We’re more than a month into the offseason, and the Red Sox have more pressing issues than most teams that want to consider themselves playoff contenders for 2023.
But ask Boston baseball fans what they’re most concerned about in the moment, and it’s not about which players will be competing in 2023. No, it’s about one specific player and his long-term future with the franchise: Rafael Devers.
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And why are Red Sox fans so concerned? Because, if the way the team has approached potential extensions with both Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts over the past few years is any indication, there is a very real chance that Devers will be wearing a new uniform in 2024. That would be quite the terrible trifecta of fan frustration, wouldn’t it? It wasn’t that long ago that the three were teammates on the 2018 World Series champion Red Sox; Betts and Bogaerts were in their Age 25 seasons, while Devers was just 21.
All three were face-of-the-franchise-quality players, loved by the fan base. Then Betts was traded after the 2019 season for a return that looked underwhelming in the moment and even more so a couple of years later. Then Bogaerts was vastly undervalued by the Red Sox in a way that seems almost impossible to comprehend. And it’s that second thing, with Bogaerts, that worries Sox fans. If the Red Sox — from owner John Henry all the way down to his handpicked chief baseball operator, Chaim Bloom — don’t change their approach, Devers is gone.
Let’s review the Bogaerts debacle, quickly: In April 2019 — he would have been able to become a free agent after that season — Bogaerts signed a six-year, $120 million extension with the Red Sox covering 2020-25, a deal that included an opt-out clause after 2022. By pretty much every measure, Bogaerts outproduced his salary in the first years of the extension, developing into a team leader on and off the field. That he would exercise his opt-out clause — if for no other reason, to renegotiate a deal with the Red Sox that was more befitting his production and stature — was a foregone conclusion long ago.
Knowing that was on the horizon, the Red Sox’s offer this spring — reportedly adding one year and $30 million to the existing deal, bringing it to four years and $90 million from 2023-26 — was a bit mind-boggling on the surface. But, the spring of 2022 was hectic, with the owner-imposed lockout condensing months of typical offseason activity down to a few scant weeks, so maybe that was a reason. Not a good reason, mind you, but a reason.
Still, it was almost like they wanted Bogaerts to test the free-agent waters.
And, yeah, he certainly did that. Bogaerts, as you know, signed that 11-year, $280 million deal with the Padres last week. Boston’s reported best offer on the table was six years and roughly $162 million, though it reportedly wasn’t their “final” offer. It was, however, apparently their final opportunity, and they fumbled it, badly. Bogaerts now is a Padre. And it wasn’t just that the Padres were the only one who thought highly about Bogaerts.
One final note before signing off:
The Red Sox did not finish, second, third or maybe even fourth.
Via various sources, there were 3-4 other teams willing to go to $200M+ on Bogaerts. He wowed teams in interviews.
Sox valued their own player differently than other teams did.
— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) December 8, 2022
So, while there are other issues for the Red Sox to deal with in 2023 — who’s in the rotation? Who will supply the power in the lineup? Are they going to finish last in the AL East again in 2023? — there’s still one overwhelming question: Where will Devers play in 2024?
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The Red Sox were just outbid for their best player by $100 million by the Padres — the 27th-ranked MLB market, btw — so anything seems possible. He’d fit in perfectly with the Orioles or Yankees. The Cubs still might need a new face to lead their rebuilding efforts, and the timing would be right to overpay a young superstar like Devers. The Dodgers don’t have a long-term third baseman, and neither do the Giants. Same goes for the Mariners, the Rangers, the Twins and the Tigers.
Folks, there will be no shortage of suitors for a 27-year-old third baseman who has a 132 OPS+ over the past four years and has hit at least 27 homers in the three non-pandemic years.
It’s at this point we’ll note that Bogaerts got $280 million entering his Age 30 season and Devers will be entering his Age 27 season. And it’s at this point we’ll note that the Red Sox reportedly offered Devers an 8-year, $168 million extension last spring, but Jon Heyman wrote in late October that the offer was now over $200 million. Not shockingly, ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote that the sides are far apart in the extension talks.
Sorry, but offers starting at $200 million wouldn’t even get a seat at the negotiating table for Devers next offseason. Oh, and the timeline for Devers doesn’t even really extend to the end of the 2023 season. He’s said he isn’t negotiating an extension during the season, so if a deal’s not done by Opening Day 2023, he’s testing the market.
That worked well for Aaron Judge, didn’t it?
And, to be clear, the problem with Bogaerts isn’t that the Red Sox didn’t match the Padres’ offer of $280 million. The problem is that they let it get to that point. Bogaerts wasn’t dead-set on leaving, but the actions from the Boston front office — which are more important than words, folks — gave him every indication they weren’t serious about paying him market value. They weren’t serious about keeping him on anything but a massive hometown discount.
In the context of how others viewed Bogaerts and his talent and leadership, that tiny extension offer — whatever the actual numbers were — was ridiculous, and the best offer on the table in free agency was woefully short. Even before anyone had any idea that San Diego was going to offer $280 million, Trea Turner had already signed an 11-year, $300 million deal with the Phillies, and both players are heading into their Age 30 season.
Yeah, maybe Turner is a slightly better player, but Boston’s offer to Bogaerts was for $132 million less than what Philly gave Turner. The gap between the players was never was that big in anyone’s eyes, other than the Boston front office. So, yeah, Boston fans are worried about how the decision-makers view Devers, too. Can’t blame them. And can’t only blame Bloom, by the way, though he’s receiving the brunt of the criticism. He’s operating within parameters set by the ownership group.
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And as it relates to Devers, it is absolutely already be too late for the Red Sox to get anything resembling a bargain. Devers has seen two very important things: 1) How Boston views a face-of-the-franchise player vs. how others see that same player; and 2) The level of riches the free agent market under the new CBA will offer him. There’s zero question that if Devers is healthy when he hits the free-agent market next offseason at 27 years old, the bidding starts at $300 million. And if, let’s say, the Dodgers and Yankees and Giants get into a bidding war? A deal approaching $400 million isn’t crazy, especially during an offseason when Shohei Ohtani will go north of $450 million, if he’s healthy.
The Red Sox absolutely can compete with that. They only have two players under contract for more than $7.5 million after the 2024 season. The books are wide open. The question is, do they want to? And if not, that raises the question: Seriously, what do the Red Sox want to be?
Despite being in a top 10 market in the U.S., their projected 2023 Opening Day payroll is middle-of-the-pack. Are they now fringe shoppers? Opportunistic signers? Pickers of low-hanging fruit? Dice-rollers? The powerhouse Red Sox teams that won World Series titles in 2004, 2007, 2013 and 2018 — rosters stacked with superstars — spent the money necessary to win. According to the indispensable Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Boston’s Opening Day payroll was No. 2 in 2004, No. 2 in 2007, No. 4 in 2013 and No. 1 in 2018.
That’s when they were serious about competing for titles.
Has that era passed? What they do with Devers will tell you all you need to know.
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