Atlanta MVP candidate Austin Riley’s first-inning triple on Tuesday night afforded him and fellow All-Star third baseman Rafael Devers the chance to catch up. The two have crossed paths a number of times in spring training as well as regular season contests and All-Star games and took advantage of a chance to exchange brief pleasantries and build upon their mutual admiration society.
“He’s a good dude. I’ve enjoyed getting to spend some time talking to him,” said Riley. “I feel like he plays the game the right way. He hustles, plays hard. He’s a fun player to watch.”
So what was Devers’s brief message as the two crossed paths mid-game on Tuesday?
“He just said congratulations,” relayed Riley.
The basis of Devers’s well-wishes was a recent 10-year, $212 million deal that Riley signed to remain in Atlanta through 2032. And for the Red Sox and Devers, it’s not hard to imagine the relevance of Riley’s contract when the two sides resume negotiations on a potential extension this winter.
The two players have performed at strikingly similar, elite levels over the last two seasons:
Riley: 25 years old, 269 games, .301/.364/.557, 63 HR, 181 RBI, 144 OPS+
Devers: 25 years old, 250 games, .291/.358/.557, 62 HR, 173 RBI, 143 OPS+
The length and size of Riley’s guarantee will certainly be talking points if and when the Red Sox, as expected, approach Devers again this winter about a potential extension — just as another Atlanta infielder served as a point of reference in talks between the Sox and Devers this spring.
This year, when the Sox talked with Devers about a long-term deal, they identified the eight-year, $168 million deal that first baseman Matt Olson had just signed with Atlanta one day after being traded by Oakland. The offensive performances of Devers and Olson — both of whom were on track for free-agent eligibility after the 2023 season — over the three prior seasons offered some rationale for that approach:
Olson: 28 years old, 343 games, .257/.354/.522, 89 HR, 244 RBI, 139 OPS+
Devers: 25 years old, 369 games, .291/.350/.537, 81 HR, 271 RBI, 129 OPS+
Olson wasn’t shocked to learn that the Sox had made an offer based on the performance similarities of the two players.
“Every guy is going to be different,” explained Olson, “[but] we were closely tied in arbitration talks, the numbers that we have and being the same year in arbitration, so there’s been that connection.”
Olson also recognized the differences between his situation and that of Devers. He would have been reaching free agency following his age-29 season, while Devers has a chance to do so after his age-26 season – with more prime years ahead of him.
Moreover, Olson took note of Devers’ elite 2022 campaign (.310/.367/.586 with 24 homers, 60 RBI and 55 extra-base hits entering Wednesday) in pondering the possibility that Devers’ bar is likely to exceed his.
“Obviously, he’s a hell of a player,” said Olson. “He’s having a year that I don’t think anybody’s surprised by. I don’t want to speak for him, because every situation is different. [But] he’s obviously having a little better year than me, too.”
So what, if anything, do those two long-term deals mean for the Red Sox and what do they mean for Devers?
Already, Devers made it clear to the Sox this spring that he disagreed with the idea that Olson — based both on age (two years old) and position (first base, as opposed to third) — represented an ideal point of comparison, a notion he reiterated at the All-Star break.
“I know my value,” Devers said through translator Bryan Loor-Almonte in mid-July. “I don’t want to be compared with anyone else, regardless of what the position is. I’m me, and that’s who I want to be compared to. I know what my value is.”
Still, other contracts invariably serve as points of comparison. There’s some skepticism in the baseball industry that Devers will find a 10-year deal if he reaches free agency, but most expect that any extension would have to comfortably clear the $21.2 million average annual value of Riley’s deal — struck three years before the Atlanta star’s potential free agency — given that Devers will be just one year from the open market this winter.
A seven- or eight-year deal for more than $200 million would surprise no one. Devers might aim higher at a time when some young stars (Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Manny Machado, among others) have received guarantees in excess of $300 million, but there’s a good chance that he’d have to explore free agency to hit such a mark. It’s his prerogative to decide whether or not the deals of Atlanta’s two infielders should have any sway over his talks with the Sox.
For Riley, it was worth leaving the prospect of greater career earnings on the table to sign with a team and organization he loved, close to both his and his wife’s families, and with a team that quickly got to a number — once Atlanta changed the first digit of his nine-figure deal from a “1″ to a “2″ — that he found acceptable.
“Things did go back and forth, but once things got rolling, they happened quickly. I kind of knew the risk going in that I could potentially make some more down the road,” said Riley. “But I said, ‘I like where I’m at. I can lay my head down and know that I made a good decision.’”
Whether the Sox and Devers find their way to a similar accord remains to be seen. But certainly, the Red Sox star will have two fans in Atlanta who will continue to follow his course with interest and enthusiasm.
“He probably has one of my favorite swings in the big leagues. He’s obviously an incredible hitter. He’s made a lot of improvements defensively, too. A lot of people had some bad stuff to say early on about him, but he’s a good defender,” said Olson. “I love watching him play.”