FanPost

Possible Positional Pickle; Impasse in the Infield



The Boston Red Sox face two major decisions regarding two of its biggest stars – Rafael Devrers and Xander Bogaerts. Not only is it a matter of talent retainment and evaluation, but it also strikes home to a fanbase still aggrieved at the loss of Mookie Betts (whether they agreed with the result or not).

THE SCENARIO

Xander Bogaerts is entering what is likely the final year of his team-friendly contract he signed before the 2020 season. The deal could extend until 2026, but it has an opt-out after this year, and he has indicated he’ll do so. He is arguably now the face of the franchise. He has indicated strong interest in staying in Boston, and Boston ownership/management has indicated strong interest in keeping him. Bogaerts will turn 30 at the end of the season.

Rafael Devers, third baseman, has two more years of team control before he can be a free agent after the 2023 season. He and the team narrowly avoided arbitration this year, with an $11.2M contract. He has shown a desire to stay, but is starting to push for an extension – with some impatience. He’s just 25 (turning 26 at the end of the season).

Together, these two are the best Boston position players and the left side of the infield. They’re both engaging, no red flags for character and fun to root for.

THE EVALUATION - BOGAERTS

Bogaerts is a very good hitter – and an excellent one for a shortstop. He is tied with Trea Turner for the highest wRC+ of any shortstop over the past three seasons with a 135 wRC+. This is boosted by a 141 wRC+ in homer-happy 2019 (he had 10 HRs more than any other season). His recent wRC+: 130, 130, 141, 133. Suffice to say he’s a 130-ish wRC+ hitter. Again, great for a shortstop, very good in general. He has the 2nd highest fWAR over the same time frame, with 13.9 (behind Marcus Semien’s MLB-leading 15.4).

Defensively, Xander is…not good. Bad, in fact. He has a career minus-54 OAA (Outs Above Average; 0 being ‘average’). His OAA over the past three seasons is minus-22…ranking 35th out of 37 shortstops in that time frame. In the past three seasons, he has minus-18 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). UZR is a bit kinder, but he is arguably the worst-fielding starting shortstop in the major leagues. He may not rank that low, depending on what defensive stats one favors, but he’s certainly in the conversation.

As I’ve demonstrated elsewhere (and any independent research will corroborate), shortstops tend to turn into pumpkins starting at….age 30. This is when really good shortstops start to decline fast enough to warrant a move to another position. Xander is a really bad shortstop, getting ready to decline even more.

There has been much talk about him moving to another position, but just recently he has flatly ruled that out.

THE EVALUATION – DEVERS

Rafael Devers is a very good hitter. Over the past three seasons, he has a 129 wRC+ (134, 109, 132). That’s good for 5th among third basemen. He probably could be pegged for a mid-130s, as he’s had that two of the past three seasons. His 109 came in the shortened 2020 season, and it would be easy to disregard that…if he didn’t have similarly poor 90 wRC+ in 2018. He’s very young, and 2020 was disruptive. We know he can be a very good hitter. We think he can be a great one. But he has yet to put two good seasons back-to-back.

He is also a really bad fielder – although there is some debate to this. Over the past three seasons, he’s ranked 12th out of 13 qualified third basemen in UZR. Outs Above Average has him at a flat 0 over the past three years (ranked 21 out of 37) – but in the past two years, he’s dead last (43rd out of 43), with minus-13. And herein lies the rub with Devers. In 2019, he was pretty solid as a fielder. A bit above average. And that leans in to the long-standing argument that he has the tools to be good, he just needs to settle down.

The problem with that argument is…it keeps costing Boston games. Since he joined the league in 2017, Devers has committed 96 errors. Not only is that the most in MLB, but it’s the most by a wide margin. The next worst? Eugenio Suarez, with 59. Devers has 60% more errors than the next worst player. We all know errors are a pretty sketchy and subjective defensive metric. But any Boston fan can confirm that he comes by that number honestly. He’s had one solid-good defensive season, and been atrocious in the rest. The talent is there, but the longer it keeps not-manifesting, the more it hurts Boston and the weaker any ‘Buts…’ get.

And so far, 2019 is very much an outlier.

The biggest thing in Rafael Devers favor is his age. At 25, he’s in his prime (recent aging trends show prime peaks at age 25, holds steady for a few years, then starts to decline). It’s tempting to assume he’ll get better, but again, he very possibly has hit his peak. And it’s a very nice peak (as a hitter).

EVALUATION – RIPPLE EFFECTS

As hitters, both Bogaerts and Devers are very good. Any team would be delighted to have them at the heart of their line-up. They’re not quite great, but very, very good. They’ve both likely peaked – Bogey almost certainly, Devers may have a bit to climb.

Defensively, they’re both really bad. And here’s a huge issue – together, they’re atrocious. Boston’s infield allowed the highest Batting Average on ground balls last year, at .273. Boston’s pitching staff allowed a .324 average on Balls In Play – worst in the majors. The main burden of this rests squarely on the left side of the infield.

It’s not going to get better going forward. Boston is locked in to the two of them this year. But starting in 2023, defensive shifts are going to be banned. That means two bad fielders are going to be even more exposed, with having more responsibility for coverage. Just about everyone acknowledges that both will have to be moved off their position. And this leads to…

THE PUZZLE

Xander will be a free agent after this year. He’s been adamant at wanting to stay at shortstop. Some may feel this is just posturing or negotiating, but it was enough to impact the Trevor Story signing (historically a MUCH better fielder, albeit one struggling with arm troubles).

