talks between now and November of 2020.

There was no animus on the part of Betts. He showed no evidence that he had ruled out staying in Boston long-term.

"Like I said, I love it here and I think this is a great place to be, spend your career here,'' said Betts, "but that doesn't mean sell yourself short.”

Again, there was nothing disqualifying in his comments. He didn't hint that he hated the weather, or the expectations. He didn't suggest that he was unhappy with management or ownership. There was nothing about wanting to play closer to his (Tennessee) home.

The only hint came in the "sell yourself short,'' remark. That indicates Betts wants to be paid his full market value, which is entirely his right. Reading between the lines, that hints the Sox have been attempting to get something of a hometown discount in their previous entreaties. That, too, is their right: most extensions fit that description. The player gets the security of a long-term deal, and in exchange, the team typically realizes some savings.

Within minutes of the comments from Betts, some began painting a doomsday scenario. Betts, they maintained, was signaling he would never sign a long-term deal to remain in Boston, and thus, the best course of action for the Sox would be to begin fielding trade offers for him.

Which is, of course, utter nonsense.

Forget for a minute that Betts in no way suggested he wouldn't remain in Boston past 2020. Instead, he indicated that he wanted to let the process play out and would prefer to see where the market stands in another 20 months.

Instead, let's focus on the wrong-headed notion the Sox would be better off "getting something'' now for Betts, rather than risk losing him to free agency after the 2020 season.

1. If this is going to be determined by dollars offered, the Red Sox are as well-positioned as any team.

We're not talking about the Tampa Bay Rays or Miami Marlins here. The Red Sox -- by virtue of their attendance, fan support and not incidentally, the cash cow that is NESN -- have among the game's highest revenues. They're enormously popular with a well-established brand. Among the 29 other franchises, only the Cubs, Yankees and Dodgers could potentially be ranked above them when it comes to resources.

Translation: if the Red Sox are outbid on Betts in another year and a half, it will be because they're unwilling to outspend the competition, not because they're unable to do so.

2.  Even in a worst-case scenario (i.e. Betts signs elsewhere), there's tremendous value in having Betts for another two seasons.

It's easy to make the case that Betts is among the, say, five best players in the game. It's no stretch to suggest that he may well be the second-best player, behind only Mike Trout.

For the next two years, Betts will play the regular season at 26 and 27, turning 28 a week or so into the 2020 postseason. That represents the absolute prime of his career.

Other than a few minor maladies, Betts has been injury-free for his career. There are no chronic conditions to carefully manage.

As extraordinary as Betts was in 2018 -- compiling a 10.9 WAR, among the best seasons for a position player in the last 20 or so years -- there's nothing that precludes him from having two seasons like it this year and next.

Scary though it may be for the rest of baseball, it's possible that Betts hasn't yet reached his peak. For a team positioned to contend for a championship for at least that window -- 2019 and 2020 -- that's invaluable.

Put simply, and pardon the obviousness of this statement --  the Sox have a much better chance of winning another World Series (or two) with Betts than they do without him.

3. The Red Sox shouldn't be motivated by the allure of top prospects.

Again, this is not some rebuilding team, having to worry about windows closing and starting over. Well-run franchises can adjust as they go, balancing short-term needs without sacrificing long-term goals.

The Rays or Marlins or Royals or Reds might be distracted by maximizing their return for a star player creeping closer to free agency, but the Sox need not be.

How many "can't-miss'' prospects, a year or so from contributing at the big league level, would it take to make up for the loss of Betts? Three? Four? And for that matter, what guarantee is there the elite prospects would fully realize their potential in Boston.

Go back and check some prospect lists from Baseball America a few years ago and see how many failed to become the players they were projected to be. If you think there's risk in holding onto a major asset because he's not assured of still being here in 2021, what's the risk level in assessing 20-year-old players who've yet to play above Double-A?

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Is free agency, as we know it, dead?

Through Thursday, free agents had collected $1.86 billion worth of contracts, while $1.23 billion was spent on contract extensions. And that figure doesn't include the $148 million spent on Chris Sale or the $66 million given to Justin Verlander.

There are others on the docket, too. Gerrit Cole could sign a new deal before Thursday, and so, too, could a handful of others on the precipice of free agency. For that matter, some teams could sign players with little or no service time, the way the White Sox did with Eloy Jimenez (It should be noted that, at this point, it doesn't appear that the Red Sox aren't close to any other extensions).

The two figures are not unrelated. Undoubtedly, some players have watched what's happened on the free agent market the last two offseasons and advised (or been advised by their agents) to take the money that's currently being offered.

While the best of the free agents (J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Bryce Harper, Manny Machad0) eventually reaped mega-deals (nine-figure contacts), all four had to wait until February to get their money, and some undoubtedly don't relish a long winter of uncertainty when it comes to time to hit the market.

Older players, too, can see the hand-writing. Suddenly, 30-something players are fielding no offers at all, or, ones which are deeply discounted. So for the likes of Verlander, the promise of a short-term extension in the here-and-now, from an organization with plenty of surrounding talent, proved irresistible.

As for extensions given to players with short service time (Jimenez, Blake Snell), most of those are being offered by lower-revenue teams (White Sox, Rays) who value the cost-certainty associated with such deals. The Red Sox, of course, don't fit that description, and as such, aren't as invested in securing early-career deals with the likes of Andrew Benintendi or Rafael Devers.

There will undoubtedly still be big-name players on the free agent market, but increasingly, it appears as though many will represented by agent Scott Boras, who has long championed the notion that players are likely to gain the most value on an open market (where 29 other bidders can help provide additional leverage).

Looking ahead, the Free Agent Class of 2019-20 will be led by Cole, Anthony Rendon and Xander Bogaerts, all of whom are repped by Boras.

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TOP THREE/THE LIST

As my 31st (!!) season as a baseball beat writer begins, here's my top major league ballparks. Your mileage, naturally, may vary.

1. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore

OK, not exactly controversial or unconventional. But as the old advertising campaign said: "The o-riginal, and still the best.'' Camden Yards was at the forefront of the great new ballpark revolution. Opened in 1992, it ushered in a load of imitators soon to follow, none of which have surpassed it. OPaCY offers great sightlines, charm, a myriad of good concession offerings and so much more. Hard to believe that it's nearly 30 years old.

2. AT&T Park, San Francisco

It's hard to beat the atmosphere here. The ballpark is built into the China Basin section of San Francisco, right on the water (hence, the beauty that is "McCovey Cove.''). From an architectural standpoint, it looks shoehorned into its rather modest footprint, but fans only feel cramped in the lower concourses, and players only in the visitor's clubhouse. Bonus points for the statue of Willie Mays out front and the smell of garlic fires, which, thanks to the Bay Area winds, is thankfully inescapable.

3. Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles

You may not see this on a lot of lists, since a bias exists toward either the oldest of the old (Wrigley, Fenway) or the newest of the new. Other may prefer T-Mobile (nee Safeco Field) in Seattle (a worthy contender), and I myself am partial to Target Field in Minneapolis, an underrated gem seldom cited. But the Dodger Stadium setting is impossible to beat -- behind you, the skyline of LA, and ahead, the San Gabriel Mountains (if it's not too smoggy, that is). Dodger Stadium represents baseball's westward expansion and yet still offers modern conveniences. And nothing beats it for cleanliness - I swear you could eat off the floor.