Analysis

Mookie Betts & The Patrick Ewing Theory

Can the Red Sox be just as dominant even if they lose Mookie Betts?

Bill Simmons, die-hard Red Sox fan, once said of the Patrick Ewing Theory: “It makes the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ look like child’s play.” Simply put, Simmons had a friend who felt that both Georgetown and the Knicks, inexplicably played better when star big-man Ewing was off the court, and Simmons believed there was some real merit to it.

They explain that the cornerstone of this theory, is as follows:

“An athlete leaves their team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) — and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.”

This is followed up by the team actually improving without said player, and even in some cases reaching heights they never though they could’ve without this player.

So enough basketball talk, how could this be relevant in baseball? Well, there’s been a few examples over the last couple of decades.

The Ewing Theory Throughout the MLB

The Seattle Mariners of the early 2000s had some all-time teams. They still hold the single season record for team wins with 116 from 2001. But before that, came one of baseball’s first notable examples of the Ewing theory.

The Mariners began this tear-down at the 1998 deadline, falling out of contention and trading disgruntled ace Randy Johnson. They followed that the next offseason by trading star outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. to Cincinnati. So heading into 2000, how high could hopes be in the Pacific Northwest? The standards were low and the results exceeded them. Despite the loss of arguably their two best players, Seattle not only made the postseason, but advanced to the ALCS after sweeping the White Sox.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Or how about the start of the Yankee dynasty in the late 90s? Don Mattingly was constantly on the cusp of being the next great Bronx Bomber, but despite 1785 games with the Yankees over 14 seasons, he had never won a postseason series.

The Yankee legend retired after 1995. After being the best player on the team for nearly a decade, there were obviously questions about where the team was heading from there. Tino Martinez is brought in as his replacement, who was never half the player Mattingly was. A young shortstop named Derek Jeter had his first season hitting .300. And just like that, the Yankees followed up the loss of Mattingly by proceeding to run the American League for the next half decade, winning 4 of the next 5 World Series championships.

Not 365 days ago, Bryce Harper was still a Washington National. They had just suffered yet another disappointing season, something Bryce’s tenure in DC was full of. Playoff exit after playoff exit for the Nats, and still no progress. So when Harper joined division rival Philadelphia in the offseason, not only were Nationals fans hurt, they were written off by everyone in the national media. Then something crazy happened. Washington won their first playoff series, and then another, and another… and another. Culminating in the club’s most successful season ever, and their first World Series trophy.

The Nationals weren’t supposed to make the playoffs, they weren’t even expected to be competitive. Yet when everything seemed against them, the rest of the team stepped up and the rest is history.

So now you get the idea. Teams are often left for dead when they lose their star players, only to shock the world by exceeding expectations and taking it to the next level.

Red Sox fans have seen it happen before in multiple instances with their own team! 1999, Mo Vaughn takes the huge contract from the Angels and runs with it. Five straight seasons with the Red Sox in which he hit over .300, hit 25+ homers, and OPSd over .960. The sky was falling in Boston when he left, the lineup was written off and the Sox weren’t even supposed to finish above .500. They went on to win 94 games, and their first playoff series victory in 13 years.

8 seasons with Vaughn, 0 postseason series victories. The first season after he leaves, they win a series and come within three wins of the World Series.

Now that we’ve had a little history lesson on the Patrick Ewing theory, and how it’s cemented a role in all sports, especially baseball, it’s time to look at the next happening of this possible scenario.

How the 2020 Red Sox Can Succeed in Life After Betts

When a star player leaves a team, it certainly leaves a void that needs to be filled. In this case, the one of Mookie Betts, it leaves a couple options. Hope your internal options (Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. amongst others) can step it up and each contribute a little more to counter the loss of Betts. Or, you go out and spend some money to try and patch these holes.

