The Red Sox don't reach the American League Championship Series without Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts manning the left side of their infield, but the longer-term question is an uneasy one: Can they win a World Series with them there?
As Chaim Bloom begins improving a roster that fell just a little short in 2021, one obvious area of upgrade comes without easy solutions. By any measure, the defense on the left side of the infield was porous this season, but improving it would mean asking a pair of stalwarts to find new positions at a time when both are nearing free agency.
That's a delicate dance, to say the least, and finding the right steps will be perhaps the primary challenge of this winter.
"I think with both guys, obviously we're early in the offseason and we haven't dove into the specifics of how we'd handle either of those guys and their situations," Bloom said. "But both of those guys are cornerstone players for us. They're guys that you want here as long as you can have them here. They were a huge part of what we did this year. They were a huge part of the last championship, they're going to be a huge part of our success moving forward. Obviously what that means, when we address it, how we address it, it's still early to say."
Let's start with the good. Both remain elite offensive performers, as evidenced by their respective Silver Slugger nominations. Bogaerts has already won the award three times, and Devers is a strong bet to take home his first after slamming 38 home runs and driving in 113.
Since 2018, Bogaerts ranks in the top three in homers (90), batting average (.299), and OPS (.894) among shortstops. Devers is a top-eight performer in all three categories among third basemen.
There's no questioning the ability of either to anchor an offense as one of the best young left-right combos in the game. But offense isn't the problem.
Defense is the issue, albeit in different ways. Bogaerts is sure-handed, but lacks range, particularly to his right. Per Baseball Info Solutions, he cost the Red Sox five runs at short this year. Per Baseball Savant, he ranked 35th out of 36th qualified shortstops in outs above average, trailing even Yankees disaster Gleyber Torres, whose deficiencies forced a move to second base in September.
Devers, meanwhile, possesses above-average range, especially to his left, but getting to the ball is not the problem. He has led the AL in errors at the hot corner in each of the last four seasons, and in 2021 ranked dead last among 46 third basemen in outs above average.
Needless to say, finishing 35th out of 36th at one position and 46th out of 46 at the other is not a recipe for run prevention. But the solution isn't as simple as, say, moving Devers to first and Bogaerts to second or third. Their contracts, egos, and clubhouse stature must enter the equation, too. And those are all complicating factors.
"I do believe that as a group we're going to take a look at everything we did right and the things that didn't go right," manager Alex Cora said. "That's from positioning to attacking hitters to first steps to throws to cutoff and relays to tags.
"One of the things about defensive metrics, it's not only about catching the groundball and throwing to first. There's other stuff that comes into play. We did an outstanding job preparing these guys to do it. On certain days it didn't look right. I do believe toward the end of the season we started playing better. Whenever we played good defense, we became a really, really good team. We've got guys that are capable of it.
"There are a lot of teams out there that, yeah, Raffy Devers quote-unquote struggles on defense, but day by day you want Raffy Devers. Same thing with Xander Bogaerts. Same thing with Christian Arroyo at second base. We talk about it's too soon to start digging into all this stuff, but I do believe the way we ended up playing and the things we found out as a group defensively is going to make us better not only in the offseason, but next year."
The Red Sox must tread lightly because imposing unilateral decisions on foundational players could bring repercussions.
Bogaerts can opt out of his contract following next season at age 30 as the shortstop market explodes. The Padres already gave Fernando Tatis Jr. a $340 million extension and the Mets followed by committing $341 million to Francisco Lindor. With All-Stars Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, and Corey Seager, among others, all free this winter, the cost of shortstop is only going to increase, making Bogaerts's six-year, $120 million deal a bargain in need of a correction.
Devers, meanwhile, has yet to seriously engage in extension talks, and he can become a free agent after the 2023 season. The closer he gets to free agency, the more likely he becomes to test free agency, and being moved off the position he has always called home might not be the best enticement to stay.
That's why even if a defensive realignment is justified, it may not be feasible as Bloom juggles short- and long-term considerations.
Welcome to the most consequential decision of the winter.
"We've got a lot of conversations to have and a lot of things to lay out as far as how we're going to go through the offseason," Bloom said. "But we want them here, and we want to win with them."