The owners of the Boston Red Sox gathered at JetBlue Park for their annual spring-training news conference, and no matter how they tried to spin their current situation, there was no escaping this inconvenient truth:
The state of their union is not strong.
The Red Sox, winners of four World Series titles in 16 years and one of the wealthiest teams in baseball, just traded franchise icon Mookie Betts and pitcher David Price to the Dodgers for injured outfielder Alex Verdugo and two prospects in a deal that has all the markings of a salary dump and has incensed their fans.
Popular manager Alex Cora, who led the team to the 2018 World Series championship, was fired in January after a Major League Baseball investigation determined he was a driving force behind Houston’s high-tech sign-stealing scheme in 2017, when he was the Astros’ bench coach.
The Red Sox are being investigated for their own possible violations in 2018, when they were alleged to have used the video replay room near the dugout to decode signs and relay them to the bench, to baserunners and eventually batters.
The team has taken a hit at the box office, with ticket sales down by about 15% and season-ticket renewals down by about 10% compared to where they were at this point in 2019.
“We are used to challenging offseasons,” principal owner John Henry said, with team Chairman Tom Werner and President and Chief Executive Sam Kennedy at his side, “but this one has been particularly challenging.”
It could get even more challenging if the Red Sox are found to have cheated in 2018, a season that ended with a five-game World Series victory over the Dodgers.
Commissioner Rob Manfred hoped to have the investigation wrapped up by the start of spring training, but said Sunday that he won’t have a decision until the end of next week.
“There have been a couple of developments in the Boston thing that slowed us down,” Manfred said. “People had to be reinterviewed as a result of things.”
Players are confident they will be cleared of any wrongdoing.
“To my knowledge,” first baseman Mitch Moreland said, “there’s nothing that they can come down on us for.”
Ace Chris Sale said he was interviewed for 30 minutes in the offseason by baseball investigators.
“I gave them every bit of information I had,” Sale said. “We have no reason to lie to them. We’re confident they won’t find anything.”
Designated hitter J.D. Martinez said he was shocked to learn of Cora’s involvement in the Astros’ cheating scandal and is struggling to reconcile his manager from 2018 and 2019 with the coach who spearheaded a sign-stealing scheme in 2017.
“It caught me off-guard,” Martinez said Monday after the team’s first full-squad workout. “I can put my hand on [a Bible], go through any lie detector, when Alex came here he never influenced us in any way to do that. He never even mentioned it. I didn’t even know they were doing it.”
The trade of Betts, the 2018 American League most valuable player, and Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner, did not surprise Red Sox fans, but it still stung. Henry insisted it was a “baseball trade” and not driven by finances. Fans aren’t buying it.
Yes, Betts is a year away from free agency and is reportedly seeking a deal in excess of $400 million, but how can the Red Sox, who have carried one of baseball’s top five payrolls in 17 of the last 18 years, not spend whatever it takes to retain one of the best young homegrown players in franchise history?
“I think we made legitimate offers over the last three offseasons, and I made it personally clear to Mookie, one on one, that we wanted to see him in a Red Sox uniform for the rest of his life,” Henry said.
“But we live in a different world today, and players spend so many years being underpaid in the system we have that when they get to free agency, they’ve earned the right to maximize their chances of being paid a maximum amount.”
The Red Sox had baseball’s highest payrolls in 2019 ($244 million) and 2018 ($239 million). Henry expressed a desire in September to trim payroll to get under the $208-million competitive balance tax threshold, but he said that was a “goal,” not a “mandate.”
Boston’s last reported offer to Betts, one of a few players who can rival Angels star Mike Trout for his blend of power, plate discipline, speed and defense, was for 10 years and $300 million. Betts reportedly countered with 12 years and $420 million.
It was clear an agreement wouldn’t be reached and the Red Sox didn’t want to let Betts depart as a free agent without getting more than a draft pick in return.
By trading Betts, who will be paid $27 million this season, and paying half of the remaining $96 million of Price’s contract, the Red Sox trimmed $43 million from their 2020 payroll, which stands at about $190 million.
“It’s understandable that people could view this transaction as a way to shed some salary obligations, but we tried to be clear that this was not exclusively about getting under the CBT threshold,” Kennedy said. “There are certainly advantages to getting under, but there would have been other ways to do that. You don’t trade Mookie Betts to get under the CBT.”