As the Red Sox offense spins its wheels to try and regain the magic it showed us for most of last season, I can’t help but be optimistic. After three decades plus of being a huge baseball fan, I know not to overreact to potentially disturbing trends a couple weeks into the season. This lineup is simply too good to be kept down for long.
I wish I could say that most Red Sox fans were maintaining some level of optimism considering the success that this team had last year, but who are we kidding? This is Boston, where no matter how bad you think things may be for the home team, they are actually much, much worse.
Case in point: most Red Sox fans that I speak with feel that this past offseason was the last chance the team had at signing Rafael Devers to an extension before he reaches free agency. That’s right … the 25 year-old Devers is thought by many Red Sox fans to be on his way out of Boston.
The Red Sox didn’t sign him to a contract extension before the start of his fifth season of service time. Mind you, he’s not a free agent after this season like Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Nathan Eovaldi, Kike Hernandez, and Christian Vazquez. No, sir.
Rafael Devers will be a free agent after the 2023 season. No other Major League team has the right to negotiate with him until November of 2023, which is 18 months from now. Yet a large portion of this fanbase, which has enjoyed four World Series championships in the past 17 years, believes that the prospect of keeping Devers beyond his rookie contract is now a lost cause.
When did signing players to new contracts two years before they hit free agency become standard operating procedure for MLB teams?
Sure, certain players have begun to sign early in recent years. Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves comes to mind, as does Tampa Bay Rays sensation and Red Sox murderer Wander Franco, along with Ke’Bryan Hayes of the Pittsburgh Pirates. And lest we forget, the big daddy of them all, Fernando Tatis.
These teams identified their young cornerstones of the future and opted to sacrifice their right to six-years of low-cost service from them in exchange for not having to negotiate against other teams once those players reached free agency. The players, in turn, sacrificed the privilege of entering free agency six years into their careers in order to obtain long-term financial security early on.
Good for those players, and good for those teams.
There’s no doubt that Rafael Devers fits the mold of a franchise cornerstone player. He’s only 25, he has amazing pop and bat speed, he was a key part of a championship team in his rookie season, and he has come up with clutch hit after clutch hit throughout his four-year Red Sox career.
Acuna (eight years, $100 million) and Franco (11 years, $182 million) were each 20-years-old when they agreed to their long-term contracts. Acuna had played just one season in the Major Leagues when he was inked, and Franco had played just over half a season when he signed. Hayes (eight years, $70 million) was 25, the same age Devers is now, and had played just over one full season.
None of these players were due to make their first big payday for another five years at the time they signed. That’s why they accepted deals far below the premium contracts that superstar free agents secure these days. Acuna and Franco are superstars on par with Devers, while Hayes is a couple notches below. If anybody deserves to get their money early, it’s Raffy Big Stick.
The problem is that comparing Devers’ situation to those of Acuna, Franco, Hayes, and even Tatis is inherently misguided.
Rafael Devers has four years of big league service time, throughout which he has proven to be an elite hitter. His free agency payday is only two years away, rather than five. Because of his sustained track record and the relatively short amount of time before free agency, Devers is not seeking a deal commensurate with those signed by Acuna, Franco, and Hayes.
According to MLB insider Jeff Passan, Devers wants a contract totaling over $300 million.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Devers is worth every penny he’s asking for. Had the Red Sox decided to meet his price for signing a long-term deal this past offseason, I would have jumped for joy. My problem has to do with the amount of heat Chaim Bloom and the rest of Red Sox management is receiving for not signing him before opening day of 2022.
If a team decides to hand out a mega-deal two years before they have to, more power to them. But with Devers asking for a top-of-the-market deal two seasons before his team control expires, how in God’s name can we blame the Red Sox for choosing to play out the 2022 arbitration year (at a salary of $11.5 million) instead of meeting his long-term, expensive asking price?
Two years of team control for a star player is an incredibly valuable asset. That’s two entire seasons during which no other team is allowed to negotiate, or even speak with the player. That’s two years of leverage where the team can compensate the player at a rate far below the price that top free agents earn. Why would a team give up that control to pay the player one of the highest salaries in the Major Leagues when literally no other team will be allowed to compete with them for the player’s services for another 18 months?
