The Skinny on the Held-Up Trade Involving Brusdar Graterol and Kenta Maeda

Please Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Late Tuesday night, word broke that the Boston Red Sox had struck a deal to trade outfielder Mookie Betts and starting pitcher David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers for outfielder Alex Verdugo, with the Minnesota Twins getting involved by sending prospect Brusdar Graterol to the Red Sox while receiving starting pitcher Kenta Maeda from the Dodgers.

But it’s now more than 48 hours since the news initially broke, and none of the three teams have officially announced the deal. And for what it’s worth, Graterol’s designation as a prospect in the lede paragraph is intentional.

It’s for good reason, too — the Red Sox found a hangup in Graterol’s medicals and are concerned about the long-term viability of him being a starter. That’s not a particularly new feeling in the Twin Cities market based on recent stories published like this one in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but the Red Sox were not entirely privy to Graterol’s first medical history until the deal was formally agreed to.

That’s why these things are “pending physicals,” as former Twins infielder Trevor Plouffe said on Twitter Thursday evening.

The deal still feels like it has a fairly good chance of going through, based on comments from Alex Speier of the Boston Globe and Mark Feinsand of, but Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic noted that the progress has been slow in resolving the hurdles left to clear to formalize the deal.

It’s not hard to see why it’s such a difficult process of clearing that final hurdle, however, since multi-team deals reveal a whole new web to unravel in this case.

Think of it this way — here’s how each team is viewing this trade:

  • Red Sox: clearing salary, resetting luxury tax threshold and getting younger
  • Dodgers: recreating the 1992 Dream Team without trading any of their great prospects
  • Twins: adding a rotational upgrade at the expense of a solid prospect

All three have clearly defined reasons for why they’re doing the trade, but they are by no means equal. If the deal fizzles, can the Red Sox really walk back their relationship with Betts and Price this close to spring training? Do they still try to trade Betts before the season? Moving Price on his own was always going to prove difficult based on his salary and recent injury history, but adding him as a sweetener to a Betts deal made a lot of fiscal sense for the Red Sox — even if they were going to pick up money as was reported.

If the trade doesn’t happen, they don’t necessarily have to keep Betts — but they’re probably stuck with Price.

And maybe that’s what’s confusing about the deal overall — why move Betts while lessening the return by attaching Price? Based on my back-of-the-napkin math, it doesn’t require moving both to get under the luxury tax threshold. Cot’s Contracts has moved each of the players in the proposed deal to their new teams, and the Red Sox are listed at nearly $21 million under the tax line even while retaining half of Price’s $32 million salary.

So re-add the other half of Price’s deal and that still easily fits within the $20.8 million listed to reset the team’s tax burden.

What’s the point of the added financial flexibility if it comes at the expense of retaining the second-best player in the American League, anyway? Or at the very least, trading him on his own for the very best possible offer — which it doesn’t really feel was happening in this proposed deal.

And what good is this added “financial flexibility” when now the next chance to sign Betts — if you’re the Red Sox — will come when he’s being courted by 30 MLB teams rather than just you in the first place? One could presuppose the financial flexibility was going to be used otherwise, but it’s tough to spend $35-40 million per year more efficiently than on a player with three six-win seasons in the last four and two of over eight wins according to Fangraphs. 

Over the last four years, Betts has totaled 30.7 WAR according to Fangraphs. Only Mike Trout (34.9) has more, and only 10 players total are over 20. Only one — Yelich (25.4) — even has 25. So yeah, that flexibility won’t mean anything if it’s spent less efficiently than on a megastar like Betts.

If Price really was unmovable without attaching Betts, so to speak, why not deal Mookie for the best possible return, reset the luxury tax situation and pray that Price shows something at some point in the next two seasons which makes his contract less of a boat anchor? That’s possible in one of two ways — either he pitches better or time passes and there’s less time on his deal, the former obviously being the desired path.

But at the end of the day, the seed has already been planted that the Red Sox were ready to move on from Mookie to bring back Verdugo and Graterol.

The Dodgers are motivated by the sheer fact that they’d be adding maybe even the second-best player in baseball — Christian Yelich and new (potential) teammate Cody Bellinger might have something to say about this — and a pretty good pitcher at a discounted price (pun unintended) as the Red Sox were reportedly kicking in some money to cover part of Price’s deal.

And for the Twins, it really came down to sacrificing some future potential for a safe No. 3 starter with one of the most team-friendly contracts in the game. If he completely pitches his guts out and hits all his markers, he’ll make in the vicinity of $50 million over the next four years. If he never throws another MLB pitch, it’ll be closer to $12-13 million.

But this is where the wrinkle comes in — is the impetus on the Twins or the Dodgers to grease Boston’s pockets to get this thing done?

Theoretically, it makes sense that it’d be Minnesota, but that idea holds less water when considering the Twins weren’t getting a player back from Boston directly. It’s not a simple two-team negotiation, but rather the Twins saying they’re part of the three-pronged agreed-upon deal. The Dodgers didn’t receive anything from the Twins for Maeda, but at the same time, Los Angeles can simply say it’s happy with the return but unwilling to add more because it feels it’s on Minnesota to bridge that gap.

Maybe that’s confusing. In short, the deal as presently constructed doesn’t get done without Minnesota. Boston isn’t giving up Price and Betts for Verdugo straight up, and it’s not super likely the Red Sox would value Maeda — a starting pitcher going on 32 — as much as they’d like to get younger and cheaper. That’s especially true since Maeda’s incentives, if triggered, could easily push Boston back into the tax.

For instance, based on the incentives listed on Maeda’s deal on Cot’s, he banked $3.125 million in base salary in 2019, another $1.75 million in innings-based incentives and $3.5 million in starts-based incentives. That’s $8.375 million — which by my figuring would push the Red Sox back into the tax even with Betts moved and Price retained, thereby nullifying a big part of the generally understood reasoning of the deal being made.

So again, it goes back to the bulleted, aforementioned list. Of the three teams in the deal, the Twins have the least motivation to really lean into it. They’re not getting Betts and they’re not shedding more than $40 million off their payroll to reset their luxury tax situation. They’re simply making a calculated move to trade a prospect — one whose future role was always going to be in question, mind you — for a pretty good starting pitcher.

Now if the Twins take that stance in further negotiations, it’s possible the Red Sox and Dodgers could tell them to get lost and find another dance partner, or Los Angeles could dip into its massive cadre of prospects to get something done — something it seems hesitant to do. But with pitchers and catchers reporting in less than a week, it’s not like starting over on a deal that’s likely been worked on for weeks rather than days is a viable idea, either.

So the tl;dr idea is this:

It still feels likely that the deal will get done. Will it be the Twins or Dodgers to add a sweetener? That much remains to be seen. It feels as though there should be resolution on Friday.

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