Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez had already become the fastest player to reach 20 homers and 20 stolen bases. Now, he can claim another “fastest to” distinction: fastest player to receive a guarantee of more than $100 million.
With less than a full year of big league service time, Rodríguez and the Mariners reportedly reached agreement on a deal that guarantees the ascending superstar at least $120 million over the next eight years — and that could be worth up to $470 million over 18 years.
The Rodríguez deal is the latest sign of how the dynamics surrounding extensions for young stars have changed in recent years — and serves to highlight both the consequences of a path not taken by the Sox last decade, while also offering an indication of a future direction for a club that wants to get back in the business of retaining its homegrown stars.
Roughly 10-15 years ago, the Red Sox made a habit of signing players with two-plus years of service time — prior to their arbitration eligibility — to deals of roughly five years and $30 million that included a team option, a framework that made Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz organizational building blocks for years. Even three and five years ago, several young players with fewer than two years in the big leagues signed long-term deals in the $20 million to $30 million range.
Those models are essentially now gone.
“I do think the landscape has shifted,” Pirates GM Ben Cherington, who was part of the Red Sox front office when it reached those extensions with homegrown players, said recently. “They aren’t that old, and yet [those deals] seem kind of like a relic.”
That view manifested itself for the Pirates in an eight-year, $70 million deal (which included a team option) for Ke’Bryan Hayes, signed this spring just over a year into his big league career.
The Hayes contract served as a basis for a recent eight-year, $72 million deal that Michael Harris II signed in the middle of his rookie year — suggesting a rough baseline for talented players who look like above-average everyday players but have not yet achieved star status.
“It is interesting. It’s also good to see,” said Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo, who noted that he’d be open to discussing a long-term deal with the team (“I would love to stay here,” he said) but added that he has not had any such conversations with the club. “It’s good to see for the kids coming up that you can kind of be solidified and take care of your family or whatever they want.”
Meanwhile, the Rodríguez deal comes 18 months after Fernando Tatís reached a 14-year, $340 million deal with the Padres two years into his big league career and less than a year after the Rays signed Wander Franco to an 11-year, $182 million after his first half-season.
Increasingly, it appears that five-tool megaprospects who achieve immediate stardom will require nine-figure deals just months into their careers if they are to become franchise cornerstones, with even larger sums needed to secure players as they get further into their careers.
Case in point: Mookie Betts. Despite his incredible rise in the Sox farm system and the team’s belief that Betts had perennial All-Star potential, the team didn’t explore long-term deals for him either after a so-so 2014 debut or a very strong first full season in 2015.
As a larger-market team, the Sox typically waited to get more performance certainty on a player in the big leagues before pursuing longer-term deals — an approach that would mitigate risk even if it meant ultimately paying more to retain a player. That was an approach that former president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski had also typically followed in his career.
By the time the Sox started pursuing long-term deals with Betts after the 2016, 2017, and 2018 seasons, he was an established star and wanted to be paid accordingly, walking away from offers in the $100 million (post-2016), $200 million (post-2017), and $300 million (post-2018) range. The sides never got close to an agreement.
Might negotiations have been different if the Sox had pushed to sign Betts after 2014 or 2015? What if the team had made a hard push to sign Rafael Devers to a long-term deal after the 2018 season, when several front office members hoped the team would pursue pre-arbitration deals with Devers and Andrew Benintendi, while Dombrowski — after talks with Betts reached a dead end — focused on retaining an established star in Chris Sale?
There’s no way to know. The Sox didn’t approach Devers about a long-term deal until after he’d both achieved on-field stardom and arrived at arbitration-eligibility. They waited too long, resulting in Devers and the Sox arriving at a point where a long-term deal — if there is one to be reached — won’t afford the team much of a discount.
The deals for Rodríguez — and, for that matter, Hayes and Harris — offer a glimpse of a different path forward.
The Sox are now open to long-term deals earlier in players’ careers. Indeed, they already reached one at the start of this year, signing Garrett Whitlock to a four-year, $18.75 million deal that runs from 2023-26 and includes team options for 2027 and 2028.
“I never thought it would happen,” said Whitlock. “It meant a lot that they thought of me enough as a long-term contributor to the team, especially coming from the Rule 5 [draft].”
Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom suggested that the Sox may consider long-term deals with even less time in the big leagues than Whitlock — an intriguing notion as top prospects such as Brayan Bello, Triston Casas, and Marcelo Mayer matriculate to the big leagues.
“[Long-term deals] start with the person. It starts with feeling like you really understand the person and that the contract won’t change the person,” said Bloom. “There’s a lot you can learn about a player when they’re coming up through the minor leagues.
“Now, some things obviously reveal themselves as these guys go through their big league careers,” he added. “But it starts with the person and I hope that as players come through the system and get to the big leagues, we already have a pretty good grasp of who they are.”
If so, then perhaps the Red Sox will shift the conversation in coming years away from the question of which cornerstones might be leaving to those young players who become solidified as part of the franchise’s future.