The Boston Red Sox traditionally have the biggest small market mentality of all of the big market MLB teams.
That doesn’t reflect in their payroll, obviously. The Red Sox are routinely one of the biggest spenders in the game, reflecting the advantage of their market size.
But look at the moves they’ve made over the years.
Let’s start with the Mookie Betts trade.
The Red Sox traded Betts prior to the 2020 season, sending the young star to the Los Angeles Dodgers. This came prior to his age 27 season, with one year remaining before Betts hit free agency.
Not wanting to pay the massive price for Betts, the Red Sox dealt him early to reload their team with younger players. They paired Betts with David Price and cash for the remainder of Price’s deal, landing Alex Verdugo, Connor Wong, and Jeter Downs.
Verdugo received MVP votes in 2020, and is wrapping up his age 25 season. Wong made his brief debut in the majors this year at the age of 25. Downs was Baseball America’s #71 prospect heading into the 2021 season, and MLB.com’s #49 prospect. He spent the year in Triple-A with a .606 OPS.
The Dodgers extended Betts to a 12-year, $365 million deal after the 2020 season. They will have Betts through his age-39 season. Like any deal this long, extending into a player’s late-30s, there’s a risk of a lot of dead money at the end of the deal.
That’s not an issue for the Dodgers, who have the most money in the game, and can afford to spend on one of the best players.
It shouldn’t matter for the Red Sox, either. It’s not like they can’t afford Betts.
That said, you could make the argument that Verdugo, Wong, and Downs — plus the money saved from not signing Betts — can put the Red Sox in a better position to win.
This is a move we’ve seen from the Red Sox in the past, and with the Dodgers.
In 2012 they dealt Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto to the Dodgers. The prospects that the Red Sox got back didn’t work out, although two of them (Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus Jr.) were traded to the Pirates in the deal for Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt.
Beyond the Box Score has a good breakdown of the trade, well after the fact. The Dodgers got 20.7 WAR for $258 million, which is about $12.5 million per win above replacement.
The Red Sox got a -1.6 WAR, though they also only spent $700,000. The deal was a salary dump for the Red Sox and a costly way to buy wins for the Dodgers, who can afford it.
With the money saved, the Red Sox — led by current Pirates’ General Manager Ben Cherington — signed Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli, and Koji Uehara, along with acquiring Hanrahan. That group cost half the price of the players the Red Sox sent to Boston, while producing more WAR in one season.
That was a huge reason why Boston won the World Series in 2013.
Boston traded the bigger names at the time, but landed the more valuable players in the end, even if it wasn’t a direct result of the deal.
The Red Sox have also invested heavily in the draft over the years, and were one of few big market teams taking advantage of their ability to spend anything in the draft prior to 2012. Of course, that only extended so far. They passed on Josh Bell in 2011, then threw a fit when he signed with the Pirates. That said, the draft is one of the best areas to get value with players, and the Red Sox have invested heavily.
The traditional big market approach is to invest in stars. Big markets are in perpetual win-now mode, so paying for the best players now is a great way to achieve that. The Red Sox operate more like a small market team in this regard, sending out their big names when they get too expensive.
Granted, this isn’t universal. Dustin Pedroia, for example, is at the end of his most recent deal with the Red Sox this year. They added Chris Sale in 2016, and extended him in 2019. They kept Xander Bogaerts and extended him through 2026, although at a much lower cost than Betts.
The way the Red Sox operate is less like the Yankees and Dodgers, and more like the Rays with money. With a lot of money, compared to Tampa.
Boston has a significant advantage here. Money allows teams to make mistakes, which is what you need when you’re dealing with mid-tier players. And they can still afford a few top tier players in the process.
It isn’t a good look for MLB that the top players in the league are destined for New York or Los Angeles.
This is a good reminder that the small market way of looking for value and reducing every player to $/WAR isn’t exclusively a small market strategy. With big market teams like Boston taking this approach, it just makes the ability to find value even more difficult for some of those small market teams.
The Rays continue to be good at the process, even after losing Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers.
The hope that Pirates fans should have is that Ben Cherington will maintain his magic and elevate the Pirates’ ability to find value.
Minor league recaps resume this week at Pirates Prospects, while we will start a few organizational recaps over here at No Quarter.