Mookie, don’t go! I am sure the screams can be heard halfway to Cape Cod as Mookie Betts packs his locker and walks away from Fenway for – well, at least one season. He will be a free agent at the end of his 2020 season and could go right back to Boston if that’s what he and the Red Sox want. But for now, Mookie is a Dodger and Los Angeles is abuzz! Although I am not in Boston, it would not shock me if their local sports radio is all gloom and doom over this trade. He was a favorite son and by all accounts a good guy, famously feeding some downtown Boston homeless folk after a game 2 win in the World Series. No matter what the Sox got back in a Betts deal, fans were going to be unhappy because Betts would no longer be on the team. And while the trade was a bit crazy with its on again off again theatre, the final product is more interesting than the original iteration of the deal. Let’s examine the trade from the Red Sox perspective and look at their now Mookie-less outfield.
The original trade had the Red Sox sending Mookie Betts and David Price with some money to offset some of Price’s contract to the Dodgers and receive Brusdar Graterol (from the Twins) and Alex Verdugo. While Verdugo is still moving to Boston, Graterol’s medicals held up the Boston/Minnesota part of the deal, so now Graterol is heading to the Dodgers and the Red Sox are getting two Dodger prospects instead – Connor Wong and Jeter Downs. As exciting as Graterol was – a pitcher who can throw over 100 MPH – it seems as though most scouts were in agreement that he was going to be a reliever instead of a starter, which diminishes his value. Graterol has had both elbow and shoulder issues and hasn’t thrown many innings as the Twins tried to keep him on the field by babying his arm. Of the two new prospects coming to Boston in the deal, Jeter is definitely the more exciting youngster in spite of the reactions Sox fans might have to his first name – maybe they will think of it as finally having their own Jeter.
Connor Wong can catch and play multiple positions – which is an unusual defensive profile – and he has some power. With a career minor league slash line of .275/.342/.510 and 48 home runs in 904 at bats, he has some offensive tools and at 23 made it to double-A last year. If he can stay at catcher and the Red Sox can improve his hitting approach (his hit tool is projected as a 35 on an 80 scale), then he is going to be a valuable piece of the deal. Otherwise he could become a nice bench piece with some pop and excellent positional flexibility.
Jeter Downs – how ironic that he is now a Boston shortstop – was the Dodgers #6 prospect according to BA (Baseball America) and that’s saying a lot when you look at how deep LA’s system is. Downs is a bat-first guy as a shortstop who scouts believe will eventually end up at second base, but his bat appears good enough to be valuable even if he moves off of short. Downs, the 32nd overall pick of the 2017 draft, is 21 and reached double-A last season. The former Reds and Dodgers top prospect has some power – 43 homers in 1087 minor league at bats, and some speed – 69 bags swiped in 92 attempts, and he seems to be a “greater than the sum of his parts” type player. None of his tools scout above 50, but he has a little bit of everything going on including a walk rate consistently above 10%. His isolated power went up substantially last season and he has posted wRC+ numbers well over 100 at each stop since 2018. If he sticks at short then he should be an above average offensive shortstop. If he gets pushed to second he should still be a decent starter in the majors if he continues his current progression. Everyone, even the Red Sox, needs their own Jeter.
On to the outfield which obviously no longer includes Mookie Betts. Alex Verdugo, who came over in the trade, was ranked the 35th best prospect in baseball before the 2019 season where he established himself as a starter for the Dodgers. Verdugo might take some time to grow on Sox fans because he isn’t a classic masher in right, although he isn’t without power – 12 homers in 377 PAs last year for LA. His hit tool and arm are his best rated tools both projecting as 60s and he is already manifesting both in the majors. He slashed .294/.342/.475 in LA – an excellent pitcher’s park for a wRC+ of 114 in his first lengthy taste of big league pitching. A strained oblique ended his season prematurely which may have benefitted the Red Sox in this deal as it probably held his cost down. The lefty will start the year as a 23 year old and isn’t eligible for free agency until 2025 – that’s a lot of team control for the Dodgers to give up for a year of Betts, unless they feel confident that they can sign their new star to a contract at the end of the season. Verdugo looks like he could be a star and the Dodgers might live to regret this move.
