John Tomase

What underwhelming Bello, Rafaela extensions say about Red Sox rebuild

If the Red Sox plan to win with a homegrown core, they'll need more from these two young stars.

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If there's one deal teams almost never screw up, it's the mid-level pre-arbitration extension.

We're not talking monster $200-plus million contracts for superstars like Bobby Witt Jr. or Julio Rodriguez. Those guys are obvious. It's that sweet spot of $50-$70 million over six or eight years that buys out a little bit of free agency while securing a potential All-Star at a reasonable salary.

There have been so many hits in this category over the last decade, from Reds flamethrower Hunter Greene to Braves Rookie of the Year Michael Harris to Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons to future MVP Christian Yelich.

The Red Sox avoided those contracts for more than a decade, but in a shift under chief baseball officer Craig Breslow, have already handed out two, and the early returns are ... not great.

Standard caveats apply: It's early, and there's plenty of time for Brayan Bello and Ceddanne Rafaela to justify their deals, which total just over $100 million. Also, that's spare change for owner John Henry, who needs to be reminded he can spend on somebody, anybody.

But it's worth noting that neither player has exactly rocketed into the stratosphere since receiving long-term security.

Bello, who signed a six-year, $55 million extension during spring training, has already served one stint on the injured list while easily delivering the worst performance in a surprisingly strong rotation. He's 4-2 with a 3.96 ERA, but those surface numbers hide some ugliness under the hood, including a 5.13 FIP and two homers per nine innings. Over a full season, that might translate to 40 bombs.

Making matters worse, his arsenal of a mid-90s sinker and devastating changeup continues to equal a whole that's less than the sum of its considerable parts. Bello doesn't strike anyone out, and he rarely misses bats. It's frankly mystifying.

Rafaela, meanwhile, has delivered exceptional defense in center and passable defense at short, but his bat is another story. The Red Sox feared he'd swing at everything, and he's swinging at everything.

The rookie is hitting just .192 with a .569 OPS, and his average exit velocity ranks in the bottom five percent of baseball. He's a potentially exciting player, but not if he strikes out 150 times a year while popping up weakly and never walking. The Red Sox signed him for eight years and $50 million, with a team option that could push the deal to $62 million. That's a lot of money for someone who might never hit.

Our buddy Sean McAdam at MassLive asked over the weekend if Breslow wonders, "if only for a minute or two, whether he jumped the gun," on those extensions. Neither is going to cost the team materially – a healthy Bello, for one, was probably going to earn roughly that much going year to year in arbitration – but the contracts should cause some uneasiness over the greater state of the rebuild.

The Red Sox plan to win with a homegrown core, and even if Bello and Rafaela were generally considered complementary pieces in support of the real talent assembled at Double-A (Marcelo Mayer, Roman Anthony, Kyle Teel, et al.), you'd like those contracts to be clear hits, which they are not.

A better extension candidate would've been slugging first baseman Triston Casas, but so far, he has declined to engage. Put another way, five years after Chaim Bloom started the ongoing teardown, you'd ideally have more to show for it at the big league level than two borderline youngsters.

The Pirates, for example, are buzzing about the arrival of potential ace Paul Skenes, not to mention the return of massive shortstop Oneil Cruz from last year's broken ankle. But the foundation was already laid with an eight-year, $70 million extension in 2022 for third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes when he had just a year of service time. He has rewarded the Pirates with a Gold Glove and a pair of 4-WAR seasons. That's exactly the kind of value such a contract should bring.

(If you're really lucky, you'll get multiple All-Star appearances and a World Series, like Ozzie Albies has delivered the Braves since signing a seven-year, $35 million extension. But that contract might be the worst in baseball from a player's perspective, and is a clear outlier).

In any event, Bello and Rafaela can still grow and mature. A year from now we may be praising Breslow's foresight. But as things currently stand, it's hard to shake the feeling they got extended simply because they were young and said yes.

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