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With $331M Deal, Red Sox Will Build Around Rafael Devers

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A team of athletes marched into Fenway Park wearing Boston Red Sox uniforms on Monday morning. They played one game and won, defeating a team owned by John Henry, who also owns the Red Sox.

Confused? It was just another day in the bewildering off-season for Major League Baseball’s most enigmatic franchise, which shifted again this week from frustration to euphoria.

The game on Monday was the NHL’s Winter Classic, and the Boston Bruins defeated the Henry-owned Pittsburgh Penguins 2–1. Both teams wore baseball uniforms into the stadium, and when Henry arrived, a fan on Van Ness Street, along the stadium’s first baseline, spotted him in the parking lot and shouted, “Pay Raffy!” Henry — whose ever-expanding sports portfolio seemed to dampen his enthusiasm for spending on the Red Sox — may have listened.

Boston star third baseman Rafael Devers was said to be in the process of finalizing an 11-year, $331 million contract extension with the Red Sox on Wednesday. The deal was first reported by former major leaguer Carlos Baerga on Instagram. The deal would provide a jolt of optimism amid a dismal winter for a team coming off a breakneck decade: five playoff appearances, five seasons finishing at least 15 games out of first place in the American League East.

Devers, 26, is the last remaining player on Boston’s 2018 championship roster. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts left for the San Diego Padres in free agency last month, and other local starters such as Mookie Betts, the most valuable player 2018 AL’s Andrew Benintendi and Christian Vázquez were fired in negotiations.

In a telephone interview Wednesday morning, Chaim Bloom, the team’s director of baseball, explained why the time was right to make a long-term commitment with Devers — and why it wasn’t right to do so with the others.

“We absolutely want to keep it here and we want to build around it, and I know we’ve had players in recent history that we’ve felt that way and it hasn’t worked out,” Bloom said.

“The difference now is when making these bets, it’s not just the player’s talent, it’s also the positioning of the organization and are you well positioned to make the bet? Are you well positioned to have the foundation around that centerpiece that will allow you to maximize the player’s early years? Simply put, I think we are much better prepared for this now than we were a few years ago.”

It’s impossible to know exactly how long-term deals with Betts and Bogaerts — or other free agents the Red Sox haven’t explored — might have altered the team’s long-term prospects. But Betts and Bogaerts are four years older than Devers, and Bloom believes the timeline suits Devers better, whose heyday may more closely coincide with Boston’s next glory era.

Then again, predicting the fortunes of the Red Sox has been annoying for years. After a bottom-place finish in 2012, they signed some mid-level free agents and won the 2013 World Series. After two more bottom-place seasons, they won three straight division titles, culminating in the 2018 World Series title .

A mediocre follow-up season led to Henry firing Dave Dombrowski, a would-be Hall of Famer executive who specialized in building through superstar acquisition. The hiring of Bloom, who had been a top official with the thrifty and successful Tampa Bay Rays, a divisional rival, seemed to signal a change in philosophy.

Bloom insisted that this is not right. He believed that the Red Sox needed to make tough decisions without taking them down completely – that is, trying to fight back without being reckless and undermining the future. Its three seasons have reflected the range of results for that type of strategy: last place in 2020, a surprise visit to the American League Championship Series in 2021, and last place again in 2022.

“Rewind the clock three years to when I got here,” Bloom said. “You had a club that had obviously come from a lot of recent success, but was clearly not in a position where they were at or near the top of the division. Talent wasn’t forthcoming in the farming system to replenish that roster, and there were quite a few compromises on the books. This is not a good position to be in.

“And really, the strategy all along has been to reset the table for an extended run of success, but to try to do it in a way where we win while we’re at it. There is no doubt that it is more burdensome to try to serve both masters. We managed to do that in 2021. Obviously in 22, for various reasons, it didn’t work. But the way to do that is to keep those core elements while replenishing the organization as much as you can with young talent. We’ve got some of these young people coming in — some of them are going to play really big roles in ’23 — and there’s more behind that.

“If you keep making big commitment after big commitment, you’ll never really get out of the woods.”

The Red Sox have been avoiding those deals lately. Officially, they only have three players under contract beyond 2024: pitcher Garrett Whitlock, infielder Trevor Story and outfielder Masataka Yoshida, who signed last month for five years and $90 million after a decorated career in Japan.

His other deals this winter have been risk-averse: two years for infielder Justin Turner and right-handed relievers Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin, and one year for right-handed starter Corey Kluber and left-handed reliever Joely Rodríguez. The team is hoping three young pitchers – Whitlock, Tanner Houck and Bryan Bello – can establish themselves in the rotation, but veteran starters – Kluber, Chris Sale, James Paxton, Nick Pivetta – offer little certainty.

The outlook for 2023 would have been different if the Red Sox had made a stronger offer on Bogaerts before free agency or matched the Padres’ winning bid (11 years, $280 million). They could have aggressively moved on another pick from a deep free agent class. Their passivity made you wonder if Henry just didn’t want to pay the current fee for superstars anymore.

Would the Red Sox make this type of investment again? Bloom emphasized on Wednesday morning that it did.

“Absolutely – when it lines up with winning,” he said. “The end point is to win. They are not commitments per se. These are commitments you can win with. As we can see, you gain from them when they are part of a complete team and a complete organization. With every move, whether it’s a waiver claim or a big multi-year contract, the bottom line is always: Will this help us deliver to our fans what we’re here to offer, which is winning baseball yearly? And if the answer is yes, it is something we should pursue.”

The Red Sox rejected many of these options. They won’t be anyone’s favorite in the AL East. But a deal for Devers is a strong sign that a stubbornly pragmatic front office believes in its long-term direction.