Tomase: What is Rafael Devers worth, and will the Red Sox pay it?


Before hitting pause on the offseason, baseball's owners basically mashed every button in the arcade.

The Rangers dropped more than half a billion dollars on their middle infield. The Mets guaranteed future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer more than $40 million a year. The Rays signed wunderkind Wander Franco for the rest of his 20s.

The numbers came so quickly and dizzyingly, it was hard to keep track of who went where. Did the Jays extend All-Star Jose Berrios or Cy Young winner Robbie Ray? (Berrios). Did the Rangers sign Corey Seager or Marcus Semien or both? (Both). Did the Tigers really drop $140 million on Javier Baez? (Yes.)

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One player undoubtedly watching the action with a rooting interest was Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers. The 25-year-old is coming off his first All-Star season after hitting .279 with a career-high 38 homers and 113 RBIs. He followed with a quietly productive postseason, blasting five homers with a 1.029 OPS in 12 games.

With all due respect to Silver Slugging shortstop Xander Bogaerts, there's little doubt that Devers is the most dangerous hitter in the lineup. With prodigious power from left-center to the right field corner, Devers ranked among baseball's leaders in exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, and barrel rate in 2021. He also walked at the highest rate of his career while striking out at the second lowest. He is becoming a complete hitter.

Complete hitters cost money, and Devers has only two years of arbitration eligibility remaining before hitting free agency in the fall of 2024 at age 28. If he remains on his current offensive trajectory, he'll easily earn a nine-figure contract.

The question for the Red Sox is how badly they want to keep that from happening. While all negotiations are on hold during the lockout, there's nothing stopping them from signing Devers long-term when there's a new CBA. The challenge will be assessing his value, which is complicated by a number of factors, including his age, defensive ability, future at third base, and even body type.

They're nearing a point of no return, because the closer Devers gets to free agency, the more likely he is to test it.

A consideration of comps slots a Devers deal anywhere from $150 million to $250 million, but it's hard to see him cracking the $300 million plateau that thus far has been reserved for either five-tool talents like Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, and Fernando Tatis Jr., or for middle-of-the-diamond standouts like Corey Seager and presumably current free agent Carlos Correa.

Right now, three third basemen are playing on contracts worth more than $200 million, and Devers compares most favorably to one of them. Padres All-Star Manny Machado leads the pack after signing for 10 years and $300 million in 2019.

Machado produces similar offensive numbers as Devers, except from the right side of the plate, where he, too, hammers the ball primarily to the pull side, but with power to all fields. Where he separates himself is defensively. A two-time Gold Glover, Machado can play short in a pinch and is in no danger of leaving third base.

The same cannot be said of Devers, who has led the American League in errors at the hot corner for four straight seasons and contributed to a porous infield defense that cost Red Sox pitchers more runs (35) than any team in baseball, per Statcast. It's easier to justify a massive contract for Devers if he stays at third. His value drops at first base, which he has never played, and it plummets at DH.

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That's why it's hard to put him in the class of perennial Cardinals All-Star Nolan Arenado, either. The six-time All-Star doesn't quite boast Devers' raw power when one accounts for all the games he played in Colorado, but he's a nine-time Gold Glover who hit 34 bombs during his debut in St. Louis last year.

Arenado signed a nine-year, $260 million extension with the Rockies at age 28 in 2019 before being traded last winter. While Devers is coming off his first All-Star appearance, Arenado had already finished in the top five of the MVP race three times. He boasted the superior resume and had just agreed to a record $26 million in arbitration when the Rockies extended him.

That leaves Devers' best comp. Anthony Rendon timed his foray into free agency perfectly, leading the Nationals to a title in 2019 before hitting the market at age 29. The Angels pounced for seven years and $245 million, a deal that looked regrettable when he hit just .240 in 58 games this season thanks to hamstring and hip issues that also limited his defense.

Rendon's deal guarantees him $35 million annually. Seeing as that Chaim Bloom has yet to pay anyone more than the $14 million total he gave Kiké Hernández over two years, it's difficult to envision the Red Sox committing themselves to that high of an AAV for Devers.

But if they want to keep him from free agency, it's going to cost them at least $25 million a year, especially as the market explodes. The sooner they sign him, the less they have to worry about his body breaking down, too. The barrel-chested Devers is listed at 240 pounds and that's not a problem now in his mid-20s, but it could become one as he nears 30.

That's what makes Devers' situation so tricky. He's an elite hitter who hasn't even entered his prime, but he's an iffy fielder who may end up across the diamond or at DH. He's not yet a free agent, so the Red Sox would be bidding only against themselves, but the game is trending towards younger players signing extensions before reaching free agency and thus holding increased leverage.

So let's put a number on this -- if the Red Sox want Devers for the long haul, we're talking at least eight years and $200 million, because slugging All-Stars don't come cheap.

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