There are several types of trades in Major League Baseball.
There are offseason trades to try to make your team better for the upcoming season. There are midseason trades for teams trying to make a push for the playoffs. And then there are salary dump trades – trades made by teams who simply want an expensive player’s salary off the books to either save money, get under the luxury tax threshold, or use that money towards paying another free agent.
There are flaws with a pure salary dump trade, especially in a league that doesn’t have a true salary cap. In MLB, there is a competitive balance tax (or luxury tax) meaning teams that go over a certain payroll have to pay a percentage in taxes for the amount they are over, so there are incentives for teams to stay below a certain team-wide payroll. However, Major League Baseball has seen record profits in recent years, and most teams are valued at or just below at least a billion dollars, so it’s not like teams truly cannot afford to pay any player.
Where salary dump trades become a problem is when teams use them to not only get rid of expensive players, but to get rid of players that are so good they know they’ll be too expensive to pay in the future. That’s what we saw on Tuesday night when the Boston Red Sox traded pitcher David Price and star outfielder Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Red Sox, a team that admitted before the season they’re trying to get below the luxury tax threshold, will save about $27 million on Betts’s salary, as well as part of Price’s salary, set to be $96 million over the next three years. (The amount of money the Red Sox will send Los Angeles in the trade is not yet known.)
Trading Price wasn’t much of a surprise. He’s 34 years old with a lot of innings on his arm, and his ERA has steadily creeped upwards the last three seasons. Honestly, this probably won’t be the last place Price is traded to before his contract expires.
Trading Betts, though, was not only a surprise, it was wrong.
O.K., it wasn’t really a surprise, because Boston has been floating the idea of trading Betts all offseason, but it’s still one of those trades you don’t fully believe until it happens. And it was a trade that was stupid to make. Betts has two more years until he reaches free agency, and already has an American League MVP, four gold gloves, and three silver slugger awards, and he just turned 27.
More importantly, he wanted to stay in Boston. Why wouldn’t he? The Red Sox have been one of the most successful baseball teams of the 2000s, winning four World Series since 2004.
So why trade him? Betts is the type of player you build a franchise around, not ship off to someone else. At the end of the day, Betts was the throw-in in the trade to entice the Dodgers to take Price and his large contract.
The Red Sox traded Betts for the same reason the Chicago Cubs have supposedly tried to trade Kris Bryant all offseason. The same Kris Bryant who was NL Rookie of the Year in 2015, NL MVP in 2016, and a part of the Cubs’ first World Series championship team in more than a century. Big market teams are crying poor and saying they can’t afford to keep their best players, so they’d rather trade them and get younger, cheaper players they hope will one day become the next Mookie Betts or Kris Bryant.
And it’s shameful. Boston and Chicago are big market teams, who have made tons of money off of their recent success. The Cubs just signed a huge deal to create their own TV network. It’s not O.K. for billionaire team owners to cry about not being able to afford top talent, while expecting fans to keep paying top ticket prices.
According to Spotrac, a website that tracks payrolls for all MLB teams, as of Wednesday there are 13 teams with less than $100 million committed to their 25-man roster. Three teams — the Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Miami Marlins — have less than $50 million in payroll committed. To put that in perspective, Clayton Kershaw alone will make $30 million this year, and he’s just the tenth highest paid player in baseball.
Let’s look at Kershaw’s team, the Dodgers, who just picked up a former Cy Young starting pitcher and an MVP to add to a lineup that already features an NL MVP in Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers have made the playoffs the last seven seasons, twice reaching the World Series, and two others reaching the NLCS. The Dodgers have found success with homegrown talent that they then paid to keep. And now they’re the odds-on favorite to win the World Series.
Owning a professional sports team isn’t cheap, but owners owe it to the fans to run teams like they want to win, and sometimes that means paying good players to do it. You don’t trade players like Mookie Betts in hopes of saving money so you can one day find success by paying a good player like Mookie Betts.