What if the player in question blows out his knee during this arbitration year? What if the player suffers one of those career-altering concussions with effects that linger for years? What if the player badly damages his back in a car accident? Sure, you could ask these hypothetical questions about any player that is under contract. Those risks always lurk in the shadows.
But why even take that risk on a player that is contractually obligated to earn $30+ million per year unless you absolutely have to?
Take Tatis, for example, he of the record-shattering 14-year, $340 million deal that the San Diego Padres signed him to after two seasons in the Major Leagues. A star shortstop and lethal hitter, Tatis’ talent and performance have shown the world that he is the type of player that is deserving of the third-richest Major League contract ever, service time be damned.
Signing at 22-years-old, Tatis had one more year of service time than Acuna, Franco, and Hayes. Despite being four years from free agency, the Padres took a leap of faith and signed Tatis to the first ever 14-year Major League contract and committed over a third of a billion dollars to him.
2021 was the very first season of Tatis’ 14-year contract, a season that could be described as mildly injury prone. After 2021, he broke his wrist in a motorcycle accident that has pushed his season debut back to late June, which could jeopardize the Padres’ status as championship contenders. On top of that, he ‘s taking spills on that recovering wrist while screwing around playing soccer during pre-game warmups.
Signed as a sensational defensive shortstop, the most premium position on the diamond, there is now talk of him being transitioned to the outfield. Between his carelessness and tendency to suffer injuries, the Padres must feel about as comfortable with that investment as a Russian oligarch.
Giving gigantic sums of long-term, guaranteed money to a young athlete can be a dangerous proposition. Why take a risk like that until the time comes when you have no alternative?
This is not Devers’ final year of team control, and the team’s window of negotiation before hitting free agency is still wide open. Although Devers has refused to negotiate during the 2022 season, the Red Sox still have the ability to offer a deal closer to his liking before April of 2023. Even if all else fails, they can still bid on him when he hits the free agent market.
Let’s get real … Rafael Devers is not some perpetually miffed malcontent just searching for reasons to feel offended by his employer. He’s an enthusiastic, happy-go-lucky phenom who just likes to play ball and hit homers. He didn’t consider the Red Sox’ offer (reportedly around $200 million) to be the proverbial “slap in the face” that agents love to reference. He simply declined the offer because it was far lower than the contract he wants. That doesn’t guarantee that the Red Sox will refuse to meet his price in perpetuity.
Devers didn’t even take the Red Sox to arbitration this year. Even with extension talks going nowhere, they had no problem mutually agreeing to a deal for $11.5 million for 2022. That doesn’t sound to me like a deteriorating relationship.
Why would any team make their best and final offer when they still have at least 18 months of time to negotiate? That’s just bad business.
And Chaim Bloom is unmistakably a businessman. He makes every effort to find cost-effective players that will help keep payroll down and save money for his bosses, yet the six-year, $140 million contract he gave to Trevor Story this past offseason shows that Bloom is indeed willing to pay for impact players. Devers’ pending free agency will be Bloom’s greatest opportunity to prove that he can make those next-level superstar deals when the right player comes along.
Red Sox Ownership
But let’s say, hypothetically, that Bloom does not wish to meet Devers’ extravagant salary demands. Does that mean that Raffy’s days in Boston are over?
If that’s what you think, then you are not familiar with Fenway Sports Group.
While I detest the lack of appreciation that so many fans show toward this ownership group, which has brought four championships to Boston throughout their 20-year run, I will wholeheartedly admit that John Henry and Tom Werner can be insufferably sensitive regarding their team’s public image. They’ve reacted and overreacted based on the whims of public perception more than once, often overcorrecting to lead the team down a completely different, yet just as rocky path.
