As MLB market shifts, Red Sox need to implement more early signings of possible star talent
With the Seattle Mariners becoming the latest team to ink a young superstar to a long-term extension, Red Sox Nation has reached new levels of frustration, as Rafael Devers made his big-league debut five summers ago and remains unsigned to the kind of contract he’s earned.
If we could shift back four years, it could stimulate a debate on early signings of players of promise, and Devers’ window of opportunity has long vanished. The same would apply to Mookie Betts in the ‘strike early’ category, or even Xander Bogaerts, who initiated his own, team-friendly extension in 2019.
Are the Red Sox late to the party?
The inherent risks of such contractual adventurism are well noted. If my fading memory recollects, the first such notable signing was by the Tampa Bay Rays inking Matt Moore to a contract that fell apart with injuries and accompanying poor performance. That did not frighten the Rays, a team with just a fraction of the Red Sox’s fiscal resources.
The Rays did not give up this method and signed their next projected superstar Wander Franco to a deal that goes seemingly forever. Franco has only played 58 games this season, but with youth, exceptional medical care, and (hopefully) a considerable dose of professional pride, this will all be a long-term positive. The Rays were not alone as other teams followed along with the process.
I am most comfortable with the contract of Austin Riley of the Braves. The Braves have exhibited consistency in the early signing method, locking up what apparently will be their lineup for the decade. Riley had a real sweet spot for service time, performance, age, and potential. The Braves also signed Michael Harris II to an eight-year deal after 71 games. No messy arbitration hearings and no free agency until Harris is in his prime baseball years. Harris represents a greater risk based on his sample size. Baseball has an extensive list of one-year wonders.
This is now the new contract risk versus reward method that can provide contractual security, or a possible nightmare like Fernando Tatis Jr. Tatis could be just a temporary blip or a staggering miscalculation. What you need to accomplish this is the talent, to begin with, before venturing into a deal that lasts far longer than most marriages.
How do you determine the risk? A combination of tangibles and intangibles. Does the player have the desire, intellectual baseball capabilities, and personality to be an MLB player of star quality? Even a brief glimpse, such as with Harris, confirms what the metrics and scouting reports undoubtedly have stated. The rest is unknown, and time will tell the truth.
The issue now is will the Red Sox do the same? They have not exhibited an aversion to excessive spending above and beyond in signing draft choices. Nor have they quaked in fear over paying $52 MM for signing Daisuke Matsuzaka. And let us not omit Yoan Moncada and absorb a 100% tax ($31.5MM) for signing the now traded Moncada. Then there is Rusney Castillo.
The Red Sox have received the message with the four-year extension to pitcher Garrett Whitlock. Whitlock provides that service time, sample size, and talent to make it a risk worth taking. For me, the Whitlock signing is a change in the dynamics of waiting and waiting and waiting with occasional questionable offers tossed in. Still, the Whitlock contract is not in the same rarefied fiscal atmosphere as Tatis, nor should it be.
The next one becomes the key since there may be no player surfacing that could tempt the Red Sox to move into early signing preventive mode. Considering the current roster, Brayan Bello could be in such a contractual trajectory by mid-2023. Bryan Mata is on track for 2023 and could be rewarded if he produces.
It would be best if you had an MLB sample; with Harris, that sample was small. I doubt Jeter Downs would qualify, but Triston Casas could if he was released from Triple-A purgatory. A solid September and a productive 2023, and the Red Sox could join the parade of ultra extensions. That is all conditional based on potential.
The Red Sox have been faced with a series of messy contractual situations that were potentially avoidable, providing market conditions, representation, and player desire combined to make it possible to use the approach such as the Braves have with multiple players with a projected positive upside. Now they need the next potential superstar to see if it will happen and a necessary change in the business model.