Hunter Renfroe is 29 years old. This is his sixth big league season. Because he's in the midst of a breakout campaign -- highlighted by a one-man wrecking crew performance vs. the Rays on Wednesday -- he's perfectly positioned for a massive payday in free agency this winter, right?
Thanks to the vagaries of service time, Renfroe won't be a free agent this winter. Or next winter, even. He'll remain arbitration-eligible through the 2023 season, which means Chaim Bloom and Co. can keep him in a Red Sox uniform for two more seasons without an extension.
Renfroe is sure to see a significant bump from his $3.1 million salary in arbitration this winter, but not enough to offset the contract he could earn on the open market. That's bad news for Renfroe, but good news for the Red Sox, putting him in the running for the title of baseball's biggest bargain.
He played the hero again on Wednesday, smashing a two-run homer and erasing Joey Wendle at third base from deep center field to end the 2-1 victory. A guy never considered much more than a part-time player with a decent arm and some pop in San Diego and Tampa has blossomed into an everyday force with the Red Sox, hitting .267 with 27 homers, 85 RBIs, and an .837 OPS.
Add Gold Glove defense in right field, where he has compiled a league-leading 16 assists, and we're looking at a player who might produce like three-quarters of predecessor Mookie Betts at one-tenth the price.
"Unbelievable," said starter Nathan Eovaldi. "He's been outstanding for us all year. Right field's not easy to play, especially here in Fenway. He's come in and he's done an outstanding job all year long. For him to put us ahead 2-1 right there and then backing up Danny (Santana) makes a great effort, trying to catch that ball from Wendle and Renfroe was able to get over there. It's tough to run, stop, catch the ball, plant, throw all the way to third, on the money. It was just unbelievable."
Speaking of money, Renfroe is a victim of baseball's service time system, which rewards not seasons, but days on the active roster or injured list. Despite debuting with the Padres in 2016 and appearing in over 500 games since, Renfroe only began the season with a little over three seasons of service time.
Making matters worse, he actually took a pay cut after being designated for assignment by the Rays last November. Tampa needed the roster spot to protect a prospect ahead of the Rule 5 draft, and Renfroe would've been non-tendered in early December, anyway, so the Rays set him free rather than give him a raise from $3.3 million in arbitration.
The Red Sox signed him for $3.1 million, with incentives that could bring the total value of the deal to $3.6 million. But he did not lose his arbitration eligibility, which means the Red Sox control his future for at least two more years, barring a change in the collective bargaining agreement, which expires this winter and adds yet another wrinkle to the story.
The New York Post reported that MLB's initial proposal to the players included a revamping of service time and arbitration to make all players eligible for free agency at age 29 and a half. Renfroe, who turns 30 in January, would qualify.
That's merely a proposal, however. If we assume some version of the current system remains in place, then Renfroe should get comfortable in Boston, where he's running with his chance to play every day.
"I never labeled myself as a platoon player," Renfroe said. "It was kind of given to me because I hit lefties so well and struggled a little bit against righties for a short period of time. ... I knew myself as an everyday player and I wanted to prove myself as an everyday player and coming in, Chaim and AC always said, hey, your job is going to be in right field, I want to throw you out there and keep you out there and you're going to be our guy."
He's their guy now, and he's not going anywhere.