Nomar Garciaparra. It is, perhaps, a bold move to dedicate the first sentence (and the entire incoming first paragraph) of an article about one player to another player entirely, but you can’t begin to talk about Red Sox shortstops unless the conversation starts with the man they called Nomah. A fan favorite, perennial All-Star, and the only player with a pre-at-bat ritual to rival Ichiro’s, Garciaparra’s 40 WAR with the Red Sox is not only the highest mark ever for a shortstop in team history, but is good enough to make him a top ten position player. Nomar sprayed line drives across the field with such little effort that he elicited comparisons to Joe DiMaggio. Had his career not been derailed by injuries, he’d be in Cooperstown now, a red embroidered “B” adorning his hat. When it comes to Red Sox shortstops, if you’re not talking Nomar, then we’re not talking.
Once Garciaparra was (heartbreakingly) traded in the summer of 2004, a revolving door was opened at short for the Red Sox. From 2005 to 2013, they started seven different players at that position on Opening Day in just nine seasons. Those players included the immortal likes of Julio Lugo, Mike Aviles, and, as they grew more and more desperate, a broom with a baseball glove taped to it (who’s fielding percentage was an impressive .972). Finally, in August of 2013, they called up a 20-year old kid from Aruba who helped them win a World Series, and has played 705 games at the six hole since.
Xander Bogaerts is 26 now, and coming off of the best season of his career, good for 4.9 WAR. 2019 was his final year under contract with Boston, and as a Scott Boras client, I think a fairly large portion of our fanbase had sadly come to terms that we might be headed for another decade of miscellaneous veterans and inanimate objects rotating through our infield. There was even speculation that Bogaerts might end up in Yankee pinstripes, which would have made me hit myself repeatedly with a mallet. But, depressingly, I had accepted this as a very real possibility.
Then, earlier today, essentially out of nowhere, Evan Drellich reported that the Red Sox are close to finalizing an extension with the shortstop from Aruba. The deal will pay Bogaerts $120 million in new money through 2025, with a vesting option for 2026 valued at $20 million, provided he makes 535 plate appearances in 2025. There is also an opt-out opportunity after the 2022 season. It’s a boon for the club, and sent me running into the bathroom at work to quietly celebrate that one of my favorite players would be staying in Boston. Here are a few notes on the ramifications of the deal.
Xander Bogaerts is better than you think
It’s very easy to overlook Bogaerts: he plays on a team with the best non-Mike Trout player in baseball, and there is a huge crop of vivacious, young, superstar shortstops in the MLB. Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Corey Seager capture a good portion of the headlines, and rightfully so, but Bogaerts is deserving of similar praise.
Last season, Bogaerts’ 133 wRC+ ranked second among all shortstops behind only Manny Machado, who is now back at third base. In fact, in nearly any category you look at, Bogaerts was one of the best out of any shortstop in baseball. He ranked fifth in isolated power (a career high .234), second in walk percentage (9.5%), and tenth in strikeout percentage (17.6%). Since 2015, Bogaerts has been worth 17.5 WAR, the 20th highest mark out of any position player in baseball. That’s elite company.
I’m most encouraged by Bogaerts’ underlying numbers, though, which tell me that his best is yet to come. He put up career bests in a number of categories, including exit velocity (90.5 MPH, 81st percentile in the MLB), hard hit percentage (41.5%, 72nd percentile), and xwOBA (.367, 88th percentile). Bogaerts made a few notable adjustments from 2017 to 2018, examined in this FanGraphs piece, which helped account for his newfound success. He’s a better hitter now than he was a few years ago, and while his adjustments might have sacrificed a few points off of his batting average, he drives the ball a lot more often now. Unless you’re in the school of thought that “home runs kill rallies,” this is a very good thing.
Keep in mind, last year was only Bogaerts’ age 25 season. He’s only just entering his prime, and coming off of a season that saw him take several positive, sustainable steps forward offensively. He will never be a world beater on defense, but he makes the plays that are makable. Last year was the only year in his career in which Bogaerts had a negative BsR mark (his sprint speed also fell to 27.8 feet per second after three consecutive years at 28.3), but that can partly be attributed to him fracturing his ankle in April. He’s an average enough fielder, and a decent enough baserunner, and his bat is only going to get better. Don’t sleep on Xander Bogaerts.
The Red Sox are trying to keep the band together
Last week, Dave Dombrowski signed Chris Sale, another impending Red Sox free agent, to a five-year, $145 million extension. This week, it was Bogaerts’ turn. After refusing to spend money to address the bullpen in the offseason, the Red Sox brass have suddenly made two moves with a very clear message: the Red Sox like the core that they have, and they’re willing to pay them to keep them around for a few more runs at World Series glory.
