Red Sox

Red Sox

Had the pandemic never struck, it's entirely possible the Red Sox would have a deal with Rafael Devers by now.

They entered the offseason hoping to talk long-term extension with the burgeoning star, but their plans were complicated by the desire to drop below the $208 million luxury tax threshold, which they didn't accomplish until the start of spring training, when they traded former MVP Mookie Betts and Cy Young Award winner David Price to the Dodgers.

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That deal opened a window to negotiate with Devers during spring training, but he told MassLive early in camp that the sides hadn't yet spoken, and then the pandemic hit, shutting down the game.

So now we're left to ask: what does baseball's current economic landscape mean for a possible Devers extension, and what might such a contract look like?

First, it's helpful to know what the parameters would've been, pre-pandemic. The days of buying out arbitration years with $40 million extensions have largely fallen by the wayside for the game's best young players, who recognize their newfound earning power in a game that prizes youth.

Reigning Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr. signed an eight-year, $100 million extension last April with the Braves at age 21 that made him the youngest player ever to reach a nine-figure extension. A pair of option seasons could keep the five-tool star in Atlanta through 2028. He justified Atlanta's faith, incidentally, by leading the NL in steals, nearly posting a 40-40 season, and finishing fifth in the MVP voting in year one of the extension.

 

Then there's Houston's Alex Bregman. He signed a five-year, $100 million extension last spring with exactly the same amount of pre-arbitration service time (2.070 years) that Devers has now. Bregman's extension kicks in this season and runs through 2024. The third baseman made his second straight All-Star team in 2019 and finished second in the MVP voting before taking a reputational hit in Houston's cheating scandal.

The other player to secure a massive pre-arb deal was multiple-time MVP Mike Trout, who signed a six-year, $144 million extension with the Angels in 2014 that was ripped up as part of his 10-year, $430 million extension last March. But we'll leave Trout out of this, because he belongs in a category of his own.

Devers compares well to Bregman and Acuña offensively, coming off a .311-32-115-.916 season that included a league-leading 54 doubles, though he lacks Bregman's plate discipline and Acuna's speed.

He's in neither of their classes defensively as well, since Bregman would be a Gold Glover by now if it weren't for Oakland's Matt Chapman, and Acuña plays a higher-impact position in center field.

There's one other contract worth mentioning. A week before baseball shut down, the White Sox signed former Red Sox farmhand Yoan Moncada to a five-year, $70 million extension that bought out two years of free agency and included a team option that could bring the total value to $90 million.

Moncada posted remarkably similar numbers to Devers, hitting .315 with a .915 OPS, and the White Sox believe the 25-year-old will continue to improve as his strikeouts drop and his walks rise, but there's little question that Devers is the better pure hitter.

So it feels like Moncada marks Devers' floor and the other two represent his ceiling, except those are the old comps. There are no new ones, since baseball declared a moratorium on signings in March that was only lifted with Tuesday's agreement to return to action.

Devers isn't eligible for arbitration until next season and he won't become a free agent until the fall of 2023. Signing an extension still makes sense for both parties, though obvious hurdles remain.

From Devers' perspective, locking in guaranteed money now serves as a hedge against the uncertainty of the coronavirus. For the Red Sox, such a deal would allow them to avoid the Betts scenario in three years, where they're forced to trade Devers before his final season of arbitration eligibility because they know they can't sign him long-term.

Unfortunately, the impediments to an extension feel even greater. With teams clearly signaling a desire to cut payroll, any extensions offered in the current climate will almost certainly fall below market value as a concession to the economic realities of playing without fans. The looming 2021 CBA negotiations could also lead either to a work stoppage, salary cap, or both, throwing further uncertainty into future planning.

 

Failing a six-year, $100 million offer, Devers' best way to maximize earnings is probably to follow the Betts model of steady arbitration raises before either hitting free agency after the 2023 season or at least giving the current landscape time to settle.

It's not an approach without risk, but it might be his safest bet in the face of so much uncertainty.