By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — After the glow faded from the glory of winning a championship in 2018, things have changed rather quickly for the Boston Red Sox. Instead of fighting to be at the forefront of everyone’s attention, the team appears keen on slipping into the background as much as possible.
Case in point: On Monday night, the Red Sox announced that they’d be holding a press conference in Fort Myers to discuss the Mookie Betts/David Price trade, which had finally gone official. They gave reporters less than 15 minutes warning for the media session, likely impacting the ability of some media outlets to attend. Holding it on Tuesday morning, with 12-plus hours of notice and before a day’s news cycle instead of after it, would have certainly resulted in more coverage.
Had this event happened in a vacuum, it would not have been worth noting. But it’s not an isolated incident, considering the ownership group essentially hid from the media after firing Dave Dombrowski during the Patriots’ season opener last September, only emerging almost three weeks later to speak with the media … in a room where cameras weren’t allowed. On a Friday night. (That came after leaving then-manager Alex Cora to answer questions he was not fit to answer after the firing of the president of baseball operations.)
And earlier this offseason, when stepping to the microphone to address MLB’s investigation into illegal sign stealing during the 2018 season, Red Sox ownership didn’t do much answering at all. Mum was the word, aside from “reserve judgment.”
Likewise, when it came time to explain the trading of one of the best players in the world (and also paying $48 million to get rid of David Price), the majority of Red Sox brass communicated in the form of a written statement. Only Chaim Bloom, the man who’s been on the job for only three months, and Brian O’Halloran were sent out to face the questions from the media members who were able to attend on short notice.
In that regard, it seems clear that Bloom has been hired to do the bidding of ownership, which in this case meant being the face of the trade that sent away a franchise cornerstone. Clearly, the Red Sox did not want to dedicate Mike Trout money to Betts, which is a more-than-defensible position. The fear of carrying an albatross of a contract could easily dissuade a team from handing out something like Trout’s insane 12-year, $426.5 million contract. Miguel Cabrera, who has at least $132 million left on his deal, would provide the evidence for that caution. The eight years and $234 million (plus an option year or a $10 million buyout) awaiting Giancarlo Stanton may not be as appealing now as it once was.
Still, the explanations and answers offered up by Bloom on Monday night seemed to have some basic contradictions that make the deal more difficult to properly digest.
Outside of the aforementioned Trout, there may be no player on earth more talented than Mookie Betts. And when healthy, David Price has stood among the best pitchers in the game.
Yet when describing the trade that netted the Red Sox a young MLB player plus two prospects (while costing the Red Sox $48 million), Bloom said that the team prioritized talent.
“You’d always like to accomplish as many goals as you can in any given trade. At the end of the day, we chose to prioritize talent,” Bloom said. “I think if you can maximize the talent on your team, then it just gives you more options, more flexibility to be able to fill holes and pursue whatever you don’t have. … But I think when it comes to any specific move, we have to prioritize talent.”
Making such a statement after trading away an AL MVP, an AL MVP runner-up, a four-time Gold Glove winner, a three-time Silver Slugger, an AL batting champion and a World Series champion at the age of 27? It is incongruous, to say the least.
RED SOX WILL STILL COMPETE … BUT THEY’RE ALSO GOING TO GET WORSE
The defending champions were bad last year. Quite bad, indeed.
They went just 84-78, finsihing in third place in the AL East. They went 56-32 against sub-.500 teams, and they went 28-46 against everyone else. They went 22-38 against playoff teams, including an abysmal 5-14 record vs. the Yankees and a 7-12 record vs. the Rays. Their starters had a 4.95 ERA, seventh in the AL, and their relievers ranked ninth in the AL with a 4.40 collective ERA.
The only significant changes to the pitching staff have involved the expensive shipping out of Price and the addition of Martin Perez.
Despite not even having a full rotation, and despite major question marks on Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi, Bloom said he envisions the Red Sox “competing” in 2020 — whatever that may mean.
“We fully expect to compete in 2020,” Bloom declared. “The front-line talent on our major league roster can play with anybody, and we’ve worked all winter to improve our depth so that we can weather the ups and downs of the season.”
Merely “competing” could involve a run at the second wild-card spot, which they came 12 games shy of reaching a year ago.
Yet, despite several votes of confidence from Bloom, the chief baseball officer also … admitted that the 2020 team would be worse than the 2019 version.
“I certainly think it’s reasonable to expect that, you know, we’re going to be worse without them,” Bloom said of Betts and Price.
Those antithetical opinions were espoused exactly 60 seconds apart from each other. The two statements are at odds with each other. One simply cannot be true if the other holds true.
Nevertheless, despite the refreshingly honest admission that the 2020 Red Sox have gotten significantly worse, Bloom pushed the angle of being competitive a number of times.
“We think it is realistic [to compete in 2020].”
“I think it’s important to point out, we felt at the beginning of the winter that this team had a lot more talent on it than the 84 wins that it put up last year. And we still think that there’s plenty of talent here to compete.”
