Time to Mook on: This is the offseason to trade Betts

Mookie Betts would prove a valuable trade chip entering his final season before free agency (Elise Amendola/AP Photo) 

BOSTON — The writing isn’t just on the wall.

It might as well be spray painted across the Green Monster: Mookie Betts is going to free agency.

The Red Sox have the reigning AL MVP for one more season, and then he’s gone, likely to the highest bidder. Betts has repeatedly stated that he’ll be emotionless in his dealings with Boston, expressing a desire to set future generations up with a mega deal.

His actions to this point have reinforced that wholeheartedly; he’s already turned down at least one $200 million extension.

So somehow, we’ve arrived here: This is the offseason Boston should trade Betts.

The Sox absolutely cannot let him walk for nothing, especially given the state of their bottom-third farm system.

On Friday afternoon, ownership announced they’re planning to slash payroll to get under the $208 million luxury tax threshold. John Henry is looking at a bloated $240 million roster with realism rather than optimism. Though World Series champions a year ago, the Red Sox are now a third-place team.

If J.D. Martinez opts in and Betts winds up with about $30 million in arbitration, the Red Sox will have roughly $122 million tied up in those two, David Price, Chris Sale and Dustin Pedroia.

Four players with a shot at seeing the field — maybe even three, pending Sale’s followup visit with Dr. James Andrews — would account for almost 60% of a $208 million payroll.

Those numbers don’t add up.

If getting under CBT alone is the goal, Martinez could be moved, but Betts is the player that would yield a real return and set them up down the road. How valuable is one more year if he’s intent on testing free agency and the Sox are entering a rebuild on the run? 

HELP NEEDED

Some argue that you should never let a future Hall of Famer go, and Betts may one day wind up with a bust in Cooperstown, but take a step back and look at the current state of the Red Sox.

They’re wildly unbalanced.

The lineup is potent — and there’s reason to believe it would remain so without Betts.

Xander Bogaerts went to the All-Star Game, Rafael Devers is a budding Triple Crown threat, and since 2014, Martinez has been the best hitter in baseball not named Mike Trout. Throw Andrew Benintendi in the leadoff spot, add Christian Vazquez into the equation and there’s a core to continue building around there.

But the rotation is an absolute mess.

Sale endured the worst year of his career and remains an injury risk moving forward, while Price has thrown fewer than 110 innings in two of the last three seasons; he’s become CC Sabathia far sooner than the Sox expected. Nathan Eovaldi will arrive in Fort Myers 30 years old with one healthy season on his resume. Though Eduardo Rodriguez remains a bright spot, he could regress, and there’s no internal replacement for Rick Porcello.

The Red Sox are keeping Darwinzon Hernandez in the bullpen, so Bryan Mata and Tanner Houck are their closest pitching prospects. Both posted ERAs over 4.00 as starters in Double-A Portland this season.

There’s a dire need for young starters. 

THE OPTIONS

Which brings us to Option A: Flip Betts straight up for arms.

The hyper-competitive NL East would be a wise place to start shopping, as the Phillies didn’t play to their potential and agent-turned-GM Brodie Van Wagenen seems to have no real direction with the Mets. If Atlanta goes one-and-done, perhaps they, too, are in the market for a player of Betts’ caliber to put them over the top.

The return would likely depend on his chances of re-signing, but someone like Betts’ hometown Braves could be bullish on the idea he’d stay. 

Option B is using Betts to regain flexibility.

The last time the Red Sox escaped luxury tax hell, Adrian Gonzalez was their guide across the river Styx. He was the centerpiece of the deal that saw the Dodgers take on $250 million in Sox salaries. Betts could provide similar stewardship.

Perhaps the Sox attach Price, too, and free themselves of the $96 million they owe the 34-year-old lefty.

Though far from ideal, it’s a reality the new general manager will face. 

BIG CONTRACTS, LITTLE RESULTS

If the Sox deal Betts they could always try to re-sign him in the winter of 2020 — he’s going to free agency, remember? — but how have those deals over $225 million worked out anyway?

Bryce Harper’s Phillies missed the playoffs. So, too, did Manny Machado’s Padres, Trout’s Angels, and the Yankees are sitting pretty in spite of Giancarlo Stanton, who played less than 20 regular season games. Nolan Arendo’s Rockies were the most disappointing team in the league, and Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, and Albert Pujols round out the list.

Striking, isn’t it?

When teams become too top heavy, the results speak for themselves. This isn’t hoops where two players turn a pretender to a contender.  

Betts has talked business all along. Now it’s time for the Red Sox front office to act as cold, calculating businessmen, too. 

Mookie Betts may be Boston’s best player, but moving him this offseason is the best thing for the franchise moving forward. 

Chris Mason is a Red Sox beat writer for the Derry News and CNHI Sports Boston. Email him at cmason@northofboston.com, and follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMason

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