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The Trade That Changed Everything: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Pursuit of Mookie Betts

The Trade That Changed Everything: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Pursuit of Mookie Betts

The Trade That Changed Everything: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Pursuit of Mookie Betts

Andrew Friedman entered 2020 with a difficult mandate: finally win a World Series. With the backing of an exceptionally wealthy and aggressive ownership group, Friedman's teams had won five division titles and two pennants in his first half-decade at the helm of the Dodgers. Still, the years since Los Angeles' last World Series title in 1988 kept adding up, and the pressure to end that drought grew with each postseason defeat.

Just as importantly, 2020 promised to be a hinge year in the Dodgers' long-running dynasty. After 2019, Hyun Jin Ryu and Rich Hill departed as free agents. Justin Turner and Joc Pederson had just one remaining year of team control. Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, the team's long-tenured future Hall of Famers and top leaders, had shown signs of decline over the previous two years. The opportunities to win with the core around which the team had been built since 2015 were running out, and the Padres were suddenly on their heels. Friedman needed a game-changing acquisition, one that could augment a championship-caliber team in the short term and solidify its primacy for years to come.

He found it, as his predecessor had seven years earlier, on the other side of the continent. Thanks in no small part to relationships he'd cultivated over the previous 15 years, Friedman and his top aides cobbled together a series of maneuvers that netted them one of the game's top three players, adding a capstone to a team that already had plenty of cornerstones. They would also manage to convert the ambitious short-term move into one that could alter the next 15 years in the National League.

Mookie Betts shouldn't have been available. No matter what or whom the Red Sox got in return for their MVP right fielder, they were destined to be criticized. Newly minted chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom knew that, but he had a mandate from ownership: to reset the team's payroll, by getting it beneath the competitive-balance tax threshold. With Betts due a record-shattering $27 million in his final season of team control, Bloom and his front office determined that trading their superstar was necessary.

Once they reached that conclusion, the natural destination was Los Angeles, and not only because of the Dodgers' money. Even before Bloom got the Red Sox job, Friedman was talking to him about Betts. It was Friedman who, in 2005, hired Bloom to join him in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays front office, and who set him on the track that led first to the top of the Rays' baseball operations hierarchy, then into Boston's crosshairs. Thus, it was Friedman on whose counsel Bloom called when weighing the opportunity to run the Red Sox, and during those conversations, Friedman told his friend and former employee that he would be "waiting with open arms' if and when Betts became available.

In every sense, a Betts deal was the perfect move, even for a team with a wide variety of options and an inside track on the NL pennant. Betts was one of very few players who could meaningfully upgrade the deep, star-studded Los Angeles roster, but it ran deeper than that. Friedman and the Rays had been aware of Betts when he was draft-eligible in 2011, but their scout felt he would (and should) go to college. The Red Sox got to know him a bit better, including by utilizing neuroscouting tools to assess his vision and reaction time, and snapped him up in the fifth round that year. When Theo Epstein left the Sox at the end of that season, Friedman pestered him for info about any Boston prospects he should target, and Epstein gushed unexpectedly about the early progress of a little-known, undersized second baseman from Nashville, Tenn.

Friedman tried, but in his words, "[Boston] knew what they had, and immediately kind of stiff-armed me. But it was around that time that my Mookie Betts infatuation started."

Almost eight years later, the ground had softened. The Dodgers and Sox explored a deal involving Betts at the 2019 trade deadline, and according to Friedman, Boston was "open to it," but after the Sox got within a half-game of playoff position in July, they shut down the discussions. Still, the negotiations gave Friedman a window into what Betts might cost, albeit in a deal with Dave Dombrowski, whom Boston let go that September.

More than the mad pursuit of a personal white whale, though, a Betts trade also offered a chance for Friedman to extend and expand the Dodgers' dynasty by making a huge deal with the same franchise that facilitated its emergence in the first place. After Guggenheim Baseball Management bought the team from the undercapitalized, scandal-ridden McCourt family in 2012, they immediately threw open the financial floodgates. To take advantage, then-Dodgers GM Ned Colletti made some midseason trades in which the team took on huge contractual obligations but also got more talented. That brought Hanley Ramirez and Ricky Nolasco into the fold in July.