When fan angst boiled over following the 2011 collapse, they allowed team CEO Larry Lucchino to force out beloved general manager Theo Epstein. When ratings slid following the 2013 championship, they brought in franchise-killer Dave Dombrowski to slash and burn his way to another title. When the dust from the 2018 championship cleared to reveal the payroll purgatory that Dombrowski had left behind, they replaced him with renowned miser Chaim Bloom. Henry once even showed up at a Boston sports radio station to chastise the hosts for talking negatively about him.
Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez will be free agents after this season. With Bogaerts and the team still far apart in contract negotiations and Martinez’ future effectiveness as an everyday player in question, it is very likely that both of them will be playing elsewhere in 2023.
Now I ask you, knowing what we know about ownership’s sensitivity about their public image, does anybody truly think that Henry and Werner would watch Chaim Bloom let each member of the Red Sox’ beloved trinity of sluggers walk away from this team in a matter of two seasons? Even if signing Devers to a mega-deal did not look like the smartest business decision, I contend that ownership would step in and demand that Bloom pay Devers his asking price before letting Devers walk away one year after Bogaerts and Martinez.
Moreover, why would Bloom even want to put such a target on his back by letting a 27-year-old elite star leave? Sure, Bloom has his sights set on Triston Casas, Marcelo Mayer, Nick Yorke, and other top prospects that are expected to set Fenway Park on fire over the next few years. But Rafael Devers is the perfect veteran centerpiece that a lineup of up-and-coming stars can revolve around for the next decade. Why would Bloom not choose to make Devers, a homegrown superstar that knows how to win in Boston, the one player that he is willing to issue a huge paycheck to retain?
But … Mookie!!!!!
I know your answer, so don’t even bother.
Because he traded Mookie Betts!!!
Yes, Chaim Bloom traded away the best position player the Boston Red Sox have developed since Carl Yastrzemski. Therefore, he must be a heartless, penny-pinching Scrooge that cares nothing for the collective feelings of the fanbase.
Or … you could look at the reality of the events that led to the departure of Mookie Betts. The lazy, uncreative, visionless, silver-haired reality.
Between December of 2015 and March of 2019, Dave Dombrowski committed $430 million in guaranteed money to starting pitchers Chris Sale (2019 extension), David Price (2015 contract), and Nathan Eovaldi (2018 extension). By the end of the 2019 season, all three were at the least productive points of their careers, had recently struggled with serious arm injuries, and had three or more years remaining on their contracts. In other words, the Boston Red Sox were sitting on a heap of money that seemed to be in no position to generate any return on investment anytime soon.
Needless to say, when Mookie Betts turned down Boston’s extension offer of approximately $300 million, Bloom was in no position to hamstring the Red Sox payroll any further by offering him anything in the ballpark of the 12-year, $365 million Betts would eventually receive. Bloom made the hard decision to trade away a beloved superstar (along with the used up shell of David Price) for the betterment of a team that was in payroll hell.
Three years later, the Red Sox have emerged on the other side of that hell, with David Price’s final $16 million installment set to be expunged at the end of 2022. Between the salaries of Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Kike Hernandez, Christian Vazquez, and Nathan Eovaldi, the Red Sox will have over $87 million freed up, with no dead money on the books whatsoever. Next offseason, Bloom will be in a perfect payroll situation to offer Devers a long-term contract commensurate with his market value.
This is not a Mookie Betts situation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
But, of course, this is Boston. Even when the teams are good, everything sucks.
Good farm system? Solvent payroll? Surprisingly successful season last year? Impact players opting in (Martinez) and signing team-friendly deals (Garrett Whitlock) to stay with the team?
“Well … um … look at Devers! He’s not locked up yet! He’s gonna be a free agent IN TWO YEARS!!! What the hell are they waiting for?!?!?!”
There is only one reason why some Red Sox fans are upset that no long-term deal has been struck yet with Rafael Devers.
They don’t care about the team’s payroll, business model, or future direction. They don’t want to hear about budgets, prospects, or business strategy.
They just want a deal done in short order to alleviate their own personal anxiety. They simply don’t want to entertain even the slightest possibility of a chance that the Red Sox may eventually lose the guy that did this.
And, of course, this.
Welcome to Boston sports. Where monsters lurk under every bed.