Near the top of this list is shortstop, after franchise cornerstone Xander Bogaerts opted out of his contract and became a free agent this offseason. Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, and Dansby Swanson all hit the market, and on Monday, the Philadelphia Phillies scooped Turner up for a modest 11 years, $300M.
For weeks, spirited debates have erupted throughout Red Sox Nation about which of the four major free-agent shortstops the team should sign. Fans and the media weigh various factors, including age, expected contract, offensive trends, and defensive prowess to support their arguments. I am in the crowd that wants the Sox to re-sign Bogaerts for multiple reasons; among them is his proven ability to thrive in the pressures of Boston.
One need only look at the cautionary tale of the Red Sox and Carl Crawford to know why that attribute is so important. In 2010, the Sox were coming off a third-place finish and had failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006. The team moved quickly to upgrade the roster for the upcoming season. In addition to trading for All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, they signed Crawford, who was one of the gems of that year’s free-agent class. He was coming off an All-Star year with the Tampa Bay Rays, with whom he hit .307 with a .851 OPS. He received both a Silver Slugger Award and Gold Glove, demonstrating his ability as an all-around player. His 2010 performance was in line with his overall career numbers over nine seasons with the Rays, with whom the four-time All-Star batted .296 with .781 OPS, 104 home runs, and 409 stolen bases. The move was generally felt to be a good one by pundits who felt a Red Sox offense that already boasted David Ortiz would now be unstoppable.
The Red Sox gave Crawford a seven-year $142 million contract, which remains one of the largest by years and sum in franchise history. As impressive as his playing resumé was, his contract received just as many superlatives. He was the first player in franchise history whose contract exceeded an average annual value of $20M, and he was the first player in the John Henry ownership tenure to receive a seven-year contract. At the time, it was also the sixth-largest free-agent contract in MLB history in terms of total value.
Given Crawford’s previous success and the number of financial resources the team was investing, he arrived in Boston to high expectations. Unfortunately, his time here was an unmitigated disaster. He struggled mightily during his first season with the Red Sox, hitting .255 with a .694 OPS, 11 home runs, and 18 stolen bases. His bWAR plummeted from 7 in his final season with Tampa Bay, to 0.3.
Worse yet, Crawford’s on-field struggles led to frustrations that boiled over into confrontations with a media he felt “loved to see people miserable.” It didn’t help that his first season with the Sox culminated in the team’s infamous Chicken and Beer collapse to end the season.
His second season started with more promising numbers at the plate but was ultimately derailed by an injury that required Tommy John surgery. Immediately after the August 2012 surgery, he was traded to the Dodgers along with Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto.
Crawford signed a seven-year contract with the Sox and didn’t even complete two full seasons. Despite his past success, he couldn’t handle the pressures and scrutiny of playing in Boston, especially after signing such a historic contract. When asked about his Sox tenure in a post-trade interview in 2013, Crawford answered,
"“When you hear how bad you are every day, doubts spring into your mind… Deep down, it’s like I know I can still play baseball but after being told how much you suck for two years straight, it kind of messes with your mind.”"
In less than two years, Crawford had gone from Boston’s Everest to its Marianas Trench. Instead of ushering in a new decade of Boston superstardom, he joined a long list of players who wilted under the intense scrutiny of the Boston sports microscope. Sox fans and media expect a lot of players, and not everyone can handle that pressure, especially when they come from a less demanding market like Tampa.
Have you figured out what this has to do with Bogaerts yet? It’s pretty straightforward to everyone but Sox ownership, apparently: there is tremendous value in having players who have proven they can not only survive in the Boston spotlight, but actually thrive in it. As evidenced by Crawford and not long after, Pablo Sandoval, it is impossible to predict which free agents will succeed in this market. It’s not the only factor in signing a player, but as past precedent proves, it’s too important to overlook or discount.
Other available shortstops might succeed if brought to Boston, but they could also fail miserably. And the wrong contract not only hurts the team in terms of financial commitments, but also clubhouse chemistry, and the relationship between the team and its fans. For this reason and many others, it’s time for the Sox to pay Bogaerts; he’s proven time and again that he belongs in Boston.