And thank goodness for that. 2018’s World Series Championship seemed a bit bittersweet with the knowledge that Sale, Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, and Rick Porcello would all be free agents after 2019, with Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. following close behind after 2020. I realize that this seems petty when coming from a fan of the team with the largest payroll in baseball, but it seemed like several of those players wouldn’t be in Boston for long. That might still be true – Martinez can opt out after this year, and if he produces like he did in 2018, he’ll be in line for a huge payday, Rick Porcello has already approached the Red Sox about an extension, but no offers were made, and Mookie Betts has all but said he’s going to test free agency – but it’s become far more likely that they’ll all end up back in Boston.
Sale and Bogaerts got a lot of money, but realistically, they would probably have gotten even more in free agency. In early March, Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors predicted that Bogaerts would surpass $200 million, and that Sale would compete with Zack Greinke’s record six-year, $206.5 million pact with the Diamondbacks. Instead, they’ll both remain in Boston for a lot less money than that, which means the Red Sox have more flexibility than anticipated. Further, lots of dollars are coming off of the books in the next two seasons. Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce will both be free agents in 2019, and you can bet they won’t be returning. Their collective $12.75 million salary will be replaced by the league minimum contracts of Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec, and repurposed towards extending the core. Porcello, regardless of whether he ends up remaining in Boston, won’t be getting paid anywhere close to $21 million next season. And Rusney Castillo – God rest his soul – and his $14 million minor league deal will expire after 2020.
There is enough money for the Red Sox to offer Mookie a Mike Trout level mega-deal. A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed you when you told me the Red Sox could manage to keep Sale, Bogaerts, and Betts long term, but it’s possible, and that’s about all you can ask for. If Mookie isn’t willing to sign by next offseason – and trust me, I will be stabbing myself in the heart with every word I type of this next sentence – then they have to consider trading him so they can recoup more than the fourth round draft pick they would get should he leave in free agency. But Sale and Bogaerts are excellent prizes in their own right, and the Red Sox will certainly be willing to break the bank to retain the reigning AL MVP.
Free Agency? More like Free LAME-gency
On March 5th, MLB Trade Rumors published the first edition of their 2019 Free Agent Power Rankings. This list was already missing three notable names that were expected to be among the best players available next winter, as Nolan Arenado, Miles Mikolas, and Aaron Hicks had all already signed contract extensions. Since then, extensions have spread throughout the MLB like a case of the bubonic plague. Nobody is safe – least of all teams that were hoping to make a splash in the 2019 offseason.
Xander Bogaerts was the number one ranked player on that list. Chris Sale was second. Paul Goldschmidt was fifth, and Justin Verlander was tenth. In less than a month, all four of those players have signed contract extensions. I’d bet money that Anthony Rendon signs an extension with the Nationals before the end of the summer, and I get the feeling that J.D. Martinez will rework his contract and stay in Boston. For a team like the Chicago White Sox who had big plans to make a splash in 2018, failed, and then had more big plans to do it 2019, this is…not good.
It’s a lot of fun to see your team extend its star players, but things are getting a bit disheartening for clubs trying to improve. It doesn’t matter how much stupid money you have to spend if the best players never even make it to free agency. It’ll be interesting to see how teams trying to add players begin to react to this era of extensions; we might be in for another slow offseason free agency wise, but the trades…imagine the trades.
Recently, rumors began to swirl about the Red Sox potential interest in Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor, both free agents after 2021. And don’t get me wrong, any team would be incredibly lucky to have either of those guys on their team. But I’ve watched Xander Bogaerts learn and grow since he came up in 2013. I’ve watched him make an All-Star team, win two silver sluggers, and win two World Series. He’s an under appreciated member of this exciting Red Sox core, and seeing him play anywhere else would have been a very difficult pill to swallow.
I do not think that 2018 marked Xander Bogaerts’ ceiling; in fact, I expect another career level year in 2019, and for him to firmly cement himself among the game’s top five shortstops. A player with that skill level, at a key position, is difficult to come by, and the Red Sox locked him up to a team-friendly contract. This was an excellent signing for the Red Sox, their future, and their ability to extend more core players, but it was also a good one for Bogaerts, who gets to remain with the only franchise he has ever known, and doesn’t have to go brave the tumultuous waters of modern free agency.
Which brings us back to Nomar, the greatest shortstop in the history of the storied Boston Red Sox. Nomar left, and there was no stability at short until Bogaerts came along. Bogaerts has averaged 4.4 WAR since 2015; if he averages just 3.0 through the the end of his contract in 2026, he’ll surpass Garciaparra for the most at shortstop in club history. Xander Bogaerts has a very real chance to become the definitive shortstop in Boston by the time his new contract is up. More than anything else, that ought to excite Red Sox fans.
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