The next month, however, Colletti made his bigger play. In the August trading period, when teams could pass players (and their contracts) through waivers, the Sox — then floundering at 60–66 and burdened with a number of onerous contracts — placed Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto all on the wire. The Dodgers gave up five players in exchange for all of them, plus some cash to offset portions of their contracts. Crawford's deal was already looking like a bad one, and Beckett was a wash. Gonzalez, however, was a star in his prime, and by being willing to take on the other players involved, the Dodgers got him in exchange for very little talent.

Now, Friedman had a chance to turn the same trick. Moving Betts would help, but Boston would also need to clear a significant share of Davie Price's remaining three-year, $96-million obligation, in order to get the luxury-tax reset they sought. That kept the price tag on Betts more reasonable than it otherwise could have been, even for a single, expensive season of club control, given how exceptional a player he is. Confident in the player whose ascent he'd tracked carefully for years, using the privileged relationship he enjoys with Bloom, Friedman made the move.

His work wasn't done, though. Almost as soon as the deal was complete, the Dodgers offered Betts a massive extension. When his representation responded with a counteroffer and a willingness to keep talking, the full extent of Los Angeles' coup came into focus. Betts didn't get the long-term offer he sought from the Sox, but his new team made such an offer and appealed to him in a way his old one hadn't. Quickly, Friedman also found new reasons to want to keep his newest superstar around.

"Usually, you end up being kind of disappointed," Friedman said of acquisitions on Betts' level. "You've built something up in your head about a guy's work ethic, or how much they care. [But] somehow, some way, Mookie even exceeded our expectations."

Betts was more than a great player; he was an instant leader. Knowing that, and undeterred by the long interruption, financial disruption, and transaction freeze created by the coronavirus, the team pressed to complete the extension they'd discussed in the spring. On the eve of the delayed Opening Day, in late July, the two sides came to an agreement. Betts would be a Dodger for 12 more seasons, at a total cost of $365 million. No longer dependent on getting things right in 2020, Betts and the Dodgers united to solidify an empire.

Freddie Freeman won the NL MVP in 2020, but Betts was a well-deserved runner-up. After manager Dave Roberts promoted him to the leadoff spot, he was one of the league's best hitters. In October, when the Braves and Dodgers squared off in the NLCS, Betts was everywhere, with dazzling defensive plays that turned the tide of three separate games, including robbing Freeman of a home run in Game 7. He batted .296/.378/.493 in the postseason, with 10 extra-base hits, 10 walks, six stolen bases, and 15 runs scored. In Game 6 of the World Series, he struck the final blow, extending the Dodgers' lead to two runs and all but sealing the team's long-awaited championship.

With Betts, Cody Bellinger, Will Smith, and others in the fold for years to come, the Dodgers have smoothly turned the corner and are favorites to continue an extended era of NL West supremacy. They have locked up the services of one of the game's most charismatic and dynamic players for over a decade. To do it, they didn't even sacrifice much of the singular depth they had accrued in the minor leagues.

The trade, and the ensuing extension, will go down in history, not just as a mirror of the Gonzalez deal, but as a spiritual descendant of the trade that sent Frank Robinson from the Reds to the Orioles, spurring Baltimore to almost two decades as the American League's best team. It is the latest proof of Friedman's brilliance, the power of the team's resources, and the single stroke with which the team has locked even its impressive, upstart rivals out of the top spot, both in their division and in the league. It might be the most important and newsworthy transaction baseball has seen in the 21st century.

— Written by Matt Trueblood (@MATrueblood) for the Athlon Sports 2021 MLB Annual. At 224 pages, it's the largest on the newsstand and the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.

(Top photo by Eric Gay/AP Photo)