Red Sox have new starting point for Rafael Devers contract negotiations

The floor rises on an extension for Red Sox star Rafael Devers

The Atlanta Braves provided a starting point for contract negotiations with Rafael Devers; the Boston Red Sox were simply premature in identifying which player’s extension would serve as the template.

Ahead of the August 2 trade deadline, the Braves announced that they were in agreement with third baseman Austin Riley on a 10-year, $212M contract extension.

Alex Speier of The Boston Globe reported last month that the Red Sox “identified Matt Olson’s eight-year, $168 million extension with Atlanta as a basis for discussions” with Devers. Needless to say, the discussion stalled after Devers swiftly rejected any offer in that ballpark.

Even if the Red Sox are convinced that Devers will likely transition to first base or designated hitter at some point and therefore isn’t worthy of the $300 million deal some are projecting him for, they were still miles apart with that offer. Olson is a fine player, a Gold Glove first baseman with power who was an All-Star a year ago. Devers is emerging as a potential MVP candidate and a generational talent at the plate.

Riley is a far better comparison and it’s not because he happens to play the same position as Devers. Both players are in their age 25 season. While Devers made his major league debut about two years earlier, they both had their breakout season in their third year.

Over the last two years, the production between the two has been nearly identical.

Devers: .295/.361/.563, 61 home runs, 147 wRC+, .388 wOBA
Riley: .302/.364/.560, 62 home runs, 146 wRC+, .391 wOBA

Among major league third basemen, Devers and Riley rank first or second in wRC+ and wOBA over the last two seasons, per FanGraphs. Riley’s 9.2 fWAR is second at the position during that span while Devers is fifth with 8.8 fWAR. Riley is fourth among all major league hitters with a 93.7 mph average exit velocity and Devers ranks fifth at 93.5 mph.

Their bats put them among the elite third basemen but neither is known for their ability to handle the hot corner defensively. Devers has made strides in the field, improving from metrics that rated him among the worst in the game to merely below-average. His -2 defensive runs saved is actually equal to Riley’s this year. Riley is tied for last with -9 Outs Above Average while Devers is only slightly below-average with -1 OAA, per Baseball Savant. Devers has cut back on his alarming habit of mistakes but his 12 errors are still the second-most in the majors at his position while Riley has nine.

So, they are the same age, both All-Stars who contribute essentially the same production at the plate while providing subpar defense that makes their long-term fit at third base a bit questionable.

Does that mean that Devers should expect to make around $200 million based on the precedent Riley set with his deal? Not so fast.

While they are the same age, Devers is much closer to free agency than Riley, who wasn’t going to be eligible until after the 2025 season before he signed his extension. Devers has only one more year of control and his closer proximity to the open market gives him leverage.

Riley is only making $3.95 million this season in his fist year of arbitration eligibility. He will make $15 million next season, $21 million in 2024, then $22 million annually through 2032. The deal also includes a $20 million team option for 2033, per MLB Trade Rumors.

Devers is making $11.2 million in his second year of arbitration. If he goes through the arbitration process for a final time next year, Devers should early surpass the $15 million that Riley is earning in the first year of his extension. If the Red Sox lock up Devers to an extension prior to next season, his salary in the first year of the deal will need to be closer to the $22 million range.

It’s not a perfect comparison since the Braves managed to lock up Riley so early, leaving money on the table in favor of the security of a long-term deal. Devers would be less inclined to do so since he’ll only be a year away from free agency. Riley’s deal still provides a strong template to start from though considering their similar age and production.

If Riley’s deal is the floor, a fair offer from the Red Sox could be a 10-year, $220 million deal. The average annual value matches what Riley gets for the bulk of the deal but Devers would get paid more in the first two years to offset Riley being further from free agency. With leverage on his side, Devers could push to top Riley with a $23 million AAV to make it a $230 million deal. Perhaps he can convince the Red Sox to guarantee an 11th year instead of the team option Riley received, pushing the total to around $250 million.

While Red Sox fans who are tired of worrying about potentially losing their homegrown stars are eager for ownership to hand Devers a blank check, we shouldn’t expect his next contract to set any MLB records. Devers is an elite hitter but a poor defensive player who doesn’t cover a premium position. He doesn’t fit the profile for the players who have earned $300+ million contracts, unless he’s given a longer deal to smooth out the average annual value for luxury tax purposes, similar to Bryce Harper’s 13-year deal. That’s the ceiling Devers is aiming for, although it’s worth noting that Harper is a two-time MVP while Devers has yet to crack the top-10 on the ballot in any season of his career.

Riley is the more accurate comparable. He and Devers have very similar profiles and their contracts should ultimately be fairly similar. Devers will probably end up with more but Riley’s deal is a fair starting point to reignite extension talks this winter.