The Dodgers in 2019 won 106 games, and say what you will about the particularly poor-looking October failures of that team, it was better than your run-of-the-mill contender. The team was by all accounts a perennial favorite to win the whole thing.
Whether it was the front office looking for a splash or simply them taking advantage of an opportunity, something franchise-defining happened in the following offseason.
The Dodgers went out and acquired Mookie Betts, the superstar former MVP, in the middle of his prime, and with one season to go before reaching free agency.
Both parties seemed open to making this a long-term thing, and after the nearly four-month pandemic layoff Betts on the Dodgers agreed on a massive 12-year, $365-million contract, the largest contract in franchise history.
The bit about the Dodgers last season before getting Betts in the building serves a purpose. Especially coupled with the fact the team didn’t really sell the farm to acquire him, with a package around Alex Verdugo, and no other high-end prospect.
With Betts a free-agent-to-be, this could certainly have turned into one of those one-year deals, with both parties going on their merry way in the following season. Yet, a few seasons later, and Betts is ten times the integral part of this roster as he once was deemed to be at the time of his acquisition.
Dodgers’ batters have been worth 25.6 fWAR this season. Over half of that goes to the duo of Betts (7.0 fWAR) and Freddie Freeman (6.2 fWAR), another superstar the Dodgers pounced to acquire once they became suddenly available.
Other players remain from the Dodgers before Betts arrived. Max Muncy isn’t quite the same player he was pre-elbow injury, and Will Smith was but an impactful rookie with only 54 games to his name when Betts first arrived.
With a bats like Corey Seager and then Trea Turner at shortstop, along with a pretty well-rounded lineup, there was no need for Betts to even contemplate moving around so much.
These days, his versatility is more than just a luxury. Dave Roberts isn’t moving him from right-field, to second, to shortstop, for the narratives, only. Truthfully, especially with the struggles of Miguel Vargas, the 2023 team carried major holes in their middle infield.
Betts this season has started 68 games in right field, where he’s a six-time Gold Glove Award winner, plus 39 starts at second base where he’s rated above average defensively, and even 12 starts at shortstop, the first time he’s played shortstop in the majors.
Sometimes it is easy to lose perspective too close to the picture. However, not enough can be or has been said about how pivotal that acquisition which at the time certainly had some rich-getting-richer vibes, has been for this team.
Freeman virtually keeping pace with Betts certainly helps, but it’s worrisome to wonder where the 2023 Dodgers would be without Betts. The dependence on the former AL MVP might be bigger than perceived around the bigs.
Look no further than how most Red Sox fans still see that trade. Despite Verdugo settling in as a fine big leaguer, when you factor in the contract Betts got from the Dodgers, and the clear fact he has never hidden that he wanted to stay in Boston, it all just wreaks of stinginess from the Red Sox.
Yes, there is some long-term risk with any superstar contract, but Betts has already far outperformed the roughly $100 million he’s made over the first four years of his deal (2020 was prorated, so that sum is smaller).
These days, a few seasons after he first put on the Dodger Blue, Mookie Betts is by all accounts the face of this franchise, its most impactful piece, and certainly on his path to becoming a Dodger legend.
Expect some melancholy at Fenway Park over the weekend, with Boston lamenting ever letting such a wonderful player leave.