“Again, we believe strongly enough in the talent level of this team as a whole to believe that we still can compete. And you guys have seen it over the years. You’ve seen clubs that were built to win right now have really disappointing seasons, and you’ve seen clubs that nobody gave a chance – or you saw one of them in 2013 – go and win the World Series. And you saw the same team two years running win 108 games and 84 games, so we know there’s a lot of variability about what can go on during a season, and the important thing is we feel like the talent is there to compete. … We feel really good about the talent level.”
And despite all of that support Bloom threw behind the 2020 club, he still admitted this:
“You know, I think it’s fair to say that you can’t expect in 2020 for, you know, for what we received, to make up for the contributions of what we would have expected of the two guys that are leaving. I don’t think that’s any surprise.”
Part of the confidence expressed in the talent level of the 2020 Red Sox is certainly understandable. But curbing it with the honesty about the loss of an MVP-caliber player (and a front-line starting pitcher, when healthy) works to render it meaningless.
THIS MOVE WAS NOT ABOUT GETTING UNDER THE COMPETITIVE BALANCE TAX
This comment may be the hardest of all to fathom:
“The CBT was not a major factor in us deciding to do this deal, as much as it was a goal this offseason.”
Similar to a hesitancy to commit 12 years and over $400 million to any player, the Red Sox are well within their rights to have a mandate to get under the CBT for 2020. Jayson Stark broke down the math nicely, but if you missed that, getting hit with the tax this year would essentially make any future $118 million deal into a $185 million deal. A $400 million contract for Mookie would cost $714 million. It’s significant. Obviously.
Yet the Red Sox’ official position on getting under the CBT this year has seemingly wavered. Owner John Henry said in September that the team would need to be under the CBT; in January, he blamed the media for driving that notion.
Now, after trading Betts and eating $48 million on Price while getting under the CBT, that drop is being written off as a mere byproduct of the trade instead of being the main impetus.
That’s more than a little insulting.
Nevertheless, Bloom insisted.
“We’ve said this before and I think it’s worth reiterating: You know, the goal to get under the CBT is not an end in itself,” Bloom said. “It’s part of a larger goal — our biggest goal — which is to put ourselves in position to compete and win sustainably for as many years as we can. And using our resources effectively is a means to that end. It’s part of that goal. So we wanted to get under the CBT in service of that larger goal. And we weren’t going to do it in a way that wasn’t going to help us with that bigger goal.”
More: “We felt that where this trade positions us in terms of the big picture, in terms of the long-term future, was a large enough step forward that — despite it being difficult — it was something that we needed to do.”
Bloom even went so far as to say the team still would have traded Betts, even if the team only needed to shed $5 million to get under the CBT.
“Good question. Hesitant to get too deep into hypotheticals but you know, in that case, I don’t — obviously, everything’s part of the calculus,” Bloom replied. “But I don’t know that it would have changed the calculus all that significantly, given the big picture of our situation, given the need to have a strong farm system to sustain competitiveness, given the importance of having a sustainable roster if you want to compete year after year in this division.”
Certainly, if finances were set aside, it would behoove a baseball team to have arguably the planet’s best player on the roster if that team were looking to compete for years to come in a competitive division. Downplaying the significance of dropping under the CBT in this instance is a difficult strategy to swallow.
THE RED SOX DIDN’T SHOP MOOKIE OR PRIORITIZE TRADING HIM
Bloom did not want to reveal the specifics of all of the negotiations, but he claimed that the Red Sox never once shopped Betts to try to find the best offer.
“Well I don’t want to get into too many specifics in this case, other than to say, with Mookie, we were never — and it’s something that we’ve said all offseason — there was never a point where we were pushing him out there or shopping him. We maintained privately the same thing we did publicly, that we had to be open to all options. Obviously over the course of the offseason, that involved a number of teams checking in with us on him, as happens with many players,” Bloom said. “Once it was clear that the Dodgers in particular were going to be very aggressive, it made sense to engage.”
If taken at face value, Bloom is admitting to not doing his job. When a baseball operations boss is tasked with possibly trading one of the best players in the sport, that executive would surely have to make as many calls as possible to ensure that his team would be getting the best possible return.
Merely waiting around and waiting for a good offer to come in doesn’t sound like the strategy for trading a player like Betts, as opposed to the “many players” Bloom nonchalantly mentioned.
Considering the return cost the Red Sox $48 million while giving them only an MLB-ready outfielder as well as a middle infield and catching prospect, it’s difficult to determine exactly how strong the return was. If Betts were shipped out without Price (and $48 million), could the depth added to the farm system have been more significant? Did the inclusion of Price (and $48 million) actually increase the return?
Based on Bloom’s explanation … even he wouldn’t know.
Of course, he does know — or at least, he should know. The fact that much of the negotiations are remaining private is simply good business.
Yet to those paying close attention, too much of Monday night’s press conference failed to add up. The Red Sox are prioritizing talent, while shipping away Betts, but not for CBT reasons, but for long-term competitiveness reasons — oh, and they’ll also compete for a World Series in 2020, despite getting worse than they were in 2019, when they finished 12 games out of the last playoff spot.
For a region that might have wanted some transparent and concise answers, the first official statements failed to deliver that much-needed clarity.