Ten years after Matt Barnes entered the Red Sox organization as the first pick in a franchise-altering draft class, the 31-year-old has redefined his present and future with the team.
First, the future: Amidst a breakout 2021 campaign that will result in his first All-Star Game appearance this week, Barnes recognized immense opportunities forming on the horizon. A significant market for his services this winter, when he could have been eligible for free agency for the first time, seemed inevitable.
Yet Barnes took stock not only of what was possible but what he had. In his eighth big league season, he considered everything — what he described as life inside the Red Sox family, the short drive to see his family in Connecticut on off-days, the perennial expectation to contend, the chance to play for manager Alex Cora, the trainers and support staff who have made him one of the most durable pitchers in the big leagues, and what it’s like to make Fenway a baseball home.
“When you start adding up all these things, there really wasn’t a place I wanted to play that wasn’t Boston,” said Barnes. “I just wanted a fair contact for what I was doing, and we were able to not only come to do that, but when you add everything else to the equation, this is a place I wanted to stay . . . This is all I’ve ever known. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”
Barnes and the Red Sox worked in recent days to reach an agreement on a two-year, $18.75 million extension covering the 2022 and 2023 seasons. He’ll receive a $1.75 million signing bonus, a $7.25 million salary in 2022, and $7.5 million in 2023. The deal includes an $8 million club option for 2024 (which could escalate to $10 million based on games finished in 2022-23) and a $2.25 million buyout.
That deal rewards Barnes for many years as a key late-innings contributor as well as a breakthrough performance in 2021. Of course, the decision to pursue an extension in the middle of his All-Star performance is very much in line with the decision Barnes made this spring to actively pursue the closer role.
In 2019, the Sox eschewed a traditional closer role at the start of the year. Cora preferred to use Barnes in varying late-innings, high-leverage situations. Barnes accepted his fluid responsibilities.
“He had an opportunity to go into that office and tell me, ‘I want to be the closer,’” recalled Cora. “But he just said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’”
This spring, however, after he spent the final month of 2020 as the Red Sox closer, Barnes approached Cora with a sense of mission.
“He walked into the office and said, ‘I want to be the closer,’” said Cora. “That’s a lot different than ’19.”
Cora — who realized in mid-2019 that he preferred structured bullpen roles to fluid ones — found the request compelling. While he’d been open to using either Barnes or Adam Ottavino as his closer, the clear preference of Barnes — and Ottavino’s willingness to defer on the ninth — made clear how the Red Sox would proceed.
Barnes rewarded Cora’s faith with a dominant start to the year. He made a conscious decision to attack the strike zone more aggressively, particularly in throwing first-pitch strikes — to set in motion a dominant first half.
Entering Sunday, Barnes had a 2.68 ERA with 19 saves (second in the American League) in 23 opportunities. In three of the four games in which he blew save opportunities, Barnes recovered to stop the damage and earn the win. His 44.6 percent strikeout rate ranked third among big league relievers. According to Fangraphs, he ranks fourth in the majors in wins above replacement (1.7) from a reliever.
Barnes and the Red Sox both recognized that he might have gotten a larger or longer guarantee had he reached free agency, particularly at the conclusion of a year in which he’s performed as one of the elite relievers in baseball. Still, after years of conversations about potential long-term deals, the team and reliever wanted to revisit the subject midseason.
“It’s a great day for the Red Sox,” said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “Matt has established himself as one of the better relievers in baseball, and this year he’s taken his game to a whole new level in an even bigger role. Beyond that, he’s exactly the type of person you’d want representing the organization. That’s a credit to him and his family. Those things are so important in the players you invest in.
“This place isn’t for everybody,” Bloom added. “But people who love being here, I think they recognize and see the Red Sox as more than just a place to play or a place to work.”
With the deal, Barnes has a chance cement a distinguished place in team history. Barnes entered Sunday with 362 career appearances — eighth-most ever as a member of the Red Sox. He made his 38th appearance of the season, giving him 363 for his career, throwing a scoreless ninth with one hit, one strikeout and one walk in Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the Phillies. This season, if he stays healthy, he’ll vault past Ellis Kinder (365 games), Roger Clemens (383 games), and Derek Lowe (384 games) to break the top-five in appearances by a Red Sox.
Three more healthy seasons with the Sox (the two-year extension and the option) could bring him near Tim Wakefield (590 games), and within one more year of a run at Bob Stanley (637 games) for the most appearances by a Red Sox pitcher.
“You almost take him for granted,” Ray Fagnant, the Red Sox Northeast scouting supervisor who signed Barnes in 2011, said earlier this season. “[But] he’s etched himself as a lifelong Red Sox and a huge part of this franchise.”
Now, the etching will continue.
“We have a lot of faith in who he is,” said Bloom. “That gives you a lot of faith going forward that he’s going to be able to be the guy that he’s been and that we want him to be.”