John Henry’s disingenuous justification for trading Red Sox star Mookie Betts

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Photo: Craig Stanfill

The Red Sox traded beloved outfielder Mookie Betts, one of the best players in baseball, along with pitcher David Price, to the LA Dodgers. They saved a boatload of money, in exchange for some younger but much less talented players. Fans are devastated. Team owner John Henry’s explanation is touching, in its way, but he fails to tell the whole truth in a way that would help people understand.

John Henry’s statement in full . . . with translation

Henry issued an extended statement about the trade. Here it is, along with my translation:

This morning, before answering your questions I would like to begin by addressing Red Sox fans directly about this offseason. We are used to challenging offseasons, but this one has been particularly challenging.

So let me begin by saying that while they’ve been presented with extraordinary challenges this off-season, those of us sitting here today know that our baseball operations department under [new Chief Baseball Officer] Chiam [Bloom] and Brian’s [General Manager Brian O’Halloran] leadership has handled these challenges extremely well. We are confident and optimistic while at the same time cognizant of how all of these challenges affect you, Red Sox fans. We feel responsible to face whatever challenges arise in a way so as to protect the organization and move forward for the long-term whether it’s on the field or off.

Translation: I see you all out there with your crossbows and tear-stained faces. Here’s a generic statement about challenges to keep you happy.

Before [co-owner] Tom [Werner], Sam [Kennedy] or I ever dreamed of owning a major league baseball club, we were baseball fans, like you. I grew up a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. My favorite player was Stan Musial. My heart would have broken if Stan the Man had ever been traded – for any reason. Your parents or your grandparents surely felt the same way about Ted Williams and Yaz [Carl Yastrzemski].

So, on one level, when I say I understand how many of you feel about this trade with the Dodgers, I know many of you – particularly our youngest fans – are disbelieving or angry or sad about it. I know it’s difficult and disappointing.

Some of you no doubt felt the same way in 2004 when we traded Nomar [Garciaparra], who like Mookie was a hugely popular, homegrown player. All of us in the organization hoped we could avoid ever having to go through something like that again. But most clubs face similar dilemmas from time to time.

Translation: You loved Mookie. (We told you to.) I feel your pain.

I understand there is probably little I can say today that will change how you feel about this, but it is my responsibility to try. The baseball organizations we compete against have become much more strategic and thoughtful about how and where they spend their resources in their quest for titles. We cannot shy away from tough decisions required to aggressively compete for World Series. That is what led to this trade.

Free agency plays into many decisions clubs like ours have to make. Today’s players spend years in the minor and major leagues earning the right to be paid in a free market, earning the right to make choices. They make significant sacrifices to get there and they deserve what they receive.

Clubs also have choices to make as well in this economic system. It’s a system that has a few imbalances as all economic systems do, but it is a system overall that has led to labor peace and an amazing market for our best players. It is not the system’s fault that the Red Sox ended up in this position. We were faced with a difficult choice. You can talk about dollars. You can talk about metrics and value. But in the end, even though we are consistently among the highest spending clubs in baseball – with this year being no exception – we have to make hard judgments about competing for the future as well as the present.

Translation: The current salary system means it would be expensive to keep Mookie. So we had to choose. Feel better yet?

Over the last two decades in winning four titles, along the way we lost not only Nomar, but Pedro [Martinez] and Jacoby [Ellsbury] and Jon [Lester] and Manny [Ramirez] among others. We no longer live in the Musial or Williams era. Players have rights they should have had when Stan and Ted played. Those two great players were victims of an unfair system – one that gave them no choice but to stay put. At one point, Stan thought about going to Mexico in order to be paid his value. He was offered $175,000 over 5 years in the Mexican League when he was making $13,500 a year. The Cardinal owner went to Mexico to stop it.

“In today’s game there is a cost to losing a great player to free agency – one that cannot nearly be made up by the draft pick given. We’ve seen examples of this recently.

Translation: Players leave. Get over it.

We at the Red Sox will remember this as one of the toughest, one of the most difficult, decisions we have ever had to make. We too love the young man, the great, great smile, the huge heart and the seemingly boundless talent he displayed here.

We felt we could not sit on our hands and lose him next offseason without getting value in return to help us on our path forward. We carefully considered the alternative over the last year and made a decision when this opportunity presented itself to acquire substantial, young talent for the years ahead.

Translation: We took the chance to get something back rather than keep Mookie here for another year — even though he’s a wonderful guy.

This could have been done better

The problem with this statement is its length and structure. It rambles. It starts soppy and ends businesslike, when it should have done the opposite.

It also ignores the elephant in the room, which is the Red Sox’ previously stated desire to escape the punitive Competitive Balance Tax (also called the Luxury Tax) that baseball imposes on teams with high payrolls for multiple years in a row. Keeping Mookie and David Price would have cost tens of millions of dollars and hamstrung the team for years.

I’m certain that the ownership of the Red Sox looked at the pluses of keeping Mookie for one more year vs. the minuses and decided to make a choice that rewards them for the future, but costs them for the present. This is a rational choice. It’s too bad they didn’t explain it that way.

Here’s a rewrite for you, Mr. Henry.

To our loyal fans.

I’m sorry. We traded Mookie Betts, and I was fully part of that decision. I know you loved him, and he was a great, great player. It makes me sad, just as it does you.

You really only have one question for me: Why?

Well, given the rules we have to follow as a baseball club, we had a choice.

If we kept Mookie for one more year, he would have continued to contribute to our club. Based on his statements, he’d then become a free agent. In exchange for that great year, we’d still likely lose him a year from now, and you’d be just as sad then.

Not only that, if we kept him, we’d either have to surpass the luxury tax threshold, which would make it hard to succeed in the future, or trade a lot of other great but expensive players. Both of those options would make the Red Sox worse for many years to come.

By trading Mookie and David Price now, we were able to get valuable, young, talented players and retain the needed flexibility for the team to move forward. We can be competitive this year and do much better in the future.

So, look. We and you were going to be sad either way. We chose to be sad now and much happier in the future. It hurts. But it will get better. And we’ll do everything possible to maintain the competitive strength that has brought us four championships since 2004.

At least that would have been honest. To be even more honest, ownership would have had to admit that it made some big mistakes signing big contracts for other players (pitchers Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi come to mind) that got it into this position. But you’ll never hear ownership say “We made a mistake” like that.

From a business and competitive perspective, the Red Sox did the right thing. It’s too bad they spent so many words fruitlessly talking about past players and too few telling the truth about how they make decisions.

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