The curse of Mookie Betts: Immediate return on Dodgers-Red Sox trade shows shades of Babe Ruth

One hundred years (and one month). That’s what separated the announcement of Babe Ruth’s trade from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1920 from Mookie Betts’ trade from the Red Sox to the Dodgers. In between, there was an 86-year curse that needed to be shattered by a magical 2004 Boston team. A century after Ruth’s trade out of Boston, though, the reeling Red Sox can’t shake the superstition that Betts would be unleash a second curse on the franchise.

Betts and the Dodgers are one win away from claiming the 2020 World Series over the Rays. After LA couldn’t get over the hump for its past seven years as NL West champions, Betts has proven to be the missing piece to reach the mountaintop in 2020. Everyone knows Betts and Ruth aren’t the same player, and Major League Baseball is a vastly different place in this century versus last. But some similarities are striking: Dealing away a top-three player in baseball for financial reasons to another large market that goes on to become a major winner. 

This isn’t to say the Red Sox won’t win another World Series until the 22nd century, but the early returns sure don’t look pretty for Boston. For the second time, they’ve traded away a generational talent, and for the second time, that generational talent has grown into one of the faces of the sport in another city.

Babe Ruth trade

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Ruth made his debut for the Red Sox in 1914 as a left-handed pitcher. He would go on to be one of the greatest home-run hitters ever, but first Ruth was one of the planet’s best hurlers. It was Ruth’s pitching that led Boston to consecutive World Series titles in 1915 and 1916 — at one point, Ruth threw 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series.

In 1918, Ruth began his switch to more consistent play in the outfield that allowed him to hit nearly every day. He led the league with 11 home runs, and the Red Sox again won the World Series. But in 1919, a sixth-place finish in the American League had Boston spiraling downward despite Ruth’s 24 home runs. The Red Sox began offloading players following the 1919 season in an effort to refresh the franchise.

At the time, Boston’s owner was named Harry Frazee. In addition to owning the Red Sox, he produced Broadway shows, and the story goes that at the end of 1919, Frazee needed money to put on a show. So while Ruth was technically traded to the Yankees, he was more accurately sold. The Red Sox didn’t receive a player in return, just $100,000 cash for Frazee’s show. At the time, Frazee called that “an amount the club could not afford to refuse.”

One former MLB player, Fred Tenney, agreed with the trade at the time. 

“I agree with Frazee,” Tenney told the Boston Globe. “He knows his business best. A team is as strong as its weakest link. A player that fits his team is of more value than any star not working in harmony with his club.”

Ruth, of course, went on to hit most of his 714 home runs with the Yankees as baseball soon entered into the live-ball era. The Red Sox watched the Yankees win the most titles in baseball history while failing to win another title of their own until 2004, 86 years after shipping Ruth out of town. 

Mookie Betts trade

Between 2015 and 2019, Betts put up the second-highest WAR total in baseball, behind Mike Trout. While maybe not Ruthian, Betts was as good a player as a team could acquire in a deal heading into 2020. 

There were multiple financial aspects to the Betts trade from Boston. First, reports indicated that Betts had turned down extension offers from the Red Sox (he was set to be a free agent after the 2020 season). Then there was the matter of David Price’s huge contract, which the Red Sox wanted to offload.

Faced with the prospect of losing Betts for nothing in free agency, the Red Sox instead chose to use him as a sweetener to get Price’s contract off their books. The Dodgers and their deep pockets were happy to oblige, sending outfielder Alex Verdugo, infielder Jeter Downs and catcher Connor Wong to Boston in exchange for Betts and Price. 

It looked like a bizarre deal in 2020 because the Red Sox have regularly featured one of the highest payrolls in baseball, so the inability to offer Betts enough money coupled with the overwhelming desire to move on from Price were puzzling. There wasn’t just some Broadway show to fund. This was a team that didn’t feel it had enough to invest in winning. 

Soon after the deal, Betts signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers that will keep him in LA into the 2030s. There’s no telling just how much he’ll accomplish in Dodger blue before his career is out, but Betts, 28, got off to a good start in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, batting .292 with 16 home runs to go with stellar defense and base-running.

Differences between Babe Ruth and Mookie Betts trades

The professional sports world was vastly different 100 years ago. There weren’t the major television deals or revenue-sharing opportunities that teams have today. Clubs were almost entirely dependent on their owner’s money to finance the players’ salaries. That meant it was possible for an owner involved in theater to fall on hard times, need money and actually have to sell off players to make up for it.

