Why we were high on Mookie Betts’ trade value
Update on 2/8/20: We’ve adjusted Maeda’s value up a little based on the latest PECOTA projections. Others involved did not change materially.
Update on 2/6/20: Based on new information being reported by Ken Rosenthal, we’ve downgraded Brusdar Graterol’s valuation.
Update on 2/5/20: Yes, Mookie’s value was high. The Red Sox did well in the Betts/Price trade. Here’s why:
Assuming the Red Sox are covering about half of David Price’s salary in the Betts trade (which is what Ken Rosenthal is estimating, although it hasn’t been confirmed yet), it doesn’t quite cover our estimate of Price’s negative value. We also have Verdugo’s value a little bit below Mookie’s, but the inclusion of Graterol closes that small value gap, then takes it into overpay territory.
Then again, one thing we didn’t mention in our original analysis below (because we didn’t know Mookie’s destination) is that the Dodgers get an extra bonus of one month of Betts’ service time, since they are highly likely to play in October — when you factor that in, it skews more to the fair side.
But then, on the Boston side, there’s another hidden benefit: because this trade gets them under the CBT in 2020, which was their main goal, it allows them not only to save on payroll, but on tax overages as well, which would have been quite high for them. Further, they would have been penalized with lower draft picks. So there is hidden value in avoiding both of those outcomes. Hence: we see this trade as a slight win for Boston.
Here at BTV, we sometimes find ourselves going against the grain when it comes to popular opinion. We seemed to be the only ones who thought Corey Kluber  , Nomar Mazara [0.0] , and Omar Narvaez [7.8] wouldn’t fetch much in trade, and we were right.
But sometimes we’re on the opposite side of the fence. Popular opinion (at least, if you go by what media pundits have been saying) seems to be that Mookie Betts [-20.3] wouldn’t return a whole lot either. We disagree. Most of these pundits cite two things: Betts has only one year of control, and he’s predicted by MLBTR to make $27.7M. That’s already a lot of salary for one year, right? Yes, it is. Which means there’s not much surplus value, right?
Wrong. We think there’s still a lot of surplus.
Mookie Betts is not your average Arb3 player. He is elite, second only to Mike Trout [83.2] when it comes to production. Over the last five years, Betts has put up a whopping 35.4 WAR (exactly the same as measured by both fWAR and BWARP), including a remarkable 10.4 fWAR in 2018. Steamer projects him for 6.6 fWAR for 2020, and that may be conservative.
Using our weighted average approach to WAR systems, which also includes key peripherals, we estimate him for 7.8 WAR for 2020. This is partly due to the fact that he’s still young — he’s coming into his age-27 year, which is typically the first year of peak performance. That’s right: we haven’t even seen Peak Mookie yet.
Further, he carries little injury risk, since he’s proven to be quite healthy and durable. At age 27, our injury-risk discount for position players is only 16%, which means our adjusted WAR projection is 6.6. Translating that to dollar value, that comes to $62.7M in AFV. Against a salary of $27.7M, that leaves us with a surplus of $35M.
But that’s not all. If Mookie is traded this offseason, the acquiring team will also get the additional hidden value of the draft pick, after Betts is offered (and most assuredly would decline) the qualifying offer after the 2020 season (note that this only applies if he’s traded now, because to get the QO, a team has to carry that player for the full year; therefore that value wouldn’t exist if Betts is traded at the deadline). We estimate that at $9M (note that this varies due to a number of factors, so it’s a rough average). So now we’re up to $44M in surplus.
Additionally, Mookie, being a superstar, comes with great marketability — any team that acquires him figures to sell more tickets and merchandise with his name on it. And as with most elite players, we expect him to go towards the higher end of his range, not the middle. Conservatively, we’ve added only $6M to account for both of these factors, which is why we end up at $50M as the median.
Further, we may be underrating him due to position. Betts has been putting up those WAR numbers playing mostly in RF, which comes with less of a positional benefit than if he were playing CF (as Trout does) or SS (as Francisco Lindor [36.2] does). If a team traded for him to play center, he’d likely produce even more because of that adjustment.
We also shouldn’t forget Betts is coming into his walk year — when players typically turn it up a notch to improve their chances for a rich contract in free agency.
Lastly, Betts is the type of player who can move the needle — for a team like the Dodgers, who are desperate to get over the hump and finally win that elusive World Series; or a team looking to make a splash and finally get into the playoffs after multiple losing years (like the Padres or Reds). There is marginal-win value to those teams, and they shouldn’t be afraid to pay the price for him in trade as a result.
So for those who think one (not-cheap) year of Betts won’t return much to the Red Sox in trade, we think otherwise.