I expect Boston to do a little of both. If Mookie leaves, there’s a good chance ownership turns to Benintendi as the cornerstone of the outfield, and reminds him that he needs to step it up and play at the level he was at in 2018. They’re also going to need a third outfielder of starting quality. Nobody is Mookie Betts, but there are ways to approach replacing his production.

(Flickr/Keith Allison)

People will want to see Nicholas Castellanos as the heir apparent. Nope. He certainly is one of the better bats available, but we might as well toss J.D. Martinez out in RF at that point. J.D. is the better hitter, we’re already paying him, and they’re equally terrible on defence. Alex Gordon certainly isn’t the player he used to be, but defensively he’s still an asset and can get on base a fair bit. Yasiel Puig is the bigger name, but isn’t the complete player the Red Sox will be looking for.

So do they turn to the trade market? The names will cost a little more, but the price is more likely to be worth it. Especially since this would come after a Mookie Betts trade, the farm system should be a nice, full cupboard.

The Pirates have to be intrigued in moving Starling Marte. He’s coming off the best season of his career. An .845 OPS, 271 total bases, and 23 home runs were all the best of his career. He just turned 30, so his speed is definitely starting to diminish, but it’s still a factor. Averaging over 40 stolen bases per 162 games in his career, he still had 25 last season.

Kyle Schwarber, also coming off the best season of his career, is also likely to be had at the right price. Over three years younger than Marte, Schwarber has already shown better discipline at the plate. He’s posted back to back seasons with over 70 walks. Marte has a career BB% under 5, while Schwarber’s took a step back in 2019, it was still sitting at 11.5%. If Mookie Betts were traded, it would leave the Chicago slugger with a higher walk rate than anyone on Boston in 2019.

Does a trade with the Mets for Betts provoke some interest? The Mets are one of the few potential landing spots with a good mix of prospects, and young players already in the MLB. Brandon Nimmo will be on the trade block for BVW and the Mets. He was incredibly underrated in 2018, with one of the best BB% in baseball as one of the most disciplined hitters in the National League.

(Wikimedia Commons)

He took a small step back in ’19, but he’s still only 27 with control through the 2022 season. He would not only immediately fill the void left by Mookie, but would allow the Red Sox to spend elsewhere to fill other holes. Not only would Nimmo be a focal point of the offence, but the Mets would also have to send Boston a backend starter or solid bullpen piece along with some good prospects. As far as getting the most for Betts and being able to compete next season, this may be the best course of action.

Which brings us back to the original point, can the Red Sox really be better without Mookie Betts? Obviously, everyone will be quick to say no. They’d be quick to point out that even with the second best player in baseball, they still underachieved in 2019. So what makes anyone think that losing him, and not adding a piece of his caliber (i.e. Cole, Rendon, Strasburg) would leave the Red Sox in anything but shambles?

Well, that’s the easy way out. It’s easy to see Mookie leave, along with free agents Rick Porcello, Brock Holt & Mitch Moreland, and completely write the Red Sox off. However, there’s a few elements that could help prove the Patrick Ewing theory true and that Boston could be less like the 2019 team in 2020, and more similar to the 2018 team.

Chaim Bloom truly is the savior. The Sox new Chief of Baseball Operations is a magician of sorts. With a payroll slightly over 60 million (almost 3/4 less than Boston’s), Bloom was able to navigate the Rays to the ALDS and a game five against the big boys in Houston. Now he has real money, and real resources to make something happen. It would be Moneyball-2.0-esque for Bloom to find a couple of platoon outfielders, who could come in and combine to replace the numbers from Betts. Is anyone Mookie? No. But if you get a couple of solid defensive outfielders, who between the two, can hit 30 bombs, score about 100 runs and walk 80-90 times, you can in theory replace the production of the 2018 MVP.

Bloom knows how to find the free agents, and trade partners like nobody else can. There seems to be something in his DNA that gives him the ability to see something in guys that most don’t.