In 2020, there are so many built-in revenue streams that players rarely are given away just for cash. The players traded for cash considerations are usually afterthoughts, not superstars like Betts. Trades for baseball’s best players are usually loaded with top-end prospects coming back the other way.

To an extent, that’s what happened with Betts. The Red Sox got back three young players they felt good about, but they didn’t get any of the Dodgers’ top-four prospects, according to FanGraphs. And it was obvious that finances were still at play, with the Price/Betts tandem apparently too pricey for Boston to keep. So the financial aspect definitely has some similarities to Ruth.

The biggest difference is in Ruth and Betts themselves. As mentioned above, Betts may have been the second-best player in baseball between 2015-2019. Betts turned 28 during the postseason. Conversely, Ruth was the singular star of his time. WAR numbers aren’t very useful dating that far back, but Ruth had the single-season home run record with 24 in 1919. He was just about to turn 25 at the time of the trade, and he still had the potential to return to the mound and be a dominant pitcher, too.

Baseball was also much more front-and-center in 1920. The NFL’s inception was that year, and the NBA was years away. Baseball was truly America’s Pastime, and the brightest of its rising stars was traded for $100,000 to finance a play. Betts is amazing, and the critiques of his trade existed almost the second after he was moved. But he’s no Ruth, and it wasn’t quite a Ruthian move.

How much can the Dodgers win with Betts?

Betts isn’t set to become a free agent until he’s 40 in 2033. It’s impossible to predict how the Dodgers will look in the latter stages of this decade, but the next few years are filled with promise. 

Still on the Dodgers’ books in 2023, along with Betts, are catcher Will Smith, top prospect at second base Gavin Lux, superstar Cody Bellinger, outfielder A.J. Pollock, and young pitchers Walker Buehler, Julio Urias and Dustin May, among others. That’s not to mention other prospects rising fast through LA’s system like catcher Keibert Ruiz and pitcher Josiah Gray.

Considering how willing the Dodgers have been to spend money, they could choose to re-sign players like Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Clayton Kershaw when their contracts are up. This is a squad built for domination for years to come, with the Padres possessing the main threat to LA’s potential to win double-digit NL West titles in a row. 

In terms of pace, Betts is actually ahead of Ruth at this point. In Ruth’s first year with the Yankees, they finished third in the American League. They won the pennant the next two seasons, but didn’t break through with a world title until his fourth year in pinstripes. 

A new Red Sox curse?

The Red Sox finished last in the American League East in 2020 with a 24-36 record after dealing Betts away. The only way for the Betts trade to feel less painful for Red Sox fans is for the years ahead to be as competitive as the ones they saw with Betts in town.

The first piece of promise comes in the Betts return with Alex Verdugo. He hit .308 with six home runs for Boston in 2020, possessing somewhat similar hitting mechanics to Bellinger to go with a strongly regarded arm in right field. Considering he’ll likely play the same position as Betts for years to come, that’ll be an easy comparison to follow.

Beyond Verdugo, though, the Red Sox don’t have as full a cupboard as the Dodgers. Downs and Wong, the other prospects acquired for Betts, could develop into major-league contributors in a year or two. And while Rafael Devers is a rising star, Xander Bogaerts is locked in as a top-10 shortstop and Andrew Benintendi is a solid outfielder, it’s pitching that could doom the Red Sox. Boston will be depending on Chris Sale’s positive return from Tommy John surgery to compete in 2021 without much pitching help at the MLB level or coming soon.

In September, MLB.com ranked the Red Sox’s farm system as No. 25 in baseball out of the 30 MLB teams. They only had two top-100 prospects in that rankings update (No. 47 Downs and No. 81 Triston Casas). If Boston has turned into a team slightly more hesitant to spend money, at least until a few bad contracts are off its books, it doesn’t appear to have the prospects to immediately right the ship via promotion or trade.

That being said, there’s only one Curse of the Bambino. It’d be shocking if the Red Sox, located in one of the biggest markets in baseball, went another 86 years without winning a World Series. But after a 15-year stretch with lots of winning, the Red Sox might become a little more familiar with losing in the near future. Trading a generational talent, whether their name is Ruth or Betts, was always bound to make Boston worse before better.

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