Boston Red Sox are building around Rafael Devers
Rafael Devers is the cornerstone of the Boston Red Sox
The Boston Red Sox had developed a frustrating habit of letting their homegrown talent slip away. They typically have among the highest payrolls in baseball but the current ownership group has shown a tendency to value players who have performed for other teams over their own stars. This attraction for the shiny new toy over the players we have watched grow before our eyes has long drawn the ire of the fan base. However, the narrative is beginning to shift with news that the Red Sox are in agreement with Rafael Devers on an 11-year, $331 million contract extension.
Devers has earned the largest contract in franchise history, topping the seven-year, $217 million deal they gave David Price in 2016 by a considerable margin. The Devers deal also surpasses Manny Ramirez’s eight-year contract for the longest in franchise history, although the Manny deal in 2000 was signed under different ownership and an entirely different front office.
The John Henry-led ownership has been philosophically opposed to the decade-plus deals that superstars are being lavished with in recent years. Their stubbornness to adapt to an evolving market has cost them opportunities to lure the top free agents and retain their own stars.
Locking up Devers to an 11-year deal shows progress but this is likely an exception to the rule rather than a sign that the Red Sox are changing their approach. The blueprint hasn’t changed. The Red Sox simply decided that Devers was the cornerstone they wanted to build around instead of his former teammates whom they weren’t willing to go the extra mile for.
The Mookie Betts trade remains a sore spot for Red Sox fans who were appalled by the front office giving away one of the best players in recent franchise history for little more than salary relief. Alex Verdugo is a solid everyday outfielder but not the potential star they envisioned, while Connor Wong appears to be a utility option for the bench. Jeter Downs, supposedly the jewel of the haul they received from the Dodgers, was designated for assignment last month. Insisting on including Price in the trade, shedding half of his remaining salary, knowing that it would reduce the value of the assets the received in return was a borderline criminal offense.
The concept of trading Betts was almost unimaginable but it ultimately became necessary when they failed to sign him to an extension. Boston made an honest effort to retain him with a $300 million offer but it wasn’t enough. Betts ended up signing a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers following the trade, a total value that trails only Mike Trout ($426.5 million) in MLB history.
Betts is chained to the Dodgers payroll through his age-39 season. For a player who derives much of his defensive and baserunning value through quickness that will eventually begin to erode, the commitment is a massive risk. If Betts breaks down in his mid-30s, the Dodgers are stuck with an albatross for several years. They could care less considering his arrival in Los Angeles immediately led to the franchise’s first World Series title in over three decades. The deal is already a win for the Dodgers and if Betts does fade in the end, those wasted years on the backend will be viewed as deferred payments.
Another core member of Boston’s last championship team bolted about a month ago when Xander Bogaerts landed a shocking 12-year, $280 million free-agent deal from the San Diego Padres.
Boston’s best offer wasn’t even in the same ballpark but it wasn’t because they didn’t value Bogaerts in the short term. They were actually offering slightly more on an average annual basis but weren’t willing to go anywhere near 12 years for a 30-year-old shortstop.
The Red Sox haven’t bought into the trend of tacking on extra years to appease star players with a higher guaranteed total while lowering the average annual value to create additional wiggle room beneath the luxury tax threshold. These teams know that the players won’t still be performing at a high level at the end of the contract but they deemed it worthwhile in order to lock in a superstar in their prime at a discounted rate. Boston clearly prefers paying a higher AAV on shorter deals to avoid the risk of carrying dead weight on the backend.
Why Devers is the exception the Red Sox wanted to build around
While their aversion to long-term deals has taken the Red Sox out of the mix for the top superstars in recent years, Devers was a unique scenario that fits perfectly into their plans.
The 26-year-old Devers is four years younger than the shortstop he has shared the left side of the infield with for his entire career. He’s a couple of years younger than Betts was when the Red Sox were attempting to negotiate with him. Considering his age, it’s a bit surprising that Devers signed for only 11 years. I would stop short of calling it “team-friendly” considering it’s a historic deal that makes him one of the highest-paid players ever but Devers almost certainly would have locked in more money if he waited a year to hit free agency.
Devers got what he wanted by being one of the highest-paid players in the game. His $331 million total is the sixth-largest contract in MLB history. The Red Sox got what they wanted by locking up a star through his prime years without having to over-commit to a player deep into his 30s. The final year of Devers’ contract will be his age-36 season, a point in his career where he should still be a relatively productive player. As payrolls and the luxury tax threshold steadily rise over the next decade, Devers might actually be viewed as a bargain by the end of the deal.
The Red Sox were in a difficult position three years ago when they reluctantly traded away Betts. They had a bloated payroll with some overpaid veterans and one of the weakest farm systems in baseball. It was going to take time to put this organization back on track for sustainable success but we’re starting to see promising signs from Chaim Bloom’s vision.
When MLB.com released their mid-season farm system rankings in August, the Red Sox were on the verge of cracking the top third of the list, ranking No. 11. That’s a considerable leap from the 2021 preseason rankings when they ranked No. 24 and they were 25th the previous year.
Bloom has done a commendable job rebuilding the farm system but we’ll need to be patient for those efforts to pay off. Triston Casas and Brayan Bello are exciting young talents who will play significant roles for the 2023 Red Sox but they are still prone to inconsistencies from their inexperience. It could be a couple of years before they hit their prime. Ceddanne Rafaela has been rapidly rising in prospect rankings and could potentially make his major league debut in the second half of next season but we can’t assume he’ll be a star right away either.
The Red Sox have several other high-upside prospects, including Marcelo Mayer, the No. 7 overall prospect in baseball. Nick Yorke, Miguel Bleis, Mikey Romero, and Blaze Jordan all rank among the top-eight prospects in the Red Sox farm system. All of these highly-touted prospects are 20 years old or younger, meaning they could be several years away from reaching the big leagues.
At least some of these prospects, along with the aforementioned rookies locked into roster spots for next season, could be the core of the next great Red Sox team. It could be a few years before they arrive but Devers will still be firmly in his prime by that point. Devers fits the timeline for Bloom’s plan far better than Betts or Bogaerts, both of whom turned 30 in October.
Would the Red Sox be a better team in 2023 if they still had Bogaerts? Undoubtedly, just as they would have been better in each of the last three years if they held on to Betts. Would that bring them a championship? Probably not. There would still be too many holes to fill with limited payroll space and a depleted farm system if they tried to keep that core together. Boston took a step back in order to take two steps forward.
We’re still waiting for the Red Sox to take those steps forward but the Devers extension is worth at least half a step. He’s the new face of the franchise, the player they have chosen to build around and lead the next great Red Sox core.