The assumption is that Bogaerts will eventually accept being moved, but the issue than becomes…where? Second base and Third base are the two most often mentioned, but one might recall this was tried at third early on, and went very, very badly. Being a bad shortstop does not imply that one will be a good fielder elsewhere (or even adequate).

While it’s typically cited that shortstops often move to other positions, there’s not really a lot of evidence for this. The biggest examples are Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, and Robin Yount (3B/3B/CF). But there are differences: All three are Hall of Famers (or HOF quality) … and all three were superb defensive shortstops. Each one of them was a Gold Glove winner. Xander is quite unlikely for the Hall of Fame. He doesn’t have the hardware, he doesn’t have the counting stats, and he doesn’t have the standout moments (Quick – name Xander Bogaerts' top three highlights).

Ernie Banks is the next comparison. He was never known as a good fielder, and was moved to first base. While he actually played more games at first than at shortstop, his best season as a first baseman wasn’t as good as his worst as a shortstop.

After that, who is there? Bud Harrelson and Dave Concepcion both switched at the end of their careers, but they were largely part-timers. Gary Sheffield never should have spent a day at short, which the Brewers quickly rectified by age 21. Who else?

One difference is Bogey’s bat. It’s a very good bat – best among current shortstops. The line of thinking goes, "If he’s good enough to be bad at shortstop, he’ll be fine elsewhere." But that’s speculation, and rather contorted at that. The assumptions are second base, first base, or left field. But Boston now has Trevor Story at second (where his arm might keep him), and Casas debuting this year at first. Nick Yorke is in A-Ball, Marcelo Mayer the same.) Boston’s three top prospects are at primary ‘move’ spots. There’s also designated hitter.

For Rafael Devers, the choices are more limited. It’s first base or (much more likely) DH. If Casas capitalizes on his promise, that rules out 1B.

In essence, Boston has two designated hitters playing third and short. What has already been a major problem will continue to get worse, rapidly.

THE PROBLEM

Both guys are up for contracts. Both no doubt want to get paid. Lots of people like to toss out "10 years/ $300M". They ain’t getting that. Neither of them are Fernando Tatis, Jr. Francisco Lindor’s contract is already cringe-worthy. So is Manny Machado’s.

This was supposed to be the huge year of the shortstop contract. It didn’t work out that way. Carlos Correa got a make-good contract, albeit at a huge AAV. Corey Seager – the worst defender of bunch, got a 10-year deal for $325M, with lots of pre-packaged regret built in (he’s also 3 years younger). Marcus Semien, arguably the best player in baseball the past three years, got seven years. Story got 6 or 7. Javier Baez got 6 years, $150M.

All of those guys are much better fielders than Xander. Top money gets paid to elite shortstops. So what happens when Xander has to move off (sooner, rather than later)? His WAR will drop because he doesn’t get that sweet positional adjustment (+7.5. 2B/3B/CF are +2.5. DH is minus-17.5). He – or certainly Scott Boras, his agent – want to get paid like an elite shortstop.

Third basemen have gotten huge contracts – Machado, Arenado and Rendon all have gotten $30M AAV. For Devers, same as above.

You know who doesn’t get huge contracts? Designated Hitters. Let me throw you a little thought experiment.

Both Bogaerts and Devers have set themselves at the 130-135 wRC+ level. The biggest contract given out to a (largely) exclusive designated hitter was someone in the 160-170 wRC+ level. They got 5 years, $110M. At age 30 (same age as Bogaerts when he opts out). And the fans of the team who signed that guy, even though he’s consistently been as-good or better a hitter as both Devers and Bogaerts, have desperately hoped he’d opt out. That guy is…JD Martinez.

What’s the difference between JD Martinez, and Xander Bogaerts/Rafael Devers? All three are butchers in the field. All three are very good hitters. JDM has been a great one. Neither of them is a good enough hitter to excuse awful-and-getting-worse defense.

5 years, $110M. Do you think that’s the market for Bogaerts or Devers?

THE SUMMARY

Both players want – and hell, deserve – great contracts. I love rooting for them both. All Boston fans do. But both have very sticky problems that are part of each player’s package. And those problems get considerably worse when packaged together.

Something will have to give. Both players have a big say in how this will be resolved, but both are pushed for timing. Xander is poised to opt out. He insists he wants to be a shortstop. Any team that negotiates with him will have to confront that. Given how the SS market was nowhere near what hype presumed it would be, he may be quite challenged in landing that monster contract.

He could influence the issue by indicating flexibility – getting ahead of the situation. But he hasn’t done that. He’s forcing Boston to make the decision. And to pay elite positional money to an unsustainable future doesn’t look promising.

Xander goes first. But a year later, Devers will be an issue as well. While the Xander situation will provide clarity, if he stays, Boston may not see a future for Devers. The Nick Punto Trade showed the hole a franchise can dig for itself by locking itself into stagnation that lacks for alternatives.

Looming over both decisions is the fact that Boston has three elite prospects, all at the main positions of concern (not to mention locking into Trevor Story). Mayer and Yorke are some few years away, but Casas could lock up the job this summer (or they could all fail or get injured, etc.). There’s no certainty in prospect development. But Boston may quickly find itself in the unenviable position of having overblown, underperforming contracts blocking prime talent.

There's a strong current of "Boston franchise is loaded with cash - just pay them! Overpay them!" We hate seeing beloved players leave. We don't think with a business mindset. But the people who own the business surely do. Plus, we fans also hate seeing mediocrity and stagnation.

It’s not at all fair to put this on the players’ shoulders – both of whom have been exemplary members of the franchise. But both are the key to the solution. They both have major deficiencies that will force a change. They can be partly in control of that change, or they can be bystanders to it. I'm betting one guy stays.