In the other corner outfield spot, the Red Sox just signed Andrew Benintendi to a two year deal for $10 million buying out two years of arbitration. The Sox starting left fielder had a disappointing season in 2019 where he slashed .266/.343/.431 with only 13 bombs, but it looks like a lot of small injuries may have combined to hurt his swing and derail his season even though he still managed to play in 138 games. The former #7 overall pick has been durable in the past and is only 25 so hopefully 2019 was an aberration and we will see the Benintendi who played 151 and 148 games respectively in 2017 and 2018. The big question about Benintendi is whether or not this is all there is. You just don’t see a lot of 70 tools (his hitting tool is projected at 70) or 65 overall value projections, so the expectation is superstar and he just isn’t there yet. 2018 looked like he was going in the right direction with a .290/.366/.465 slash line good for a 122 wRC+ and a WAR of 4.4. That season is now bookended by seasons of 102 and 100 wRC+ and twin 2.0 WAR seasons which is far less than what one would expect from a 65 future value left fielder like Benintendi. Not to make Boston fans even more frightened, but two numbers that are concerning are the slight decrease in his walk rate in 2019 when it dipped below 10%, and his increased K rate which ballooned to 22.8% after two seasons of 17% and 16%. Both of those numbers need to trend back in the other direction pronto or Benintendi isn’t going to get close to his projections. It would be nice to say that young Andrew got unlucky but his BABIP of .333 was 10 points above his career average so that’s not a valid take. If you want to dream a bit, he did increase his hard hit rate quite a bit to 38.1% which is higher than his career rate of 33.2% so maybe that portends a barrage of home runs next season in a huge bounce back season for the diminutive lefty. Red Sox fans have everything crossed on this one!
Which leaves center field to JBJ – Jackie Bradley Jr. – who (sorry Boston faithful) just can’t hit like you thought he would after that incredible 2016 season where he generated 5.3 WAR . Bradley is 29 and has three seasons in a row with wRC+ numbers of 89, 90, and 90 so, in spite of his 21 homers last year, he has to play well above average defense to justify a starting spot – and lucky for you Red Sox fans, he has! JBJ won a Gold Glove in 2018 and up until last season was well-loved by the defensive metrics. 2019 might have been an aberration or it could be that at almost 30 years old, Bradley Jr.’s glove work is dropping off a bit. SInce that 5.3 WAR season he has posted WAR numbers of 2.2, 2.8, and last season’s 1.4. I would throw my money behind another excellent defensive season from the centerfield fixture for the Red Sox even if that just gets him back to 2.0 WAR. The bat though – that probably isn’t going anywhere until it inevitably declines with age and JBJ’s glove can no longer make up for all the outs he makes. Right now he is a low average, high strikeout bat with some pop – he slashed .225/.317/.421 in 2019 which is right in line with his career numbers. His hard hit rates and BABIP were also in line with his career numbers so there isn’t much to hope on there. Appreciate the glove and good base running, and live with the bat until you find the second coming of Tris Speaker (the franchise’s best center fielder).
Beyond the starters, there’s not a lot to be excited about on the bench or at triple-A, but there are two top 10 Red Sox prospects lower down who look like they will stick in center. Jarren Duran might be the heir apparent to JBJ but after dominating two levels in his 2018 debut and then high-A at the start of 2019, he hit a bit of a wall in double-A. Duran is wicked fast and has a 55 hit tool projection. If he can get through double-A this season, then he might get a chance to dethrone Bradley Jr. in 2021. Way far down on the farm is another speedster named Gilberto Jimenez, the Red Sox #8 prospect according to BA. Jimenez is only 18 and will probably start 2020 at low-A so it isn’t likely that he will be eating lobster rolls anytime soon, but the Dominican center fielder hit everything in his 2018 stateside debut as well as his 2019 short-season campaign. Jimenez is raw but has slashed .338/.388/.470 in 491 professional at bats so he is worth watching to see if raw translates into stud as he moves to full season ball.
Dodgers fans are psyched to have Mookie Betts in their outfield and for good reason, but the Betts deal is a good one for Boston. They saved a ton of money and received an outfielder who has already shown he can play in the majors and could turn into a star on the cheap for years to come. If Verdugo wins a Gold Glove and a batting title during his tenure in Boston, which isn’t that far fetched, and Betts leaves LA after a non-World Series season, then the Sox win this trade. In addition, they get to reset the salary cap penalty clock which means they can start spending money again in 2021 which could mean an extension to their competitive window. And if Downs or Wong become starters in the majors, this trade could go down as a genius move by new Sox GM, Chaim Bloom. In the meantime, the outfield will be good to excellent depending on how Benintendi bounces back and how Verdugo adjusts to the American League game and life on the East Coast. JBJ will be JBJ and you need to love what he is and get past what he isn’t. Now your pitching on the other hand…