Amid all of the anticipation for what the Red Sox could possibly do in 2019 as they try to repeat as world champions, there are questions about the future of the franchise looming over everything. It’s not something that will (or at least it shouldn’t, in my opinion) take away from the enjoyment of the coming season, but the thought of stars leaving is going to be in the back of the minds of fans for the entire year. Over the next two seasons, the Red Sox have stars set to hit the open market in Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, J.D. Martinez (if he opts out) and Xander Bogaerts, to say nothing of guys like Jackie Bradley Jr., Rick Porcello, Brock Holt, Mitch Moreland, Steve Pearce and Eduardo Núñez. That’s a huge amount of potential turnover. Obviously, not all of those guys are going to leave the organization, but not all of them are going to stay, either. Hence, the looming questions and the hope that at least some of them will be answered sooner rather than later.
This point in the spring is, as the kids say, Extension SZN. There may be something to be said about the strike many are anticipating in a couple of years that is adding urgency for players to lock down guaranteed money now rather than waiting for free agency, though I’m not sure that’s as big of a factor as it’s being made out to be. Either way, we’ve seen good-to-great players like Whit Merrifield, Aaron Nola, Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks sign extensions lately. That was before Tuesday, when the extension bombshell was dropped. Nolan Arenado had agreed to a new deal with the Rockies worth $260 million over eight years. The deal also includes an opt-out for the player after the third year.
This is, obviously, a major deal in the scope of the league as a whole, and trust me when I say I could talk about Arenado for hours. He is my favorite player in baseball, non-Red Sox/non-Mauricio Dubon edition. We are not an MLB page, though, and concern ourselves with the Red Sox here. In that vein, this deal could provide some hints towards what Boston would be looking at with potential extensions for a couple of their stars.
Now, of the four Capital-S stars mentioned above, I’m only going to talk about two. Chris Sale is the same caliber of a player as Arenado, but comparisons between pitchers and position players can get iffy, particularly given the recent injury concerns for the Red Sox ace. J.D. Martinez, meanwhile, is a better hitter than Arenado but he’s older, isn’t a pre-free agency player and doesn’t provide the defensive value Colorado gets from their third baseman. Jackie Bradley Jr. would be the closest from the other group of impending free agents to being included in this comparison but, well, ya know. Bradley ain’t Arenado or really even close.
That leaves Betts and Bogaerts as the guys about whom we could learn a little bit regarding potential future contract extensions. Now, these are not perfect comparisons for reasons we’ll get to in a bit. There really isn’t such thing as a perfect comparison between any two baseball players. That said, it is close enough. Bogaerts, like Arenado before he signed the contract, is set to hit free agency at the end of the year. He doesn’t have the same long-term track record as the Rockies star, but he was actually better offensively last year (by wRC+) and is two years younger. That’s important. Betts, meanwhile, is the better player and is also two years younger, but he’s also an extra year away from free agency.
Still, while these guys are in the same general vicinity as each other in terms of caliber of player, there is a clear pecking order based purely on talent. I don’t think anyone would really debate a ranking of Betts, Arenado and Bogaerts unless they really weight Bogaerts’ 2018 heavily and take significant points away from Arenado for calling Coors Field home. For a slightly more objective view at things, I thought it would be useful to look at a straight WAR comparison between the three. I used a three-year total for all three players — three-year samples are generally how projection systems look at players — and looked at Baseball-Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR and Baseball Prospectus WARP as well as the average of the three measures. Here are the results
Now, I should mention that I am not the biggest fan of WAR metrics and don’t really use them all that much. I think they rely a little heavily on defensive metrics that most agree are wonky in smaller samples, and I’m not sure positional adjustments are always applied fairly. That being said, as a shorthand start for a comparison like these, it works. Sure enough, the ranking is how most of us would have it, with Arenado slightly closer to Betts but the three separated by almost equal lengths.
So, where do we go from here? Let’s start with Bogaerts, who again is not the same caliber player as Arenado. He is younger, but even so I don’t think he could command the same length of a deal and certainly couldn’t command the $32.5 million average annual value. They’d likely try, but it would be hard to argue Bogaerts should get more money per year than Arenado. That said, something approaching this neighborhood could be in order. Remember, while the three-year WAR totals skew things and teams can’t make long-term decisions based on one year, Bogaerts broke out in a big way in 2018. With that in mind, he could probably ask for a six-year deal with something around $27-$30 million for an AAV without getting laughed out of the room.
The more interesting one is, of course, Betts. The one knock against him, as mentioned above, is that he is an extra year away from free agency. I’m not sure that difference has a ton of impact in a discussion like this regarding one of the two or three best position players in the game. Betts would certainly command a larger deal than Arenado. The hope is that this kind of framework being in place would make Betts more comfortable even discussing an extension at this point. I’m not getting my hopes up that he would, but it’s possible. If he does, the talks are starting at nine or ten years, and anything less than $35 million per year is a non-starter. It’s a huge sum of money and a massive guarantee, but that is the price to pay for someone of Betts’ caliber. The Red Sox might be wary of offering that much two years before free agency — they shouldn’t be, but they might be — but if they want serious talks with the reigning MVP this is where they need to be.
Ultimately, I don’t see extensions with either of these guys before the start of the season. For Bogaerts, the question of how much to weigh 2018 is one on which I can see significant disagreement between him and the team. For Betts, he’s shown every indication he wants to go through arbitration year-by-year and then see what happens on the open market. Still, up to this point they haven’t had a recent extension to a super-duper star to use as a benchmark. Now they have one, and it confirms that Boston is going to need to pay huge money to keep their stars. Just remember, they have the money and then some.