While the Red Sox were thrilled to retain Rafael Devers, there is a what-if element to their $331 million commitment to the star third baseman. How different might a contract have looked if they had aggressively pursued a long-term deal much earlier in his career?
In an offseason defined chiefly by the retention of Devers and the $280 million departure of Xander Bogaerts, the Red Sox have made clear their hopes of heading off such pricy negotiations in coming seasons. Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom has noted frequently his hope to break the cycle of expensive free agent decisions for homegrown players by reaching more early-career extensions, such as the four-year, $18.75 million deal they reached with righthander Garrett Whitlock last April that includes team options on his first two potential free agent years.
The 2023 roster will feature two players who could represent litmus tests for how aggressively the Sox will approach such extensions: righthander Brayan Bello and first baseman Triston Casas.
Though both said the Sox had yet to entertain such discussions, they both expressed openness to the idea.
“Haven’t had that conversation yet,” Bello said through translator Daveson Pérez. “I would definitely listen.”
“They haven’t brought it up to me and I haven’t brought it up to anybody in terms of my representatives,” said Casas. “Maybe it’s too small of a sample size to be able to tell them if I’ll succeed at this level. I think in the coming years, it’s definitely something I would love to entertain. I love the city of Boston. It’s the only city I’ve known organization-wise and I don’t really want to know another one.”
Both 23-year-olds have spent their entire professional careers with the Red Sox organization. Bello signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, while the Sox took Casas out of high school with their first-round pick in 2018. In their 2022 big league debuts, both showed a number of the talents that the Sox had hoped for.
Bello, after struggling initially, posted a 2.59 ERA with 31 strikeouts and 12 walks in six September starts. His arsenal — a wicked mid- to high-90s sinker, wipeout changeup, and above-average slider — suggests mid- to top-of-the-rotation potential.
Casas showed power and excellent plate discipline while hitting .197/.358/.408 with 5 homers in 27 games in September. He performed well enough to convince the Sox to release Eric Hosmer, clearing the way for Casas to have a regular spot in the lineup, with the team forecasting a long-term, middle-of-the-order future for the mountainous first baseman.
Of course, the Red Sox have had only brief glimpses of each in the big leagues. Are they at a point where a long-term deal would make sense to explore?
On one hand, there could be considerable risk. The two players have yet to solidify who they’ll be in the big leagues in terms of performance and health.
At the same time, by offering guaranteed security to players near the start of their careers — years before arbitration starts to produce significant raises — teams can head off games of free agent brinksmanship.
Bloom was with the Rays when they signed Evan Longoria to a six-year deal (with options that extended the term of control to nine years) just days after the third baseman made his big league debut. Last season, Atlanta signed a pair of players to long-term deals in their rookie years, reaching an eight-year, $72 million deal (with two team options) with Michael Harris II less than three months into his Rookie of the Year campaign and locking up pitcher Spencer Strider to a six-year, $75 million deal just before the start of the postseason.
Bloom suggested during the 2022 season that the Sox would be open to long-term deals with players who have little to no big league experience.
“[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,” Bloom said in August. “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. 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.”
In the cases of Bello and Casas, while the Sox have scant big league history with them, they have far more time upon which to draw than was the case with Whitlock, who’d been in the organization for 16 months when he reached his long-term deal.
That history doesn’t guarantee a deal, of course. Certainly, either the players or the team could decide to wait before pursuing talks about a deal that might stretch across (or even beyond) the rest of the decade.
Nonetheless, the interest of both players in long-term deals suggests that for the Red Sox, an opportunity may exist to forge a different path moving forward than the one that reached career-peak forks with Mookie Betts, Bogaerts, and Devers.
“I want to be here for a long time,” Casas said. “Who wouldn’t? Especially someone in my situation.”