Tomase: Why Mookie's potentially record-setting arbitration case should terrify Sox

John Tomase
January 10, 2019 - 4:54 pm
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Here's a phrase we heard a lot until he won the MVP award: Mookie Betts isn't Mike Trout.

Betts is really good, the logic went, but Trout is otherworldly. Then Betts bested every player in baseball -- including Trout -- with a monster 2018 and we're about to be reminded of the real reason the two aren't alike.

Arbitration.

Teams and players must exchange numbers by Friday, and Betts could set a record by becoming the first player to request $20 million (unless Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, in his final year of arbitration, beats him to it).

In baseball's old days, Betts probably would've signed an extension by now. Just look at Trout, who bypassed a chance to hit free agency at age 25 when he signed a six-year, $144 million extension with the Angels in 2014. Then only 22 years old, Trout could've cashed in with record arbitration hauls in 2015, 2016, and 2017 before becoming baseball's first $300 million player last year.

Instead, he hedged and took the guaranteed security of a contract that will keep him off the market until 2021.

Betts doesn't operate that way, content instead to go year to year and then reach free agency as quickly as possible. The Red Sox control his rights for one more season, which means he'll join Trout as the linchpin of the 2021 free agent class.

He aggressively bet on himself at this time last year, filing for $10.5 million vs. the team's offer of $7.5 million. According to a fascinating nugget from ESPN's Jeff Passan, the Red Sox were so concerned about insulting Betts during the arbitration hearing that rather than denigrate his production, they instead rolled a highlight reel of Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, a World Series champ who had just set a first-year arbitration record by settling with the Cubs for $10.85 million.

Their implication -- that Betts didn't yet deserve to be paid like Bryant -- ultimately failed to sway the three-person panel, which ruled in his favor.

Betts then backed up his confidence by delivering one of the greatest all-around seasons in Red Sox history, claiming a batting title with a .346 average, winning a Gold Glove, compiling a 30-30 season, and leading the league in WAR at 10.9, a figure topped only by Carl Yastrzemski's Triple Crown 1967 in team annals.

In a perfect world, the Red Sox would extend Betts and be done with it, but the concept of players trading free agent years for security has become anachronistic in an era where 30-year-old free agents like J.D. Martinez can remain unsigned into spring training. The game's most valuable currency is youth, and it's fleeting. Whereas once upon a time Betts could've taken an extension through his 20s and then gotten paid again at 31 or 32, a player's biggest earning window now opens and closes early.

Betts' reluctance to engage in extension talks should worry the Red Sox, because it increases the likelihood that once he hits free agency, he's gone.

Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is already on record that the Red Sox will maintain their file-and-go stance of a year ago and conduct arbitration hearings with any players who don't agree to contracts before Friday's 1 p.m. deadline. Betts is just one of 10 facing that possibility; others include standouts like Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Matt Barnes.

Betts is the one to watch. He's due for another massive payday as he counts the days until the rest of baseball can bid on his services, too.

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