I was initially skeptic, but reports continue to mount that the Red Sox could be looking to trade Mookie Betts this offseason. Betts is estimated to earn a whopping $27 million in his final year of arbitration and has rejected all extension offers, while the Red Sox say they are committed to getting under the luxury tax threshold next season.
The Cardinals have exactly one move when it comes to acquiring top-tier talent: Trading for a player in the final year of their contract and then convincing them to sign an extension in St. Louis. They’ve used or attempted that tactic with Paul Goldschmidt, Jason Heyward, Matt Holliday, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Mark McGwire...
So in one respect, this absolutely looks like the kind of move - the ONE kind of big move - that the Cardinals have made and might actually make. But in other respects, this would be an extremely un-Cardinals move.
With Marcell Ozuna reportedly committed to declining the team’s qualifying offer, and honestly even if he accepted it, the Cardinals have a clear opportunity - if not a need - for an outfielder. They have a glut of young players with potential, but Dexter Fowler is probably their safest bet for 2020, and he has averaged exactly 1.0 WAR over his three Cardinal seasons.
So the Cardinals have a clear spot for a player that any team would make room for, because he is one of the top two or three players in baseball.
There may come a day when the Cardinals sign a player like Anthony Rendon or Gerrit Cole off the free agent market, but we haven’t seen it yet. If the Cardinals are going to sign a top-tier player, they like to acquire them via trade first. Whether that’s so the Cardinals can get a test-drive or just in hopes that the player will fall in love with the club and give them a discount... it’s what they do.
The first part of the Cardinals move, the trade, would be completely doable. Just this morning, Jim Bowden speculated on three potential trade destinations for Betts, one of them the Cardinals. Bowden threw out Randy Arozarena, Elehuris Montero and Andrew Knizner as a potential package. That sounds pretty reasonable to me. Knizner in particular seems like a piece that could move this offseason, given the rise of Ivan Herrera and the eternal life of Yadier Molina.
As good as Betts is, that likely $27 million salary and the fact that he is only controlled for one season will suppress his trade value. Still, Betts has routinely been worth over $50 million annually, so whoever acquires him will need to match that surplus value with prospects. But the Cardinals have more than enough pieces to do that.
The first potential roadblock once you get past the trade itself could be that $27 million salary. That would put Betts just ahead of Goldy as the highest paid on the team. And yes, the Cardinals top brass have begun their annual press tour where they cry poor, but I put very little stock in what officials say they are going to do during the offseason.
Ozuna’s rejection of the QO puts $17.8 million back in the coffers, and even a Cardinals club looking to maintain payroll could squeeze out an additional $10 million for Mookie Freakin’ Betts.
The real blockade would likely come during Phase Two of The Cardinals Move, when they try to sign Betts to an extension. All indications have been that Betts intends to pursue free agency, so the Cardinals or whoever acquire him would likely then have to re-sign him off the open market in order to keep him around.
In all of the instances the Cardinals have used this move, there was a chance the player would go back onto the open market. But it’s always been my sense that the Cardinals prefer to save this move for players they feel like they have a good chance of signing to an extension. There’s a chance that Mookie Betts falls in love with the Cardinals and St. Louis... but you have to assume he’s hitting the open market in 2021.
And when Mookie Betts hits the open market, he is going to get PAID. Mike Trout got $430 million guaranteed, Bryce Harper got $330 million. Betts probably lands somewhere in between. Even if you do convince him to an extension, that’s the kind of number you need to hit. That’s an absolutely reasonable number for a player of Betts skill set, but it’s orders of magnitude higher than anything the Cardinals have guaranteed before.
So... is this going to happen?
I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. But I wouldn’t bet on any move happening until it actually does. Every indication is this will be a sleepy offseason for the Cardinals, but of all the potentially BIG moves the team could make, I think this is actually the most likely.
In the event that Betts does get traded, which is hardly a given, the Cardinals absolutely should be in the mix, and with the pieces they have available, they should make it happen. It may not perfectly fit the move they like to make, but it’s pretty close, and the value Betts would add even if only for a season would be enormous.