Column: Opting out of 2020 not an option for Mookie Betts, to the relief of the Dodgers

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts runs on the field during a spring training game.
Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Technically, it’s a choice. Realistically, it’s not.

Regardless of how concerned Mookie Betts is about the threat of the coronavirus, no matter how uncomfortable he is with baseball’s testing protocols, if there is a season, he has to play.

The Dodgers’ new outfielder isn’t in position to sit out like David Price, not without delaying an opportunity to secure his family’s financial well-being for generations.

“That’s definitely something to think about,” Betts said Monday on a video conference.

By not playing, Betts would forfeit the year of major league service time necessary to become a free agent this winter. Had the season been canceled, every player who accrued a year of service time in 2019 would have been credited with another year in 2020. But with a 60-game season scheduled, players who aren’t considered high health risks must be on a roster to earn service time.

As the projected No. 1 player on the market, Betts will command a contract worth hundreds of millions.

That’s hard to pass on for a first-time free agent, even one who will earn a prorated share of a $27-million salary — $10 million if the Dodgers play their entire 60-game schedule.


The Dodgers will travel 10,291 miles, the ninth-most in the majors, and the Angels will travel 10,457, seventh-most, in a schedule that didn’t limit travel.

“I’m not in the same predicament as someone who can opt out,” Betts said.

Someone like Price, the left-handed pitcher who was the other player the Dodgers acquired from Boston in February. Price has collected $121 million of the seven-year, $217-million contract he signed with the Red Sox before the 2016 season.

“My decision is going to be different. That’s the situation I’m in,” Betts said.

This will be a walk year like no other for the 27-year-old Betts and other soon-to-be free agents, a 162-game showcase for future employers replaced by a two-month trial. One extended slump and Betts could be entering the offseason with an ugly stat line that could depress his value.

Betts downplayed what‘s at stake.

“Free agency is on the back burner,” he said. “That will come. That’s nothing I’m really thinking about right now.”

Betts said he was more concerned with the coronavirus and baseball’s testing failures.

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts hits a pitch in batting practice.
Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts takes batting practice during spring training at Camelback Ranch in February.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“There’s a lot going on that needs to be addressed,” he said. “Free agency is not one of those things right now.”

Before Betts was traded to the Dodgers, he rejected a 10-year, $300-million offer from the Red Sox, according to Boston radio station WEEI, which reported that Betts countered with a proposal for a 12-year, $420-million deal.

But the market won’t necessarily look the way he imagined then. Betts will be searching for a long-term contract against a backdrop of not only a recession, but also an unprecedented level of acrimony between team owners and players.
Asked if he had second thoughts about turning down the Red Sox offer, Betts replied, “I don’t regret turning down that. Once I make a decision, I make a decision. I’m not going back and questioning myself. I don’t worry about that. The market will be what the market is.”

The market conditions could improve the Dodgers’ chances of re-signing Betts, as the team has demonstrated a preference for short contracts with higher average annual values over long deals. If Betts can’t find a 10- or 12-year deal, he could return to the Dodgers for two or three years and re-enter free agency at age 29 or 30.

Manager Dave Roberts made the case the former American League MVP should be judged on his previous six seasons if he falters this year.

Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts says ‘baseball did not do a good job’ of responding to George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests about racial inequality.

“His baseball card is long and very productive,” Roberts said. “So, 60 games, good or bad, I still think the industry understands the player they’re getting.”

In spring training and the first week of summer camp, Roberts has marveled at Betts’ leadership and professionalism. Roberts said those qualities are why Betts will thrive regardless of how much is at stake.

“It’s kind of who he is, and I say who he is in the sense of he’s as professional as you can get,” Roberts said. “It’s how he does everything, the way he prepares, the way he communicates with teammates, coaches, [and how he] plays to win.”

Betts continued working out over the last three months but largely refrained from baseball activities. He still wonders if he will play an official game for the Dodgers.

Roberts is grateful there’s a chance. Betts represents a rare gamble for the Dodgers, who in the recent past limited their acquisition of top-tier players to two-month rentals at the trade deadline. Trading for Betts required the Dodgers to take on Price and a share of his contract, as well as give up three prospects, including outfielder Alex Verdugo.

The Dodgers made the move not to win another division championship, but rather, a World Series. In Betts, they now have more than a talented player. They have one with a couple hundred million reasons to be motivated.