A quick note of budget-efficient moves that Bloom has made, which should REALLY give Red Sox fans hope:

2015:

  • Hires Kevin Cash, relatively unknown at the time in the coaching world
  • Finalist in ’18, ’19 for AL Manager of the Year
  • Notorious for his evolution of the game (eg. opener)
  • Drafted Brandon Lowe 87th overall, was a ROY candidate until his injury, also extended Lowe at a team friendly 6 years/49 million in 2019

2016:

  • Drafted Nate Lowe 390th overall, .779 OPS in 50 games in 2019
  • Traded Brandon Guyer (OPS dropped over 100 points after he left), Matt Moore (3.88 ERA with Tampa, 5.78 ERA since leaving) and Steve Pearce (half-season rental) all getting prospects in return
  • After career-best 2016, traded Logan Forsythe (OPS then dropped 100 points in 2017) for a top Dodgers prospect, Jose De Leon (3.54 ERA in 19 AAA outings and 2.25 in 3 appearances for Tampa in 2019)
  • Cut Desmond Jennings (10/10 great decision)

2017:

  • Offloads the remaining 86 million through 2022 guaranteed to Evan Longoria
  • Longoria posted career-low 2.5 fWAR and 97 wRC+ in 2017
  • Has seen career lows in BB%, OBP, and wOBA since the trade
  • In return received Christian Arroyo, former top prospect (flipped for intl. money), and Stephen Woods (1.88 ERA in A+ in 2019)
  • Drafted two-way player Brendan McKay 4th overall (1.10 ERA in 73.2 IP in AAA, had a 101 OPS+ as a hitter in 11 major league PAs in 2019)

2018:

  • Acquires Ji-Man Choi (.679 career OPS, 9 homers in 86 games on arrival) from the Brewers
  • .837 OPS and 27 homers in 176 games since arriving in Tampa Bay
  • The Big One: Acquires Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz in exchange for Chris Archer
  • Archer has an ERA slightly under 5 in 33 starts in Pittsburgh, Meadows had a .922 OPS and was an All-Star in 2019, Glasnow posted a 1.78 ERA in 12 starts

2019:

  • Signs 35 year old Charlie Morton, who posts the best season of his career and is named a Cy Young finalist
  • Acquires Nick Anderson (3.92 ERA in Miami) & Trevor Richards (4.50 ERA in Miami) who post a 2.11 ERA over 23 games and 1.93 in 7 games, respectively, in Tampa
  • Trades for Jesus Aguilar, who broke out in 2018 but struggled with the Brewers in 2019
  • .225/.320/.374 with an OPS+ of 80 before trade, .261/.336/.424 with an OPS+ of 103 for the Rays

So this has been a lot to take in. The Patrick Ewing theory, and if the Sox can be better in 2020 despite potentially losing their best player is definitely possible. Teams (including the Red Sox) have done it in plenty of times in various different sports before. It won’t be easy, but it is certainly made a lot more possible with the hiring of Chaim Bloom. He is the X-factor in creating a scenario where the 2020 Red Sox can be the 2019 Nationals. Obviously, the two are slightly different cases. Boston doesn’t have a star-in-waiting in the wings that can takeover, especially not at the same position like Washington with Juan Soto. There’s potential for Boston lose their best player and also make the playoffs next year, it’ll just take some work.

The Red Sox are going to need to move some money out, something Bloom is really good at. They’re also going to need to likely bring in some low-level replacements for the outfield, bullpen, second base and the back of the rotation. Something else that Chaim is notorious for. This team can absolutely be better in 2020 than the 2019 version was. Maybe they can’t be the 2018 Red Sox, but this front office can absolutely put pieces in place for this team to win 95 games and get back to the playoffs next year. If Mookie Betts is indeed traded, I trust Bloom to get a top notch return, and to also make sure this team can compete in 2020.

Time to reload, not rebuild.

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John Principe

Writer, Editor and Social Media Director at Diamond Digest

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