LOS ANGELES — A year ago, Rafael Devers arrived at his first All-Star Game as an emerging star. This year, he will take the field in Dodger Stadium as one of the game’s brightest lights, a player who at 25 is garnering recognition as a transcendent talent not just by contemporaries, but by the game’s royalty.
“When I see Devers, it’s like I never left,” said David Ortiz, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this week. “He’s fearless, this kid, at such an early age. He looks invincible out there.”
“He’s better than me,” added Adrián Beltré, who is a virtual lock for a plaque in Cooperstown. “If he stays healthy, no doubt — no doubt he’s going to be better [than me].”
As he continues to build his résumé, Devers has gone from impressive to awe-inspiring. He arrives at the break hitting .324 with a .379 on-base and .601 slugging mark — all of which would represent career highs — while hitting 22 homers and drilling 51 extra-base hits.
Pitchers express grudging amazement at his ability to crush offerings anywhere from his shoulders to his shoe tops.
“You can’t tell a guy like that to only swing at strikes because he clearly demolishes sliders going in the dirt on a relatively regular basis, to where you try to throw a pitch in the dirt and you have to be prepared for it leave the park, which is odd,” said Yankees All-Star Gerrit Cole, who has allowed six homers to Devers — more than any player he’s faced. “He’s unique. From afar, it seems like he just keeps getting better and just kind of honing it a bit.”
Red Sox starters Rich Hill and Michael Wacha took stock of Devers from the other side of the field in 2021, when they both faced him as members of the Rays. They experienced the puzzling process of trying to game-plan for a player cut in the mold of a Nomar Garciaparra or Vladimir Guerrero Sr. — someone who is comfortable chasing pitches well outside of the strike zone and crushing them.
“He was a guy that you had to game-plan around,” said Wacha. “He was always on the radar, always knew where he was in the lineup type of guy.”
Devers’s talent stands out in the baseball landscape, where pitchers typically feel like they’ve won the battle when they get opposing hitters to swing at something that isn’t in the zone.
At the same age, Ortiz was searching for a toehold as a platoon player with the Twins. Beltré had been a roughly average hitter in the big leagues through age 24 before a breakout season at 25 — followed by four more years of roughly league-average production. Devers, in the words of White Sox manager Tony La Russa, “has already got it figured out” at the age when even excellent players are just starting to realize how to harness their abilities. What to conclude from his multi-year perch as one of the game’s foremost hitters at such a young age?
“Raffy is going to be one of the generational talents that we’re able to witness,” said Hill.
But will that opportunity remain with the Red Sox, and if so, at what cost?
‘Raffy is going to be one of the generational talents that we’re able to witness.’
Rich Hill on teammate Rafael Devers
Devers has made clear his love of the Red Sox organization and his desire to remain with the team that signed him as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2013. The Sox, likewise, have made clear they view Devers as a cornerstone player they’d love to retain for years.
Yet his free agency following the 2023 season is coming ever closer, ever more sharply into view. Particularly after conversations between Devers and the team about a long-term deal this spring never came close to an agreement.
According to a major league source familiar with the talks, the Red Sox identified Matt Olson’s eight-year, $168 million extension with Atlanta as a basis for discussions — citing the likelihood that Devers would spend much of the contract either at first base or designated hitter.
Devers aimed much higher, convinced in his ability to stay at third for the immediate future (an outlook that has been validated by his solid glove work this year) while making the case that his offense would make him immensely valuable even if he eventually moves to first or DH. The canyon-sized gap between the sides — Jeff Passan of ESPN reported it was in excess of $100 million — made clear that there was little common ground.
Cole — one of nine players to receive a contract guaranteeing $300 million — said “his gut” tells him Devers also belongs in that class. Hill was even more adamant.
“No doubt about it,” he said.
Others in the industry were less certain, with two evaluators noting many of the game’s $300 million deals have been for either middle-of-the-field players (Mike Trout, Francisco Lindor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Corey Seager) or for Gold Glove corner defenders (Mookie Betts, Manny Machado). There are bat-first exceptions (Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton), but those evaluators felt that if Devers reaches free agency, the first digit of his nine-figure deal might be a two.
Still, they acknowledged that Devers was doing everything he could to defy those estimates, and that few expected Seager to get $325 million from the Rangers.
“It only takes one team,” noted one of the evaluators.
The fact that Nationals star Juan Soto — this generation’s Ted Williams — reportedly turned down a 15-year, $440 million proposal from Washington only strengthens Devers’s position. But what constitutes a $300 million player?
Zack Scott, founder and CEO of Four Rings Sports Solutions, was involved in multiple contract discussions of players seeking more than $300 million. As a Red Sox executive, he was part of the Mookie Betts discussions in the spring of 2019. Scott was the Mets’ general manager when New York signed shortstop Lindor to a 10-year, $341 million extension.
While he did not talk specifically about either negotiation, he identified a few checkboxes for megacontracts.
• Incredible production at a young age. “Is the level of their production and expected performance good enough to justify where they’ll eventually decline to [during the contract]? Are you getting enough value up front to justify the deficit value you’re getting down the road?”
For Devers, presumably that would be an emphatic yes given his youth and the fact that he ranks among MLB leaders in wins above replacement.
• For position players, ability to handle a wide variety of pitch types without obvious weaknesses. “There are definitely guys that are mistake breaking ball hitters that can still be pretty good players even though they can’t hit 94-plus above the zone, but they can’t be stars. You’re not going to get to the level where you’re even considered for a $200 million contract probably if you have that kind of concern.”
Devers can handle as diverse an array of pitches as anyone.
• Makeup and commitment to excellence even after receiving incredible amounts of money. “I think there’s a lot about the person, trusting that person as they age, that they’re going to do the work, that they’re going to be a good teammate,” said Scott. “That’s why I think you almost always are better off giving it to someone that you know.”
The Sox have raved about Devers’ growing role as a leader and sense of commitment both to his career and his team.
• The overall state of the roster. Is a team in position with its other contracts and its farm system to take on a huge contract without limiting its ability to address other needs? Scott said teams can only realistically think in three-year windows; anything beyond that is just guesswork.
When the Sox talked with Betts in 2019, a host of long-term deals limited the team’s flexibility and the farm system had no regulars on the immediate horizon. Now, with only Trevor Story and Garrett Whitlock signed beyond 2023 (assuming that Xander Bogaerts opts out), the Sox don’t confront the same constraints.
Devers’s peers cited other factors in identifying $300 million players. Cole immediately identified durability. Since 2019, Devers ranks ninth in the big leagues in games played with 455. He plays hurt and he produces through injury.
Hill cited marketability, heralding his teammate’s fun-loving spirit as part of his value.
“If I’m signing that guy, is he marketable? You don’t come across that everywhere. And he certainly is,” said Hill. “I know growing up here as a kid and seeing guys that I got to watch play, have a career, and spend most of their career in Boston was great. You just want that next generation to have somebody that they can relate to and identify with as far as somebody in a Red Sox uniform that represents the uniform well.”
On Tuesday in Los Angeles, Devers will do just that (or, at least he will in the All-Star variation of team uniforms).
As for the future? That is a question that Devers and the team expect to revisit this winter, with speculation filling the void in the interim.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.