The Red Sox learned their lesson too late with Rafael Devers’ extension

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My dad has worked in the trades since he was in high school, so he knows quite a bit about not just the day-to-day of such operations but also the bigger picture, zoomed out standards and trends, as well. When we needed to side our house a couple of years ago — the siding was basically unpainted at this point, it had been so long since it got a fresh coat, it had dried and weakened, and also a combination of woodpeckers and squirrels were making holes in it with the latter trying to make residence in my attic — I kind of balked at the price we got, which had been inflated by the worldwide pandemic, supply chain issues, etc. Until a conversation with my dad who knows things taught me this important fact about the resources needed for completing construction projects: today is the cheapest they’ll ever be, because tomorrow, the price is going to go up.

Yes, the circumstances of the world jumped the prices for goods and services up, but once the market — in this case, the industry that performs construction labor on homes — settles in at a new price baseline, they and the baseline stick there. People always need work done on their homes: there isn’t a situation where this isn’t true, unless the entire economy collapses and there’s simply no money for anyone to be investing into their homes, as they need it all for the grocery store and just getting by in their lives, woodpeckers be damned. So, if the market has already shown it can persist with enough white cedar shingles to cover the house costing one-quarter of what we bought the thing for, in part because you could instead get vinyl siding that is far superior in look and quality from what it was when I was younger as an alternative, then there is no reason for it to dive back down after the jump in cost. Get while the getting is good, because the getting will be worse tomorrow.

Anyway, Rafael Devers signed an 11-year, $331 million extension with the Red Sox earlier this week, about 2.5 years after Mookie Betts signed a 12-year, $365 million pact with the Dodgers, whom Boston had traded Betts to before the 2020 season. Betts was in the middle of his $27 million final year of arbitration at the time of the extension, but he was also just the one year older then than Devers is now, and is expected to age much better as well, given he’s athletic enough to play center if needed, while Devers will invariably end up at first base as his bat sticks ahead of what his glove is capable of. So, there’s less difference in those figures than 13 years and $392 million vs. 11 and $331 million implies. Especially when you consider that, like Devers, Betts was willing to sign a deal before his final season of arbitration even began, while he was still wearing a Red Sox uniform.

Despite the kind of protestations certain segments of the Red Sox fan base have whined out the past few years, Betts was, in fact, willing to sign an extension with Boston. He had a number in mind that would make him avoid free agency; the Red Sox did not meet it in their contract negotiations. They ended up trading him to the Dodgers for little more than salary relief — Alex Verdugo, even leaving aside that his first time in front of Boston reporters involved questions about his involvement in a sexual assault investigation, is barely a replacement for the departed Andrew Benintendi, never mind Betts, and Jeter Downs was just designated for assignment. Fast-forward a couple of years later, and Xander Bogaerts was treated poorly in extension negotiations, to the point that he commented on the simplicity of talks with the Padres in his press conference, as a pretty obvious shot at how Boston had handled things. It turns out if you lowball players, they don’t want to sign with you, and may even hold a grudge. Weird!

As Patrick Dubuque pointed out in a Transaction Analysis over at Baseball Prospectus this week, Devers’ new deal is connected to these incidents:

When you let a star get to free agency, generally it means they’re as good as gone; after all, it just takes one team to go San Diego on you, and it’s all over. In the rare case when you can re-sign the player, as the Yankees did this winter with Aaron Judge, it demands not just market price but beyond it, because you have to San Diego the San Diego team (or, in Judge’s case, San Francisco). And even though Devers still had a year to go, the Red Sox weren’t going to secure his services at a discount at this point. They had already painted themselves into a corner with the third baseman, such that they needed him far more than he needed them, both as a franchise and a contender. Whatever it is the Red Sox are doing, this is not a situation like the one where Houston found itself with Correa, or Oakland used to with every player it sold off. The Red Sox do not have a Jeremy Peña in the wings, waiting to take over. They have a very young Marcelo Meyer in High-A, and not much else. Bobby Dalbec is still floating around this roster, for reasons unknown. This is not what you’d describe as a well-oiled factory at the moment. If the Red Sox are still this metaphorical car, the driver hasn’t always been looking up at the road.

The Red Sox had to pay Devers, not just because he’s 26 this year and has hit .292/.352/.532 over the past four seasons, but because there is no one left. The farm system isn’t all that impressive, the core that helped them win a championship what now feels like decades instead of just a few years ago is essentially down to Devers and a reliever, and the current front office’s track record for new acquisitions isn’t looking all that great. Boston finished in fifth place in the AL East with Bogaerts and Devers; now they just have Devers, and while the team has worked to fill some holes and patch over others this offseason, it’s hard to think they’re going to make much noise in a division that has two clubs that are always competitive in the Yankees and Rays, the Blue Jays in the midst of a youth-led run, and the Orioles about to be serious pains in everyone’s asses even if they don’t go out and spend like they should.

Let’s be generous and say that the Red Sox couldn’t retain all three of Betts, Bogaerts, and Devers as they approached or reached free agency. I don’t necessarily believe that when we live in a world where the San Diego Padres have Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, and Bogaerts just on the offensive side of things, but like I said: let’s be generous. They only ended up with one of them, because they moved Betts in a deal that was entirely based on shipping out money rather than keeping one of the best players in the entire game in Boston. They lost Bogaerts because they didn’t offer him nearly enough either at the beginning of the negotiations nor the end of them; in truth, the end probably occurred at the beginning, even if Bogaerts’ agent was smart enough to keep one of the most significant markets in the game in the race in name only if nothing else the rest of the way. They created a situation in which they got to keep a damn fine player who will still be young enough to sign another contract when this thing is over, but they should have had at least two, and if they were going to keep one at this price, how was it not Betts?

Hubris, poor planning, outright stupidity. You name it, the Red Sox can’t credibly defend against it. It’s good that they finally wised up and handed over the money needed to keep a star hitter in town for the long run, but look where the no-hindsight-necessary holdup got them: with that, and little else.

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