Mookie Betts has exploded out of the gates for the Boston Red Sox in 2018. He ranks at or towards the top in the MLB in almost every offensive statistical category, and he leads Boston in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, HR and runs scored. With such a red hot start under his belt, there’s been a lot of questions and chatter within various circles regarding his contract situation and his future with the Red Sox, so now is as good a time as ever to lay out all of the details and scenarios.
Baseball contracts are a little different than most other sports. In baseball, a given player is under team control for the first 6 full seasons of his MLB service. From years 1-3, a players salary is determined solely by the team they’re under control of. In years 4-6, if both the team and the player can’t come to an agreement on salary, the player may send the negotiation to an arbitration panel, sort of like an unofficial civil court, which will hear arguments regarding compensation from both the player and the team and independently determine the players salary for the year.
Since Mookie was entering this previous offseason fresh off of his 3rd year of MLB service, he was arbitration eligible for the 1st time. He and the Red Sox couldn’t come to a mutual agreement to terms, so Betts chose to enter arbitration, in which the arbitration panel awarded him with a salary of $10.5 million for 2018, the 2nd highest arbitration settlement ever, behind only Kris Bryant’s $10.85 million in 2016. Betts now has 2 years of arbitration eligibility left, meaning he’ll enter and undergo the same process in each of the next 2 offseasons if he and the Red Sox again can’t come to an agreement on compensation.
Betts will become a free agent after the 2020 season, and being that he’s become basically the cornerstone of the Red Sox, Fenway Sports Group, the Red Sox’ ownership group, will most certainly like to lock him into a long-term contract. Betts has insisted on multiple occasions, however, that he’s not interested in discussing any kind of extension yet, and instead wants to remain focused on baseball.
“I definitely learned to keep one focus. When you put the two together, that’s when you get messed up,” said Betts this past offseason.
So, with all of this in mind, the question now at hand is what exactly it would take to make Betts a Red Sox going forward well into the future.
(Bryce Harper’s future contract could be the best barometer in determining Betts’ value. Photo credit: USA Today)
Traditionally, if Betts continues to produce the way he has this year and the way that he’s known to be able to, he would warrant a contract up there on par with “superstars” of years passed; presumably something in the range of 8-10 years and $200-300 million.
There’s one key caveat to that notion, though, and that’s the tumultuous free agency period of this previous offseason. There were many free agents entering this season who would have warranted top-dollar contracts, and none of them received the type of deals they were hoping for. While no free agent’s situation is exactly the same as any other, there are 3 particular guys who signed contracts this past offseason that are in similar situations as Betts.
The first is a fellow Red Sox, J.D. Martinez. Martinez was coming off of a career year in which he hit 45 home runs, and at 30-years old is still in his prime. He was looking for a contract in the 7-year, $200-225 million dollar range. After months of prodding and negotiating, he finally signed with Boston for 5 years, $110 million dollars. There’s two keys to this particular contract, in that it’s front loaded, meaning Martinez will make the most money annually over the first 2 years, and also the 2 opt out options he has after his 2nd and 3rd years.
The other 2 examples of Betts-like situations are Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. Hosmer signed an 8-year, $144 million contract with a player option after the 5th year, and Moustakas stayed with the Royals after signing a 1-year, $6.5 million contract with a mutual $15 million option for a 2nd year. Both Hosmer and Moustakas were expecting a far bigger return on their new contracts after respectively posting career numbers in 2017.
If there was one thing to learn from the 2017/2018 offseason, it’s that the tides may be beginning to turn. Franchises made it clear that those monster contracts of years passed, the ones given to guys like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Texiera, Jason Werth, and the like aren’t really worth it in the end. Dedicating that much money for that many years to one player can truly cripple a given club’s spending power for years to come and derail a franchise’s long-and-short term plans.
Perhaps the biggest thing to consider, though, isn’t contracts of years passed, but rather future deals for 2 particular players. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will both be free agents at the conclusion of the 2018 season, and both of them are the most similar of any to Betts in both age and production.
Each of them will be looking for that 10-year, $300 million deal discussed above, but it’s still unclear whether this past year’s deals are a true indication of a change in the landscape of baseball contracts, or just an anomaly that will promptly be disproven this upcoming offseason.
So, to sum it all up, Betts will certainly warrant one of, if the not the largest contract of his free agent year. That contract could be a 10-year, $300 million deal, if MLB franchises are going to revert back to awarding contracts similar to those of the last decade or so, or it could be significantly less, if this most recent free agency period is any indication. The most important thing to watch, though, is Harper’s and Machado’s deals that they’ll ink after 2018, which will each be a likely barometer for Betts’ value in 2020.