Betts arrives as a capstone to the Dodgers’ patient project
By Tyler Kepner
The last time he played at Dodger Stadium, in 2018, Mookie Betts hit a home run in the clinching game of the World Series. The next time he was to play there, on opening night of the major league season Thursday, he would be the highest-paid player in the National League.
Betts won his championship with the Boston Red Sox, who decided in February to save money by trading the outfielder to the Los Angeles Dodgers along with starting pitcher David Price. The Red Sox knew Betts would cost a fortune when he became a free agent after the 2020 season, and he seemed determined to test the market.
So much for that assumption. The Dodgers locked up Betts on Wednesday with a 12-year, $365 million contract extension, a deal that stretches through 2032. The only player guaranteed more money than Betts is the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, who signed a 12-year, $426.5 million contract before last season.
“The market wasn’t what I was worried about — just fair value,” Betts said in a news conference over Zoom. “That’s been my No. 1 thing for my whole career: the value, and that’s it. Once we got to that point, being somewhere I loved being, the match was perfect.”
Betts, 27, was the American League’s most valuable player in 2018 and might have the best all-around talent in the majors. No other player can match his totals in both homers (134) and stolen bases (119) over the past five seasons, and he has four Gold Gloves in right field to go with a .301 career average.
While no fans would be in the stands to greet Betts on Thursday, there should be plenty in time. The Dodgers have led the majors in attendance in each of the past seven seasons, winning the NL West every year. But for all their popularity and profitability, they still have not won a championship since 1988. They lost the World Series in five games to Boston in 2018 and in seven to Houston in 2017, the year the Astros used an illegal sign-stealing scheme.
Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, acknowledged this spring that the revelations of the Astros’ cheating might have consumed him — if only he were not so busy.
“If there was something I could do to change the outcome, I would spend more time on it, but it’s just not productive energy,” Friedman said in an interview, adding that most days were already packed. “Spending time thinking about that just isn’t helpful in what we’re trying to accomplish looking forward. So that helps whenever my mind starts gravitating toward that.”
Friedman played the long game to get to a moment like Wednesday’s. He spent more than five years making careful, disciplined moves for the Dodgers, consistent with his pedigree as architect of the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays for more than a decade.
The Dodgers hired Friedman after the 2014 season, trusting him to find Rays-style bargains to complement their big — but responsible — spending. Sticking to that plan made it easy for the Dodgers to spend so lavishly on Betts: The combined value of Friedman’s three most lucrative deals for the Dodgers before Wednesday — with Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner — was about $237 million, or less than two-thirds of what the Dodgers now owe Betts.
Friedman has made bad deals, too, but nothing that hamstrung the Dodgers from affording a contract like this. Players like Max Muncy and Chris Taylor — afterthoughts for other teams — became cost-effective contributors. The farm system nurtured players that Friedman inherited, like Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Julio Urias, and developed more, like pitchers Walker Buehler and Dustin May and catcher Will Smith.
“We’ve done a really good job of identifying when players reach the point of being ready, and that last mile — what has allowed us to be as successful as we’ve been — has been our clubhouse culture at the major league level,” Friedman said, crediting Manager Dave Roberts and the coaches. “They do a tremendous job of instilling it, and then our players carry it out unlike anything I’ve ever seen. When young players come up, our veteran players actively try to help them acclimate.”
Along the way, Friedman has sometimes frustrated Dodgers fans by resisting splashy free-agent investments or refusing to deal prospects in trades. In-season deals to acquire Yu Darvish and Manny Machado helped, but only to a point; the Astros hammered Darvish in the 2017 World Series, and Machado hit .182 against the Red Sox in the 2018 World Series.
Darvish and Machado left as free agents, but the Dodgers decided they did not want to risk losing Betts after a 60-game cameo. Friedman was just waiting for the right investment to come around.
“Patience isn’t necessarily a virtue of mine, but we’ve had to kind of practice it throughout this — in that, if you’re going to make a bet like this, you want to feel as confident as you can about the human, about how much they care, about their work ethic, and I can’t imagine feeling more confident than we do about Mookie,” Friedman said.
“So that helps, but also us staying patient and doing things to help us in the short term — but not necessarily costing us in the long term — has provided us some flexibility to be able to do that. Obviously we’re really excited with how it turned out.”
So is Betts, who said he believed in the Dodgers’ long-term outlook and was “here to win some rings” — a realistic goal. The Dodgers have built a perpetual winner already, and now the Betts Era is here.